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Life without thinking

World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech
Forfatter: Franklin Foer
Forlag: Penguin Press (Storbritannia/USA)
BIG TECH / Author Franklin Foer gives a historical overview of Big Tech's impact on society and asks how we can fight its pervasive power.


90's exploration of the internet was an important part of my teens – I found meaning and friendship through my slow modem connection. The image of a life with landlines and face-to-face interaction obviously matters to me, but in 2018 I mainly consider it a nostalgic simplification. What we have won and what we have lost through technological development is a balance that is not easy to determine, but more important to explore.

doomsday Feeling

These days, everyone's eyes are on Silicon Valley: Issues such as data security, monitoring, and the way information is filtered and communicated to us offer contentious and worrying issues. However, I cannot stand the sentencing mood that the discussion of technology often brings, especially when it is held up against an assumed better and past life that is now lost.

It was with such thoughts in mind that I went to hear Franklin Foer talk about his new book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. SThe county and Foere's book did not awaken the feeling of an imminent doom, but made me reflect. At the same time, it underlined the need to make a choice again who i want to be in this world of information and change.

"Every effort is made to make man predictable."
Franklin Foer


The first part of the book takes us on a journey from the past to the present, through the history of how the internet and the big technology companies
- like Google, Amazon and Facebook – originated. It explains the ideas, logic and philosophy behind these actors and links the points to a big picture that tells a multifaceted story where Stewart Brand, Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page meet René Descartes, Gottfried Leibnitz, Alan Turing and Marshall McLuhan.

One key point is that the majority of the people behind Big Tech are engineering educators, and “the engineers' mentality has little patience with words and images, for the mystique of art, for moral complexity and emotional expression. […] Every effort is made to make man predictable ”. Consequently, the fact that both the media and the public are dependent on Silicon Valley and their values ​​represents a dangerous development. Their values ​​idealize simplicity, collectivism and an easy-to-manipulate honeycomb mentality. The consequence is an inability of individual and original thinking.

Unregulated market

What's more: From the beginning, the market has been unregulated and open to companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon, all of which have accumulated information and market monopolies whose power has negative economic and cultural implications. “In the economy, there is the danger of such networks the formation of monopoly – where a competitive, ideas market loses its competitiveness under the influence of big corporations. Within culture is the danger of networking conformity – where a competitive idea market is no longer as competitive and the focus is on consensus. ”

If we could make all the technology in our lives disappear, what would we have kept? 

Paradoxically, these are the same companies that in their time attacked the guardians of the elite and who wanted to give access to information and the possibility of participation. Instead, they ended up as the most powerful guardians, as their data collection strengthened their own position at the expense of smaller players and the community's best. "When Facebook changes direction (...) or when Google adjusts its algorithms, they immediately crash the media's flow of web traffic – with all the financial ramifications this entails."

The role of journalism

The side effect of Big Tech's power is the umbilical cord that links it to the media: a relationship that influences information and content in the media and replaces its role as a guardian of democracy with an approach oriented towards the technology sector. Foer has personally experienced this development. He talks in detail about how, as editor of the politically liberal magazine The New Republic, in the time after the magazine was acquired by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, he experienced the approach of techno-engineering to journalism. After initially being open to focusing on key issues and telling important stories, the magazine became increasingly obsessed with generating mouse clicks and good numbers. The conflicts of interest between one tech business- Approach – focus on demand, revenue and traffic generation – and journalism, which communicates relevant stories and important truths that readers have not even heard of, has been a debated topic for many years. But Foer adds depth and personal insights to the subject, revealing a general pathology where no media organ is safe enough to escape the embrace of business logic and mouse clicks.

Idealized past

At the opposite end of today's situation stands the past. While Foere's portrayal of this hits some neuralgic points and contains several good points, it also leaves no room for criticism or objection to the scorn. Nor does Foer see anything positive in the respite technology has created, in the form of arenas where ideas can flourish and truths are openly vented. Foer sets an idealized version of the past against the harms of today's Big Tech-oriented society. The comparison is one-sided.

Above all, Foer's book can be read as a call to question our own passivity.

One advantage of looking at the situation from this angle is that it creates a mental space where you have distance from both the past and the present. Tender before were livable and nice without technology, we can now retreat, conduct a thought experiment and ask ourselves: If we could make all the technology in our lives disappear; what would we have kept? What would we have wanted?

More reflection

Even I think the internet and technology have positively impacted our lives in a number of areas. Some of the changes are so subtle, so incorporated into our daily lives, that they can be difficult to spot. We are tempted to see only the chaos, but technology has actually also provided the basis for a number of scientific discoveries, and access to information has changed our lives for the better in several areas. The same goes for our ability to express thoughts and meet like-minded people. The hive mentality thus contains more than just one thing.

Foe's criticism is both valid and important, but instead of idealizing the past, perhaps the time has come to focus on how we can change things by looking ahead, by striving for a greater degree of equilibrium and tighter regulation. Above all, Foer's book can be read as a call to question our own passivity. His solution – read more books, set more time for reflection – may not be as applicable to everyone, but what we can to do is to ask more questions and become more involved in how we receive and read our news. We can actively explore the potential of technology, how it works and how both citizens and governments can make it work for the good of society.

Bianca-Olivia Nita
Bianca-Olivia Nita
Nita is a freelance journalist and critic for Ny Tid.

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