a book review of
World without Mind:
The Existential Threat of Big Tech
by Franklin Foer
(Penguin Press, 2017)
This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 1 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
George Orwell’s dystopian vision in the book 1984 is a classic representation of how pervasive technology could be used in the service of societal oppression. Citizens of Orwell’s futuristic autocracy were monitored constantly by two-way video screens and could expect to be punished by the authorities at any time over the slightest infraction. Today, most would suppose that a surveillance society like Orwell’s is found only in dictatorships such as North Korea, and would scoff at the proposition that any autocratic tendencies could be detected in modern America.
Franklin Foer’s World without End: The Existential Threat of Big Tech offers a disturbing reminder that governments are not the only entities that are capable of enacting Orwell’s dystopian vision, and the conquest of the oppressed is not necessarily accomplished against the will of the oppressed. Foer foresees an equal threat of oppression from technological megacorporations such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook — the “tech monopolies,” as Foer calls them (p. 183). The collection of personal data by these corporations, gathered and stored from our own input into their online gateways, has the potential, Foer believes, to enable a degree of societal control that could not have been effectuated even by Orwell’s two-way video screens.
Personalized Surveillance. The penetration of computers and social media into our modern society is so deep as to be almost unfathomable. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg boasted that by early in 2017, the social media giant had more than two billion users.1 The online retailer Amazon, founded in 1994 as a hub for book sales, has since become an all-purpose sales outlet for everything from home and garden supplies to sporting goods. Google, founded in 1998 to serve as a search engine to browse the Internet, now records more than two trillion searches every year.2 These corporate Internet giants have become an indispensable part of our modern lives.
However, many who use these services do not realize that whatever information they input, and whatever activities they engage in, are being archived, collected, and collated to build a profile. That profile is then used to target each user in some way — primarily to sell them a product and profit from either direct sale of the product or advertising revenue. Based on your Internet browsing history, advertising will appear on your screen that corresponds to whatever it is you have been viewing, whether it be an alert that you “might be interested in” a product like the one you just ordered or viewed, or in the form of targeted advertising. For example, I recently investigated options for education as a paralegal. I searched terms in Google to find qualified paralegal training programs. Thereafter, I found myself virtually and visually assaulted by advertisements related to paralegal training programs almost every time I signed on to a website that hosted advertising. This was not merely a spooky coincidence. The tech monopolies have arranged it so that our Internet browsers archive our searches. Thereafter, they and other merchants can detect that archived data contained in our Internet browser and adjust the online advertising we see accordingly.
Google searches are not the only mechanism that can be used to build a profile. Facebook’s two billion users can “like” various features or items on Facebook, such as news articles or the comments by other users. (A “like” is performed, appropriately enough, by clicking with a mouse on the word “Like” beneath some item or comment.) Based on “likes” alone, Facebook “can predict users’ race, sexual orientation, relationship status, and drug use” (76). As a result, Foer warns us, the tech monopolies have “created a world in which we’re constantly watched and always distracted. They have constructed a portrait of our minds, which they use to invisibly guide mass behavior (and increasingly individ ual behavior) to further their financial interests” (8). What we thought was browsing in the privacy of our own homes is, in fact, perpetual electronic surveillance for the purpose of generating revenue.
Such influence peddling by media brokers is not new. As Foer observes, even in the early days of newspapers, figures such as Randolph Hearst attempted to influence audiences with sensational and tawdry stories that would boost their newspaper sales. The manipulations of the tech monopolies, however, are more insidious because “we don’t see the hand steering us” (111). All we see is our own screen. We do not see the algorithms (the set of rules programmed into a computer to manage its functions) or the programmer who devised them.
Tech Effects. Foer’s main concern is how Facebook, Google, and Amazon have taken on the mantle of monopolies (113f) such that they wield an enormous and unprecedented amount of power. Like the monopolies of old, Amazon has used its retail power to suppress products, and in turn silence voices speaking against Amazon’s abuses (121). Amazon also has imposed an ideology of preference for popular choice, under the guise of “distributed knowledge” or “peer production.” So, for example, books may be recommended by Amazon based not on their quality or how useful the book may be for your purposes but on how many people have purchased the book.
In contrast, whereas Amazon has used its power to control the retail market, Facebook has wielded its influence to help engineer political outcomes. Foer refers to the now-commonplace claim that planted news stories helped turn the tide of the 2016 presidential election (91–92). Facebook has not denied this, but rather has boasted that it influenced voter turnout in 2016. It does not therefore take much for Foer to imagine a situation whereby Facebook influences an election by sending “get out and vote” reminders to Facebook users who have an expressed preference for specific candidates (128) as a way to ensure that those specific candidates get enough votes to win.
Technological Prophets. The tech monopolies also see themselves as the vanguard in a revolution to remake society in an image that pleases them. “Big tech considers the concentration of power in its companies — in the networks they control — an urgent social good, the precursor to global harmony, a necessary condition for undoing the alienation of humankind” (12). Internet founder Tim Berners-Lee foresaw the utility of his invention this way: “Hope in life comes from the interconnections among all the people in the world” (26). Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg says that his goal is to get people to share information so that there can be full transparency between all. As Zuckerberg once put it, “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity” (61). The tech monopolists believe that the obliteration of privacy is a path toward human redemption.
Beyond this, the visionaries of the technical age see themselves as being in possession of unlimited potential. Futurist Ray Kurzweil has stated that “strong AI (artificial intelligence) and nanotechnology can create any product, any technological visionary situation, any environment that we can imagine at will” (47). Statements like this have led anthropologist of religion Robert Geraci to remark that the beliefs of technological visionaries like Kurzweil echo Christian apocalypticism, such that “technological research and religious categories come together in a stirringly well-integrated unit” (49).
To date, the tech monopolists have not expressed any messianic ambitions, but certain projects within their purview have almost messianic overtones. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, for example, has expressed a desire to have Amazon send rockets into space, while Google wants to “create machines that replicate the human brain” (33) and hook up humans to artificial brains (38). The vision of the tech monopolies is almost godlike in scope.
What does Foer believe needs to be done about the tech monopolies? Not unexpectedly, he suggests that greater government regulation may be necessary, following the pattern of regulation of prior tech monopolies such as AT&T and IBM (203). On a more personal level, Foer supposes that some major hacking event that impacts the world’s financial system or triggers some terrorist event may turn users against the tech monopolies. He encourages us to “willfully remove ourselves from the orbit of these companies and their ecosystems” (229) by, among other things, refusing to purchase their products.
Technological Eschatology. Foer makes no attempt to connect his warnings to religious interests. For the Christian, however, the confident utopian proclamations of the technological corporate executives should set off alarm bells. When Google says they want to replicate the human brain, they are putting their corporation in a place that would normally be occupied by God. These modern prophets of the data screen envision a world in which anyone seeking answers, companionship, or the fulfillment of any need comes first to their services. The tech monopolists are not promoting an explicitly religious message, but they are advocating their services with a religious sort of fervor that invokes disturbing reminiscence of autocratic cult leaders. It is appropriate that Foer, perhaps unwittingly, describes the mission of the tech monopolies as those who pursue their projects “with a theological sense of conviction — which makes its effects both wondrous and dangerous” (33).
It is not hard to imagine instances in which the power held by the tech monopolies could directly affect Christians, although the tech monopolists themselves need not be the ones personally wielding the bat. If false news stories about politicians running a child pornography ring from a pizza restaurant can be so readily spread and believed, so can stories about the grave and body of Jesus allegedly being found. Christian books listed on Amazon, or recommended by Christians on Facebook, could end up buried under mountains of electronic rubbish about the latest celebrity fads, which will receive far more “likes” from an audience seeking entertainment rather than education.
The priorities of the tech monopolies also raise specific moral and practical questions. Should we continue to use these products that have become tools to manipulate others? Can the system be reformed to serve the greater good rather than the utopian, paternalistic visions of a handful of corporate executives?
God made humanity in His own image (Gen. 1:27). If Foer is correct, however, and the tech monopolies have their own way, it is in their image and likeness, and that of their algorithms, that humanity will inevitably find itself remade. —James Patrick Holding
James Patrick Holding is president of Apologetics Afield, a ministry dedicated to bringing apologetics to the mission field.
- Josh Constine, “Facebook Now Has 2 Billion Monthly Users…And Responsibility,” Tech Crunch, June 27, 2017, https://techcrunch.com/2017/06/27/facebook-2-billion-users/.
- Danny Sullivan, “Google Now Handles at Least 2 Trillion Searches Per Year,” Search Engine Land, May 24, 2016, https://searchengineland.com/google-now-handles-2-999-trillion-searches-per-year-250247.