Quick quiz — Who said this?
We expect that advertising-funded search engines will be inherently biased toward the advertisers and away from the needs of consumers. We believe the issue of advertising causes enough mixed incentives that it is crucial to have a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic realm.
If you guessed the founders of Google — Sergey Brin and Larry Page — congratulations. You also may readily spot hypocrisy, as they discarded their own wisdom long ago to pursue the abundant revenues Google AdWords has provided, biases and transparency and academia be damned.
Google figures prominently in a new book about how advertising and other factors are tearing apart our information economy and the culture enabled by it. Franklin Foer is a journalist and author who has lived in the media space long enough and with enough insight and perspicacity to know the score. His new book, World Without Mind, is a sobering wakeup call to the damage being done by large technology companies as they upend the information economy and restructure it to suit their commercial purposes, half-baked social goals, and technocratic visions.
Foer has an axe to grind, to be sure. In 2012, Facebook’s co-founder, Chris Hughes, bought the New Republic, where Foer had worked before. Hughes brought Foer back, and seemed the kind of leader who might be able to return the New Republic to its former glory and sustainability. Hughes was wealthy, educated, and soft-spoken. However, problems soon emerged as Hughes’ predilection for Silicon Valley-style management came to the fore. Instead of quality of writing, quantity became the goal — “snackable content” and “native advertising” soon became buzzwords, and writers were measured by the clicks and traffic they generated. These new incentives led to behavioral and quality changes that Foer couldn’t stomach, so he left before the New Republic was sold by Hughes, who admitted he had “underestimated the difficulty of transitioning an old and traditional institution into a digital media company in today’s quickly evolving climate.”
The resulting battle scars give World Without Mind a bracing, no-holds-barred quality. Foer isn’t writing purely as an observer but as a participant, as someone who has felt personally the damage Silicon Valley philosophies are inflicting on an information economy that only became functional and democratized when carefully nurtured and protected from authoritarian and elitist forces. Foer sees the monopolies (a word he carefully notes he uses in the vernacular sense, not the legalistic or technical sense) of Silicon Valley pushing the information sphere toward authoritarianism, conformity, elitism, and undemocratic economics. Ironically, copyright and subscriptions may have been the democratizing forces of the information economy, so it’s no surprise those are the two elements under siege.
Foer sees the monopolies of Silicon Valley pushing the information sphere toward authoritarianism, conformity, and undemocratic economics.
Foer focuses on Google, Facebook, and Amazon as the three main perpetrators of the undoing of a democratized information space. Google, in his view, seeks to have all available information in order to short-cut human evolution toward an AI-fueled future. Facebook is on a social engineering mission, and manipulating what people see in order to shape behavior. And Amazon’s devotion to more, faster, and cheaper means the organization implicitly works to make knowledge worthless and kill traditions that support complex thought and expression since these take time and are expensive. Foer devotes a chapter to each, and his reporting is crisp, pointed, and insightful.
What Foer nails is the hypocrisy at the heart of the Silicon Valley fever dreams. Bezos disparages gatekeepers, yet his company is perhaps the world’s most powerful commercial gatekeeper around:
. . . let’s not confuse Amazon with a utopian experience in participatory democracy. Amazon always gives better treatment to some artifacts than others — promoting them on its home page, and through its recommendation algorithms. This is tremendous cultural power, especially given how so many of Amazon’s competitors have melted in the face of its size and prowess.
It seems almost axiomatic at this point that anyone seeking to remove gatekeepers does so because they themselves wish to become the new gatekeeper.
Hypocrisy surrounds Facebook as well, which talks of improving lives and social harmony through connections — what Kevin Kelly described as “a hive mind.” But, as Foer writes:
Facebook has created two hive minds — the hive always has a queen bee — each residing in an ecosystem that nurtures head-nodding agreement and penalizes dissenting views. A hive mind is an intellectually incapacitated one, with diminishing ability to sort fact from fiction, with a bias toward evidence that confirms the party line. . . Instead of drawing the world together, the power of its network has helped tear it apart.
Google’s absorption of information is one-way, as it keeps the main findings — the patterns, the insights, the connections — to itself, and uses these to goose its advertising business.
The advertising model behind Facebook and Google is rightly identified as a main driver of exploitation and polarization, as social engineering tricks to stimulate reactions and trigger clicks have been deployed in a way that fosters division and divisive information’s prominence.
Reading the book, I couldn’t help but think of our industry’s own culpability in the current and broken information ecosystem. For example, open access (OA) largely emerged from Silicon Valley sources — Pat Brown at Stanford, Michael Eisen at Berkeley, and like-minded people who shared early Silicon Valley talking points about where information had to go (“information wants to be free,” etc.), which ultimately mirrored strategies the large tech firms needed to succeed. Creative Commons also emerged from Silicon Valley advocates and funding sources. Now, we have a scholarly publishing system producing more information with lower margins, throttled competition, and less diversity, and a larger society that is more scientifically illiterate and intellectually divided than before. We have weaker trust systems and fewer constraints, and have done little to thwart the divisions and misinformation that define our days. Our credentialing systems have become confused and unreliable, predatory publishers continue to promulgate, we ape Silicon Valley talking points thoughtlessly, and the rise of click-based metrics that respond to predictable practices underscore our followership. Creative Commons was created by Google and others to cripple copyright, yet as Foer argues cogently, copyright is what democratized information — nevertheless, we support CC licenses, just as the tech giants who fund Creative Commons hoped we would.
Creative Commons was created by Google and others to cripple copyright, yet as Foer argues cogently, copyright is what democratized information.
Foer ties together many threads — for instance, how the fall of the Berlin Wall and the belief we were entering a new liberal order and “New Economy” converged with the US government’s willingness to unleash the Internet, which it had previously guarded from “extensive use for private or personal business,” and how the tool has subsequently been used against us by the same Russia we faced in the Cold War, a historical irony of the highest order.
Data may be the new oil, as the saying goes, but Foer points out a key difference — data is infinitely renewable, while also exclusionary (“. . . no rival to Google will ever be able to match its search results, because no challenger will ever be able to match its historical record of searches or the compilation of patterns it has uncovered.”). Data also drives monopolies, as Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, said in a book he wrote before taking that job:
Positive feedback makes the strong get stronger and the weak get weaker, leading to extreme outcomes.
Foer probes how our devotion to efficiency, free services, and low prices actually drives authoritarianism, as it feeds consolidation and monopolization, conformity and imbalanced power structures. As he notes, democracy is purposely inefficient in order to allow countervailing powers to have their effect. Skullduggery by the behemoths, who want the benefits of society while showing disdain for it simultaneously, has been part of undermining democratic norms — from Uber’s infamous practice of tracing government officials’ phones to avoid picking them up in towns where they were operating without a license to Amazon’s early efforts to disguise where their employees lived in order to avoid paying taxes. But it is fundamentally our cheapness that is a core problem — the belief that we can have all the benefits of democratized information without paying those who produce it and protect the norms and laws that allow it. The surge in subscriptions after the election of President Trump and the sense that the election was hijacked by social media misinformation was a healthy sign that there is still a sense that you get what you pay for.
Foer sees hope in an unexpected direction — the fact that “[a] nontrivial percentage of the populace now stridently cares about what it puts in its mouth, which suggests it can persuaded to apply the same care to what it ingests through the brain.” There is another deep irony here — organic and fresh food movements came out of the same area as Silicon Valley, and has culminated in Whole Foods, recently acquired by Amazon. Perhaps the same insistence on healthy thinking and healthful information habits can start to come from those same sources, and perhaps the movement by Google, Apple, and Facebook toward supporting subscriptions can help restore more healthful and democratic information norms and economics.
Jeff Bezos’ ownership of the Washington Post also provides hope, as Bezos may be realizing that gatekeepers add value and filter pollutants out of the information streams.
Trends showing the end of the rise of the e-reader — in fact, showing a return to printed books — hearten Foer. I’ve noticed the same retreat to print in myself, and the benefits are palpable — better concentration, better retention. I’m also not subject to the triggers and tumult of social media after quitting Facebook. Ultimately, if we are the product of these services, the way to control them is to quit them.
A recent story about how Snapchat uses human editors and traditional curation to avoid fake news also provides hope.
When I first picked up Foer’s book, I was worried I might be in for another inflated magazine article. But this book quickly raced forward into one I think of as important, insightful, and vital to understanding just how our culture is being not only changed but deeply damaged by technology companies, avarice, and algorithms run amuck. Highly recommend.