Big Tech's Dangerous Influence: "Coming Between Us And Reality"

Via Knowledge@Wharton,

Author Franklin Foer reflects on the dangers of losing ourselves in a society dependent on a handful of tech firms. 

French philosopher Rene Descartes famously said “I think, therefore I am.” But in the digital age, what we think and how we live are being influenced in a big way by just a handful of tech firms: We are informed by Google and entertained by Apple; we socialize on Facebook and shop on Amazon. It’s time to reclaim our identities and reassert our intellectual independence, according to Franklin Foer, a national correspondent for The Atlantic and former editor of The New Republic, in his book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.



He recently joined the Knowledge@Wharton show, which airs on SiriusXM channel 111, to explain why these firms’ hold on society is a cautionary tale for the future.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Tech companies such as Amazon have truly transformed themselves over the last couple of decades [and become a big part of our lives].

Franklin Foer: Amazon is really one of the most impressive specimens in the entire history of American business. It started off as a bookstore, then it morphed into becoming the ‘everything’ store. And it’s morphed beyond that. We know about Amazon Web Services and how it powers the cloud. We’ve seen how it just keeps expanding, culminating most recently in its decision to purchase Whole Foods. The same could be said for Google, which set out to organize knowledge but then became Alphabet, which has this massive portfolio, including a life-sciences company that aims to make us immortal.

Where do these companies end? Do we have a problem with their size? These are questions that go to the fundamental nature of our economy and whether we can really have a competitive, capitalistic system. There are more fundamental questions [we need to ask] about the future of our culture and our democracy because these companies amass tremendous troves of data about us. Those troves of data are portraits of our psyche. They use this incredibly powerful information about us in order to alter our behavior. There’s a huge amount of convenience that comes with that, but there are also real, important questions that need to be asked of these companies.

In the last couple of months, we’ve started to ask some of these questions. The outcome of the last election, with the proliferation of fake news and the debate over Facebook’s culpability in that question, has triggered a real backlash against that company. There are a number of flashpoints that have shifted the debate [about society and technology] considerably.

Knowledge@Wharton: There are three or four companies, which are giants in the tech world, that have unbelievable amounts of control over so many things in our society.

Foer: Absolutely. The Europeans call them GAFA: Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple. There are a couple of reasons why these guys have triggered so much anxiety and why I found myself drawn to asking hard questions of them. The first is the accumulation of data. The second is the way in which that data ends up getting leveraged. We’re in the realm of algorithms and machine learning and artificial intelligence, where the advantages that accrue to the companies that have mastery over those things end up compounding over time.

So the gap grows between those big four and everybody else. We may already have reached the point where people have stopped trying to chase them. In Silicon Valley, the greatest ambition now is not to displace Google or Facebook. It’s to get bought by Google and Facebook. There’s a real question about [the future of] entrepreneurship here. Where are the opportunities? If you cease to exist in an economy where you can displace those big players, the incentive to aim for the stars and to try to create those kinds of unicorn companies diminishes.

Knowledge@Wharton: You write in the book, “As these companies have expanded, marketing themselves as champions of individuality and pluralism, their algorithms have pressed us into conformity and laid waste to privacy. They’ve produced an unstable and narrow culture of misinformation and put us on a path to a world without private contemplation, autonomous thought or solitary introspection. A world without mind.”

Foer: There’s so much about technology that’s so wonderful. I have a daughter who’s 12 years old. When she was born, there was no iPhone, there was no Kindle, there was hardly social media. Over the course of this decade, incredible things have happened. They’re real monuments to human creativity, and it’s hard not to bow down before these creations.

But the magical qualities of these creations shouldn’t distract us, shouldn’t preclude us from asking skeptical questions because the stakes here are supremely high. Over the course of the long history of humanity, we’ve always had tools that have been extensions of us. You could argue that technology is one of the things that defines us as a species.

But what’s getting automated right now isn’t upper-body strength. We’re not automating our ability to plough the fields or make widgets. We’re talking about the automation of mental exercises. These companies have technologies that are intellectual technologies. [They come] between us and reality. They are the filter we use to get news and information. They intend to create virtual realities that we’re going to be inhabiting, and they’re trying to complete this long merger between man and machine.

Soon, these technologies are going to be not just worn on our wrists or worn as glasses. They’re going to be implanted within us. We need to ask the biggest questions about what makes us human, what are the things that we want to preserve in this transition? You can’t fight the flow of technology. But we should also assume that, as human beings, we have agency. We have the ability to shape our own destiny, and we should be active in doing that, not just passively accepting whatever comes next.

Knowledge@Wharton: How impactful have some of these changes been on retail? Malls have gone significantly down in the last few years, and manufacturing has become more automated.

Foer: Let’s just take that one question of the future of retail, for instance. My dad was a small-business owner. He had a small chain of stores. He taught me a real appreciation for the value of small business and capitalism. He was also — in a weird combination — an antitrust lawyer, which really affected my thinking about capitalism, the virtues of having a competitive, diverse marketplace and what that means for us as consumers. But we also need to think about what it means for us as citizens.

While prices may be low [with automation], we need to start asking questions about the future of work. As stores disappear, a big source of jobs is evaporating. I think about it in terms of what makes life meaningful. If we live in a world where we’re planted in our own houses and we’re able to summon every movie, every book to our fingertips, that takes away a great opportunity to go out and experience culture in a collective sort of way. I think about commerce as being a fundamental social experience. When I go to the store, I get out of my house. I interact with other people. It may seem trivial, it might seem incredibly superficial, but those interactions are really important to us in the way that we think about our fellow human beings and about the quality of our own lives.

What comes next when commerce is entirely virtual? How will human interaction change? How will our society change? Are we happy with those changes? At what price [comes] convenience and efficiency? I don’t pretend that these are easy answers, and I don’t pretend that we’re not accruing incredible benefits from all of these changes. But we should also spend a little time thinking about what we’re losing in the process.

Knowledge@Wharton: We’ve also transformed into a society where income inequality is a staggering issue.

Foer: Absolutely. We need to look at the ways in which these companies exacerbate the divide, the ways in which they sit on these piles of cash. If you work for one of these companies, your life is amazing, right? We all know about their famous corporate campuses and the incredible benefits that come with working for one of these monopolistic firms. But what we see a lot of in the economy is not just a gap between the rich and poor in the aggregate sense. There’s almost a gap between the rich and poor within each of these sectors.

If you’re the second or third player in one of these fields, you don’t get paid the same because these companies collect the monopolistic rent. They are able to because they have such a dominance in their field and they don’t actually have to worry about competition. They can sit on piles of cash and distribute it in whatever way they want. They can hoard it, as Apple does, or they can distribute it to their workers in terms of benefits that keep their workers tethered to those companies. But everybody else in the economy doesn’t have the pleasure of benefiting from monopolistic rents, so the gap grows.

Knowledge@Wharton: How do you see Facebook’s role in how we consume media changing in the future?

Foer: I want to talk about this from a very narrow perspective, which is that I’m a journalist. Over the course of my career as a journalist, the profession has become extremely dependent on Google and Facebook. As advertising markets collapsed, there became this need to scale up in a quick sort of way, and the only way to get revenue was through growing traffic. The only way to grow traffic was by relying on these platforms. That meant that journalism needed to master these platforms. It’s a very unhealthy state of dependence. The values of those platforms end up becoming the values of everybody who depends on those platforms.

As an editor, the type of work that we did changed because we needed to succeed in Facebook. It’s kind of a debasing thing where the headlines we wrote had to be sensationalistic in a way that could travel on Facebook. The subjects that we had to write about had to tap into the hive mind that existed on Facebook. Instead of shaping the news, instead of making choices that were ennobling for our readers, trying to expand the minds of our readers, we ended up doing a whole lot of pandering. It can’t be healthy in the long run.

I edited a magazine that was left of center. The mood that exists in the world right now is not left of center, it’s kind of left. I found that, just to get traffic, there was this temptation constantly to pander to what politicians call “the base.” I see this all the time. It’s a dissent to be somebody who disagrees with whatever the consensus is — it’s to be cast out. Ultimately, it’s just not healthy for our politics to have these two tribes.

We think about our politics as extremely polarized, and it is. But it’s also extremely conformist right now. If you live in one of these two tribes, your informational ecosystem is extremely restricted. Facebook is a feedback loop where you get what you want to hear. We just get driven further and further into our corners through this technology that’s giving us what we want.

Knowledge@Wharton: What about Apple’s role?

Foer: Of the four big companies, Apple is the one that troubles me the least. I dislike the way in which it collects data. But at the end of the day, Apple is a hardware company and less involved in the sorts of intellectual technologies that I’ve described. Apple has done things to remake the music industry, for instance, that probably on balance I don’t like. But if I were to rank the four companies in terms of their perniciousness, I would put Apple at the bottom of the list.

Knowledge@Wharton: What about Google?

Foer: To me, the problem with Google is its ever-expanding goals. The thing that bothers me about Google is that there’s almost a religious intensity to what they do. [Co-founders] Sergey Brin and Larry Page come from the world of artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence is this incredible thing, but there are different ways to practice artificial intelligence. There are all sorts of ways in which it’s an incredible convenience. But there are other people who want to achieve what’s called ‘AI complete,’ which is to create an artificial intelligence that is truly akin to a human intelligence, that has an understanding of language. There’s a whole, almost messianic vision that comes with it.

I’m sure you’ve heard of Ray Kurzweil, an amazing engineer who has this idea of singularity, of this moment where we completely merge with the machine, and the machines become smarter than the humans. We end up downloading our brains into this virtual world where we live forever. It’s really a religious vision. Ray Kurzweil is the director of engineering at Google now, and I think that Larry Page has a version of this sort of fantasy that he entertains. That’s his ambition for the company.

It’s a bit of sci-fi fantasy, so I’m not really concerned about singularity. What I’m concerned about is that when you believe you’re on this kind of messianic mission, and when you treat your job with that kind of religious fervor, all of the temporal concerns, all of the concerns about law and ethics and the present and what you might be destroying, end up getting thrown out the window. This is a problem that I have more generally with these companies.

You might think that I wrote a left-wing book, but I think I wrote a pretty deeply conservative book where I’m really worried about the fate of important institutions. There’s a lot of wisdom built into the things that we’ve developed over time. I worry that some of these companies are just so fervent, so hubristic and self-confident about what they’re doing that they don’t really pause to consider what’s being destroyed in the course of rushing to a glorious future.


Hkan Sun, 10/22/2017 - 13:48 Permalink

Buy personality chip of choice and install into Ur brain.Or hok up to internet and download it......unless someone hacks U.Total freedom....unless it contains virus.Welcome to no limits....kind of like... personality "Trump". For a week or 2....ya..why not..amzn got it?

Scornd Sun, 10/22/2017 - 13:47 Permalink

the authors premise is incorrect. all of the "tech" as is comminly called is trickle down military tech... its the biggest budget on the planet and does not exist "for profit"

Deep Snorkeler Sun, 10/22/2017 - 13:51 Permalink

You1. You have no identity.2. Experiments have been performed on you, and you failed.3. Everything you do is being scanned by algos.4. You are mindlessly compliant and do not know it.5. You really do not have to believe in anything, but you must fake it.6. You must try to be more stoic in your downfall. 

buzzsaw99 Sun, 10/22/2017 - 13:56 Permalink

before you know it zh too will get bought out and then start brainwashing us with a constant barrage of believe-everything-the-fed-says + they-will-be-a-selling-massive-quantities-of-assets + any-day-now-and-a-crash-is-imminent-bitchez type bearish blog posts so we lose all our damn money and have to sell our spleens on ebay.  oh, fuck.  :gulp:

Consuelo Sun, 10/22/2017 - 13:56 Permalink

  If there is nothing larger than yourself, there is no one to answer to but yourself.In the immortal words of Bon Scott:  'No stop signs, speed limit Nobody's gonna slow me downLike a wheel, gonna spin itNobody's gonna mess me aroundHey Satan, paid my duesPlaying in a rocking bandHey mama, look at meI'm on my way to the promised land...'

Stan Smith Sun, 10/22/2017 - 14:05 Permalink

    There's no question the power of some of this allows folks to create something that isnt entirely true.   I dont know if that's a ton different than television,  except this new wave allows -- and encourages -- tracking the data so that it knows what you want before you do.   Google tries to sell this off as convenience or service,  but at least now folks are starting to ask questions.  FB is even worse.   They not only want to do what google does, they wall off what they know from everything else, and then sell it off where they can.    There is a lot of area we the consumers could change with this,  but at this point demand of these companies changing isnt really there.     It's just not, at least not here in the USA.    At least the questions are being asked now.   They weren't even a few years ago.   That's progress.

Youri Carma Sun, 10/22/2017 - 14:11 Permalink

DEEP STATE BOGUS FUTURE The NWO plan is to get humans completely controlled via computers in and out house.The NWO wants a single AI super computer controlled dictatorship. NWO bogus time traveller Al Bielek told us so***.The so-called 'deep state' is essentially a runaway part of society who are able to pull on many strings in order to fulfil their dreamed up version of society. They think they're creative creators while in fact they suffer from a 'God' complex among other illnesses which prevent these people from being creative at all. But any idea which gives them more control makes them feel awfully powerful and proud of themselves. They're not realy able to see the big picture and have become pitiful reactionaries on an inevitable future which they can't control. And that drives them crazy. Having ships full of money and access to unlimited resources doesn't necessarily make you smarter or produce any new fresh ideas. Their bogus idea is based on the absolute control by a few over the many. We've seen in tried many times in history which indicates that human society doesn't exactly prosper that way. It's not the ideas of a few but the ideas of the many which makes human society prosper, the best of the best instead of the best of a few thinkers. The idea that you can control society with a few via hyped up AI computer technology is also a bogus wet dream based on insane euphoric assumptions.***Al Bielek Allegedly Travels to the 28th Century (Not) Russo RFID Human Implant Chip Aaron Russo Full Interview

Sparkey Youri Carma Sun, 10/22/2017 - 16:46 Permalink

Good thinking Youri, but where does the overwhelming impetus to control everything come from, The major part of my thesis states that; Instinct guides all life on Earth, so, Humans being part of the life on Earth are guided by instinct just like everything else, of course we don't act directly on instinct's urges anymore, now we have language and with language comes the ability to self delude, so the actions we take and the justifications we reason may have little relation to the original impetus, this means; We do things for reasons that are unclear to us while beleiving we are guided by our reason whithout any understanding of what motivates our behavior, a dangerous situation, but then, life was always dangerous, the Saber Tooth Tiger is still lurking in the grass.

In reply to by Youri Carma

ReturnOfDaMac Sun, 10/22/2017 - 14:27 Permalink

Bitch, moan and complain. Thats you hear around here.  Don't like their stuff?  Nothing stops YOU from building something better.  The internet is open, feel free to roll your own.  Maybe you lack any real talent?  World class bitchez thats all ya are.

Dickweed Wang Sun, 10/22/2017 - 14:31 Permalink

"Coming between us and reality"??  Only if you let them.  That's why I have never used Facefuck or Twater and avoid using Google whenever possible. The people that are trapped in the psuedo-reality created by the big tech companies are generally too lazy to seek any alternatives, or they simply don't care (or believe) that they're being fed a load of horse shit.

Sid Davis Sun, 10/22/2017 - 15:19 Permalink

Technology is the application of knowledge to resources; both are required.

For most of the history of mankind, there were plenty of resources just under our feet, but we didn't have the knowledge to use them to make a significant improvement in our standard of living until we first developed agriculture 10,000 years ago, and then industry 400 years ago.

The present industrial age is heavily dependent upon energy resources, and we are rapidly approaching the end of the fossil fuel age without the knowledge to replace that energy. The issue with fossil fuels is that they progressively take more energy to acquire them, but each unit acquired has the same energy as the previously acquired unit. In the end most of the fossil fuels will be left in the ground because they will take more energy to acquire than is in them, leaving the economy without sufficient energy.

When this energy is no longer available, the machines will die first, but shortly there after the human population will collapse because we are heavily dependent for survival on the output of the energy driven economy. We are fast approaching the critical point for energy with oil being first of the list to disappear as a resource. We won't get past 2030 without severe consequences, and the focus of the collapse will be the failure of the electric grid. Electricity is not a primary source of energy, but rather it carries energy extracted from another source.

The fear of technology destroying our lives is bogus; what will destroy our lives is the lack of technology, resulting from the lack of the resource part of the "knowledge applied to resources" equation.

We are not living in a linear world, and viewing the future as a linear extension from the recent past and the present is folly.

MK ULTRA Alpha Sid Davis Sun, 10/22/2017 - 15:45 Permalink

nuclear fusion. Tech firms will have political and mind control power to order nuclear fusion generators for eternal energy buried deep in bunkers and one percent living in cordoned off regions, restricted to the lower species population of 15-20 billion. This is your reality and it is evolving towards the realm of reality within ten earth years.

In reply to by Sid Davis

scatha Sun, 10/22/2017 - 15:16 Permalink

The big elephant in the room is that none of those FANG companies would have survived on their own i.e. covering costs by selling products.

All of them are pure creatures of Wall Street money, corporate zombies, already dead but still consuming flesh and blood of world economy shielded from any real competition.

So why they even exist with no profits but only by hunger for their stocks and corporate bonds stemming from Wall Street funds and world CBs?

So what is their value for Wall Street but their monopoly and their role in Orwellan society of control they one way or another all build no matter what cost for ordinary people.

In fact this not about commerce anymore but about building a machinic society of digital control, like this:…

MK ULTRA Alpha Sun, 10/22/2017 - 15:23 Permalink

It's like the MATRIX and Skynet. We thought it was SciFi, who'll volunteer to be Sarah Conner and her son. I'll be the Terminator, I've still got another mission in me. New Zion controlling every aspect of our lives.

pigpen Sun, 10/22/2017 - 16:37 Permalink

Please stop calling Google and Facebook tech companies. They are digital advertising monopolies. Their business model only works bc of ignorance of masses.It is time for everybody in the planet to use brave browser to block all digital advertising, malware and tracking by DEFAULT.Works on any operating system or device.Run all social media apps out of brave browser including YouTube to block advertising.It is time to revalue true human attention as the user should get paid for viewing advertising.Brave is fastest browser on market and you will wonder how you surfed internet before brave.Render digital advertising useless. Block delivery of ads and tracking of who you are.Cheers,Pigpen

Tom Green Swedish Sun, 10/22/2017 - 17:17 Permalink

its aleady beginning. Look at the new york times article on Uber. Manipulative. Disregard for humans. Totally reliant on algorithms to manipulate humans. They are not living in reality. You thought the big banks were bad. These silicon vally/ techcompanies will be the downfall of the entire planet. Apple/ Microsoft / Google / Amazon / Facebook  / Uber / Nvidia / Netflix / Tesla / Intel / Cisco etc have turned this planet into a bunch of retarded slot machine playing idiots. They have produced nothing that makes us productive. Not a thing

DipshitMiddleC… Tom Green Swedish Sun, 10/22/2017 - 19:34 Permalink

id say google is largely very useful its helped me increase my pay quite a bit since most programming questions can be answered via google or stackoverflow an old friend of mine who isnt mechnically inclined managed to change the timing belt on his subaru wrx impreza by watching a step by step youtube video and it went very smoothly I use the microsfot .NET framework at work and have made a career by being master race status with MS-Excel. I'd say Microsoft is pretty useful.   

In reply to by Tom Green Swedish

Scornd Sun, 10/22/2017 - 19:05 Permalink

silly believing the lies these companies spin about themselves... they dont need to show profit. they a part of Military Intel all funded by either black ops or just unlimited printing of money, c mon. i expected more from zh readers....

Downtoolong Sun, 10/22/2017 - 19:14 Permalink

 “You are nothing of importance to me or anyone within my virtual realm but fifteen numbers that I use to establish your identity, define your personality, and dictate your social behavior.”  “And, unlike your credit score, you don’t even get to know what any of these fifteen numbers are, or how I determine their value.”  (From “Fantastic Dreams of Every CEO of a Global Tech Company”).        

GreatUncle Sun, 10/22/2017 - 19:31 Permalink

Got tired of them all they were not creative or good enough so I dumped them all.Not worried about this Matrix shit now only idiots are left in the Matrix.