…But this is not the takedown we hoped for
I’ve been looking forward to reading Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind — here was a book by a respected member of the journalistic elite, taking on the story that’s consumed most of my life’s work. The book has been widely celebrated by most of the publications I read. Foer, one of several famous literary brothers, is perhaps most famous for clashing with Facebook founder Chris Hughes over the direction of The New Republic magazine. But with World Without Mind, he’s taking on not just Facebook, but the entire tech industry. Alas, while the topic is worthy, the book fails to make a case that will convince the leaders of tech that change is needed.
Instead, Foer focuses on the impact tech platforms have had on “culture,” a word he admits is difficult to define and even harder to defend. My reading of his view of culture is, essentially, New York-based literary culture, an establishment with which most of tech has an uneasy alliance. In the early days (which Foer does not seem to entirely grasp), tech sought New York’s approval. When Wired won its first National Magazine award, in 1994, we all flew to the ceremony. But despite being celebrated as successful, we quickly realized we’d never be accepted. Elitism is like that — the club will acknowledge you, but in the end, it won’t incorporate your new ideas.
Throughout the book, Foer casually takes the pantheon of tech’s favorite intellectuals — Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, Larry Lessig, Chris Anderson, even chef Alice Waters— and summarily woodsheds them. Most of these folks are colleagues, and certainly their points of view are worthy of debate. But dismissal? That just looks like whining.
Foer’s case is not helped by the paucity of deep reporting on the companies he upbraids. Yes, Amazon has had questionable impact on the lives of book authors (though book sales are robust now, so…). And sure, Apple has weakened the music industry (though one could argue streaming has saved it). And yes, Facebook and Google have rewritten the rules of human attention, to the detriment of authorial power (but there are now more authors then ever so…). You get my point. The arguments in World Without Mind are easy, and tend to ignore any positive benefit tech platforms have brought to the world. Did Foer spend any time inside any of the companies he criticizes, attempting to truly understand them as a “culture”? It doesn’t appear so.
Where Foer’s arguments do stick is when he addresses the question of monopoly, and its effect on our body politic. It’s lightly addressed, given its immense import, but it’s effective. Foer points out that GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) have dodged tens of billions of dollars in federal taxes, effectively dining out on American markets while failing to bolster them through our traditional system of wealth redistribution. Of course committed capitalists would argue this is what any multi-national company does, but Foer correctly points out the hypocrisy in each company’s mission, compared with its on the ground tactics. Regulation is needed again, he argues, and he’s certainly not alone on that point.
Foer is correct when he points out that an essential evil in GAFA’s business model is advertising, but he’s clearly not a student of the field, which is a shame. Instead of doing the reporting, he meanders in anecdote, wandering from sketches of how bookshelves became a middle-class status symbol to the impact of organic food on the zeitgeist of American consumerism. It’s in this last example — how organics have gone mainstream — the Foer finds his prescription for how we take back our lives (and our “minds”) from the tech oligarchy. Foer finds comfort in the fact that paper-based reading is once again on the rise — printed books are outselling e-books. In reading paper books, he argues, we can beat the platforms, because paper has no intermediary master. “When we read deeply and with full commitment, we enter almost trancelike state that mutes the outside world,” he writes. “The distance between words on the page and the scampering abstractions in our head collapses….That’s why we can’t jettison paper, even though the tech companies have tried their hardest to bring that about…If the tech companies hope to absorb the totality of human existence into their corporate fold, then reading on paper is one of the few slivers of life that they can’t fully integrate.”
Well, sure. But I like reading on the Kindle, and honestly, I am starting to love listening to books through my bluetooth headphones as well. Often at two times speed. Something tells me Foer would not approve. But reading will always undergo transition, and just because Foer likes it the way he grew up doing it (in his bathtub, it turns out), that doesn’t mean it’s going to always be the standard bearer for how individuals get their culture on.
Foer raises deeply important issues around the impact of tech companies on our culture and society. But he fails to convince, and that’s a shame. I have a feeling the next book on my reading list — Scott Galloway’s The Four, may well do a better job. Stay tuned for that review soon.
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Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind is one of many books we’re reading at NewCo as we prepare for the conversation at the Shift Forum this February. Others include Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Satya Nadella’s Hit Refresh, Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, Nancy Jo Sales’ American Girls, Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Tim O’Reilly’s WTF, Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, Richard Florida’s The New Urban Crisis, and many others. If you’re interested in Shift Forum’s new Reads program, be sure to sign up for my weekly newsletter here.