Big tech’s big problem is that its designers
focus on computational efficiency at the expense
of societal considerations.
BY PATRICK J. KIGER
In his new book World Without Mind: The
Existential Threat of Big Tech, journalist
Franklin Foer paints a deeply disturbing
portrait of an age in which a handful of giant
technology companies — Google, Apple,
Facebook, and Amazon (aka GAFA) — exert
extraordinary control over an information-based economy with their power to disrupt
business models and decimate industries by
siphoning off revenue.
Even more alarmingly, Foer writes,
big tech increasingly influences not just
what we know, but also how we think and
what we do, by gathering vast quantities
of our personal data and utilizing artificial
intelligence to continually prod us to
consume. In the process, Foer charges,
they’ve created a world in which people are
continually being observed and distracted.
“The tech companies are destroying
something precious, which is the possibility
of contemplation,” he writes.
A former editor of The New Republic
and now a staff writer for The Atlantic, Foer
was a recent visiting speaker at Stanford
GSB’s Corporations and Society Program.
We asked him to talk further about what’s
wrong with the world created by big tech —
and how to fix it.
You published your book 50 years after
Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders,
which similarly exposed how advertisers
and marketers were misusing behavioral
psychology to manipulate consumers
in the analog age. Are we simply seeing
the same problem today but with better
tools? The crucial change is data. The
ability to get inside our heads and therefore
the ability to manipulate us is so much
more invasive and intense than it was in
the 1950s. It’s personalized and deeply
exploitative of anxiety. And we’re with
these technologies all the time. You might
have turned off your TV, but your phone is
always by your side.
In your book, you note that Silicon Valley
always has been driven by a contradiction.
It offers breakthroughs that promise
to be liberating for individuals but end
Franklin Foer is a staff writer for
The Atlantic magazine and author of
the book World Without Mind:
The Existential Threat of Big Tech.
Illustration by Jon Han