Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind is a must-read book of the fall season. Subtitled The Existential Threat of Big Tech, World is a full-frontal assault on the fallacious idea that the big four tech companies that shape our world — Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple — are benevolent firms that have the advancement of humanity in mind.
Foer smartly couches his polemic in memoir, relaying his experiences as a beloved editor of the New Republic. When the storied magazine was bought by a tech gadfly, its century-old dedication to the art of journalism and thoughtful opinion was discarded in favor of click-hungry content farming. Foer was fired, and the majority of his staff left with him in solidarity.
A lesser writer could seem like an aggrieved party in World, and Foer certainly does acknowledge that his pride was wounded in the aftermath of the New Republic’s Silicon Valley-styled meltdown. But instead he makes a compelling case for considered, intellectual thought in the public sphere, even as he rages against the slick digital robber barons who have consumed our attention in exchange for a few baubles of convenience.
Foer reads from World at Elliott Bay Book Company on Wednesday, September 27th at 7 pm. The event is free; no purchase is necessary. I hope you'll go hear him out. You’ll likely think a little differently about the urgings of the vibrating hunk of glass and steel in your pocket after the event.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a phone conversation I had with Foer last week.
I assume you heard the news that Amazon recently announced that they're looking to found a second separate-but-equal headquarters in another city?
Now we're watching cities bow and scrape in the hopes of bringing Amazon to them. Tucson just sent a giant cactus to Amazon management, like some sort of a weird dowry or something. I was wondering if you had any advice for cities that might be trying to entice Amazon to set up in their city?
Let's just look at Amazon's track record when it comes to exploiting civil government. Part of its business model has been to fleece local municipalities — with its refusal to pay sales tax over time, or all the concessions that it extracts when it goes about setting a warehouse down.
I think the right metaphor is the sports stadiums that get built in cities, where owners come in and exploit civic pride and sense of civic purpose in order to get these fantastical deals for themselves, where cities empty their coffers in order to build these monumental facilities that teams then make money off of.
I just think it's sad. And part of the sadness is that we can see where this is going over the long run, which is that Amazon may bring jobs in the short term, but they really don't want those jobs over the long run. In the long run, when Amazon puts down a warehouse, it's going to automate it, so there are not going to be workers.
I wonder whether these cities are doing anything to remotely try to calculate the long-term economic benefit for themselves. I doubt it.
One of the things that I thought was especially interesting in this book was the writing about media, especially the parts that focused on your own experience. I left a publication soon after management installed [analytics software] Chartbeat because they devalued arts coverage after they learned that it wasn't as popular as they had assumed it was.
I've done a lot of thinking since then that maybe the original sin for the marriage between media and the internet was the decision by Google founders that a click on an ad was only worth a fraction of a cent. It's a system that doesn't allow for the fact that some clicks could be worth more to some advertisers than to others. It's very rigid. Do you think there's a way to change that discussion — to revalue the importance of writing as valued by advertising — or is the advertising model basically dead for media?
My sense is that the advertising model is kind of dead in the short term. I fundamentally agree with you that Google has deflated the advertising market as it exists now beyond any reasonable significance to media companies. We need to move on to something different.
My preference is to move to a subscription model, but I also think that it's possible that there's some form of advertising that hasn't been invented yet that could be more valuable than display advertising, and less corrupting than the native advertising that we've seen people moving towards over time. But I'm not smart enough to know what that is.
Do you think anyone's getting close to it? Do you see anybody doing things that you like?
What I like is the resurgence of subscription models. I like that the New York Times and the Washington Post seem to be selling subscriptions in some volume, re-acclimating people to the idea of having to pay for what they read.
But I also think that the subscription model as it exists now for digital journalism isn’t valuable on its own because the prices are set far too low. We're kind of in this place where everything has been deflated. The value of digital advertising has been deflated, the value of digital subscriptions has been deflated, and it's hard to see where exactly the fast-forward is.
One thing that I do think -
Sorry that I don't have the cheerful, optimistic solution for you.
It's okay. Nobody has those solutions, that's the thing. That's why it's important to keep thinking about it. But one thing that I do think the internet has done really well — and I don't know if it gets a lot of credit from people in the media on this — is to provide a platform for people who have never before had voices in the media.
I find it really difficult to argue for a return to the old gatekeeper model when there's now more representation in culture than ever before. Is there a way to reclaim institutional thought and consideration while still maintaining the representational progress we've seen in the last 10 years?
Yeah. That doesn't seem terribly difficult to me. I think that institutional journalism has responded to the internet, and also a shift in times, by being much more representative. I think that when it comes to a lot of these questions about new technology and old media, it's easy to slip into Manichean thought. The choice isn't between going back to the old media of the 1980s — which was stodgy, excessively white male, etc. — versus the status quo. I think we have the ability to do better on all fronts. I don't think that we need to abandon all the good aspects of change in order to respond to the bad aspects of change.
As you were collecting ideas for this book, where did you draw the line between reality and conspiracy theory, and between apathy and malevolence in the intent of these companies? It's very easy for me to get too wrapped up in this sort of good guy/bad guy paradigm, when the truth of their intent is much more complex. Is this something you've had to think about as you’ve put this book together? This is kind of a vague question and I'm very sorry — can you retrieve anything of value out of that?
I think you're saying that it's possible to look at what the tech companies do and come to the conclusion that they're highly malevolent, when in fact they may have a lot of ideas that could be caricatured as malevolent, but in fact are relatively benign. Is that what you're saying?
Yeah. That's a good, solid place to start for sure.
I would say that what makes these companies interesting is that they're idealistic and ambitious. I think one does need to take seriously their own self-description. I think that we need to treat them as not just money-making corporations, but treat them also as companies that have ambitions to change the world. Sometimes they're self-justifying ambitions. I think that [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg does a lot of self-justifying, but in other instances I think that they're perfectly sincere in describing how they want to change the world.
[Calling it] a conspiracy makes it sound like people are sitting in a back room somewhere in Palo Alto devising a hidden plan. My point is that the plan isn't actually very hidden. I think that a lot of times these companies, for the most part, are very naked in describing what they're up to, so I don't really think it takes a whole lot of reading to go to the place I go when I'm describing them.
Do you worry when you put this book out that there's a chance that you might be pigeonholed in the role of the curmudgeon — like, CNN will call you to fill out a panel whenever they need someone to just complain about Big Tech?
Yeah, I've clearly cast myself as grandpa. I don't understand why that's a worry. Am I worried that I'm a token, is that what you’re asking?
The media tends to find value in people who say “no,” but they value them only if they say “no” in the same way again and again. I wonder if there's a possibility of you being typecast as the man who said “no.”
I feel like I'm just writing my opinion. Really I wasn't thinking about being on a CNN panel when I was writing about this book. I want my argument to be heard, so I'd probably go on a CNN panel, but really I live to write books and arguments, not to be on CNN panels, so that's what I think about most.
Do I worry about getting typecast as a curmudgeon? If that's your question, I clearly don't really worry about that because I wrote a book that can easily be described as curmudgeonly.
What has the response been like at your events? Is there anything that you think that people can expect coming out to your reading in Seattle?
One of the interesting things in the moment that we've arrived at is there's this concept that's become cliché in describing our politics, which is this concept of the Overton Window, which is when the discourse expands to include ideas that resided outside of the mainstream.
When I started working on this book, I felt like people looked at me weirdly, and they couldn't understand why I was going to be criticizing these companies in technology that people have so much affection for.
Over the last couple months, I happened to make an argument that lined up with a shift in thinking. In large part, I think the election started to change people's minds about Facebook, and then Amazon's purchase of Whole Foods elicited a lot of anxiety about Amazon's size, and etc.
One of the fascinating things is that there are a lot of people who I thought would hate my argument. I've just been surprised at the people who are either centrist or in finance — or even in Silicon Valley — who seem sympathetic to my argument. It feels like I thought I was going to be throwing a stone at the Overton Window, but instead, it feels like I'm just climbing through the Overton Window just as it's opening.