Book Review: World Without Mind

Book Review: World Without Mind

Franklin Foer's World Without Mind bears an ominous sub-title: "The Existential Threat of Big Tech". Unfortunately, the book doesn't deliver on its broad promise.

A more accurate title would have been, "How Amazon and the Free Web Are Destroying Journalism". That's the area Foer understands well, from his career as a writer and editor at The Atlantic, Slate, and The New Republic. It's his stint at the latter publication that fuels his theme. Foer hoped to re-establish the magazine as an outpost of serious journalism.

Instead, TNR fell under the same financial pressures as its peers. Web advertising depends on how many times your article is viewed. The way to get more clicks is by increasing "virality". And users are more likely to share gossipy topics than long-form pieces. Although TNR resisted stories that were pure clickbait, it turned to "sponsored" corporate content. These placements undermined the church-and-state separation between who paid the bills and what stories the editors commissioned.

The book isn't as compelling when Foer ventures away from publishing. It begins with a ramble about Silicon Valley's hippie origins, focusing on people like Stewart Brand and Ray Kurzweil but skipping Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Today's big tech is represented by four companies: Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple. Foer writes little about the last two. His anecdotes about Larry Page's engineering pedigree don't increase our understanding of how Google operates today. It's as if Foer included them only to show how far the founders have strayed from their idealistic roots.

But then again, Foer doesn't seem that interested in the technological implications of Google's or Amazon's dominance. He's making an anti-trust argument. Drawing evidence from the history of U.S. monopolies, he warns about letting so few companies control so much information. These historical digressions are the most insightful parts of the book. Foer explains how Western Union built a 19th century telegraph monopoly -- a precursor of the internet -- and how WU colluded with the Associated Press to keep out competitors.

It's persuasive story-telling, because Foer uses it to trace the evolution of newspapers, reminding us that American journalism was far from pure. It was heavily partisan, promoting presidential candidates (sound familiar?) and influencing who got nominated. Journalistic standards emerged only over decades. The point is, don't take reporting for granted. It's susceptible to corruption like other enterprises. We may eventually sift out the truth by reading a million blogs and Facebook posts. It'd be easier if we kept the most powerful companies from becoming all-powerful.

This post was originally published on my other blog,