A tech critic on the sham populism of Silicon Valley

Google logos projected onto a man in August, 2017 in London, England.
 Leon Neal/Getty Images

Franklin Foer is very concerned about big tech.

“The ascendant monopolies of today aspire to encompass all of existence,” warns Foer, 14-year editor of the New Republic, referring to the unbridled power of companies like Facebook, Apple, Google, and Amazon. In his new book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, Foer takes a dark look at internet monopolists and oligarchs.

“American democracy was built on richly deserved fear, an anxiety that power might pool in one institution at everyone else’s expense. The tech companies have no such fear,” Foer writes. “The more they can insinuate themselves into our lives the better. There is no limit.”

Just last week, Google courted controversy over the firing of a Google critic from a think tank heavily funded by the company. In June, Barry Lynn, an academic with New America, had persuasively written in favor of the European Union’s antitrust fine against Google, only to find himself ousted from New America several months later.

These kinds of situations, Foer warns, could get worse as big tech increasingly amasses power. Blame also falls on US politicians — including former President Barack Obama — who were and remain unwilling to restrain these corporations.

Foer is a well-respected writer, editor, and political commentator. His work has appeared in Slate and the Atlantic, where he currently writes as a national correspondent. I reached Foer by phone in chilly Kiev, where he was on assignment investigating Trump and his former campaign manager Paul Manafort’s troubling ties to Vladimir Putin’s regime. We talked about Google and the singularity, Facebook’s “phoniness,” Julian Assange, and Obama’s big-tech fail.

Alexander Bisley

“Like Donald Trump, Silicon Valley is part of the great American tradition of sham populism.” This is a strong comparison.

Franklin Foer

Before Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, he spent a lot of time dumping on gatekeepers. He claimed that gatekeepers were the things that prevented people from getting what they really wanted and he postured as the enemy of elitism. And that’s probably true for the tech industry [as a whole]. Despite their millions, they kind of postured as protectors of the people. And you can see that in their faux-egalitarianism with the hoodie and the open office and all their other fairly ridiculous tropes. But really, what they were doing was they were destroying one set of gatekeepers in order to replace them with themselves.

Alexander Bisley

Facebook is a target you strike smartly in World Without Mind. “A steady stream of fabricated right-wing conspiracies that boosted Donald Trump’s candidacy. … It’s galling to watch Zuckerberg walk away from the catastrophic collapse of the news business and the degradation of American civic culture, because his site has played such a seminal role in both.” You also describe it as the opposite of a genuine public square, sending users in whatever direction they think will keep them addicted to the platform. Essentially, you’re arguing Facebook is phony?

Franklin Foer

Yeah, Facebook is phony. What makes it so dangerous is that its method of guiding users to information is invisible to most users.

One thing that pisses me off to no end is that Facebook has decided now that video is the thing that its users want. Well, it’s not really the thing that its users want, it’s the thing that they can sell the most expensive advertising off of. And so it’s decided to prioritize the production of video. But when Facebook makes a decision like that for itself, it’s really making a decision on behalf of the entire media industry because the entire industry is so thoroughly dependent on Facebook. So every media organization has now shifted resources into the production of video. While that video can be great, useful, and journalistically important, it’s also coming at the expense of words.

And the thing that Facebook is trying to replicate is binge-watching. What they’re saying is that they want to produce videos that thoroughly addict its users. This model is based on insane mountains of data. So basically, Facebook and Apple and all these companies are trying to thoroughly addict you with the aid of a fairly comprehensive map of your brain. So the likelihood that they can succeed is extremely high.

Once upon a time that prospect would horrify most people, but I think by this stage we’ve become so addicted and acclimated that it doesn’t really cause any alarm bells to ring. Which to me is just depressing to no end.

Alexander Bisley

Do you think Mark Zuckerberg has political aspirations?

Franklin Foer

It sure seems like it. He’s acting like a guy who’s preparing for a presidential campaign. At some point, I’d like to grab him by the lapels and say: “How much power do you really need? You’ve created a system where we’re already your lab rats and you’ve amassed more power in media than anyone in human history. And now you want to control politics as well?”

At some point in the last generation, we’ve just stopped worrying about the accumulation of power. We’ve begun to allow these massive conglomerations of power and asked very few questions of it. And so nobody really seemed to blink when Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post. And maybe if Mark Zuckerberg were to seriously run for president, then people would start to ask some of these searching questions.

Alexander Bisley

You build important criticisms of Google through your book, noting that Google has an oversize lobbying force in Washington. “Obama spent his presidency cheering on the tech companies, even pleading with the Europeans not to collect the taxes owed to them.” This seems like a significant Obama fail.

Franklin Foer

Google made a shrewd calculation, which was that they align themselves politically with the left, because they understood that the most criticism of the company could come from the left. They didn’t have to worry about the right-wing slapping them with regulation. And it worked! Right? Google has escaped the ire of the Federal Trade Commission. While the Europeans have raised all sorts of really important issues with Google, and they’ve applied scrutiny to its policies, we’ve essentially let them skate right on past. And sad to say, I think this was a failing of Obama’s. Now the Democratic Party, after Obama, has begun to turn in a very different sort of direction.

What was telling to me is that Cory Booker, last month, when questioned by Recode on a podcast, said that he thinks that we’re going to have to take the power of Google, Facebook, and Amazon much more seriously. And I think that the default position of the Democratic Party will increasingly be to apply antitrust scrutiny towards these companies.

Alexander Bisley

As you mention, the industrial tax avoidance by big tech is a massive democratic issue too. The EU has made a notable challenge to Apple in this regard. Do you think Apple is going to pay up?

Franklin Foer

No, because the nature of globalization was always that companies were going to transcend the borders of any given company. And that was always true of finance, where money was able to float in some kind of international ether. But I think it’s even more true with these companies, which don’t really need to be based anywhere because of the decentralized nature of the internet.

So much of their value rests in intellectual property, which can be transported anywhere. If there’s one thing that corporations excel at, it’s in evading taxation. Thus the proliferation of all these tax havens around the world and the armies of lawyers and accountants who make a fortune in aiding corporations as they navigate their way towards those tax havens.

It’s a collective action problem. The politicians of the world all need to be acting together to apply scrutiny to actually solve the problem. There’ll always be a Luxembourg, there’ll always be an Ireland or some other country that decides that is going to offer the most favorable tax conditions. So, maybe if the president of the United States decided to make it a big issue, I bet they could find a way to claw back some of that amount of money. And I’m going to die waiting for that to happen.

Alexander Bisley

“There’s technology that my generation knows how to use but doesn’t know what it really means,” Howard Dean told me recently. Given his Recode comments you just mentioned, does Cory Booker have more of an idea?

Franklin Foer

Cory Booker is interesting ’cause he’s figured himself a tech guy. He took a lot of money from Facebook when he was mayor of Newark; Facebook promised that it would help him to help reform his city’s schools. His stance is interesting.

Elizabeth Warren has been especially good on the tech companies. She delivered a speech about a year ago about the dangers of monopoly that singled out the tech companies. I don’t think it’s necessarily a generational problem. Although interestingly, Bernie Sanders has had exceedingly little to say about the problems of monopoly. He’s so focused on finance that he’s kind of missed a lot of the rest of the economy in his diagnosis.

The Democratic Party is desperate for its own version of populism to counteract Donald Trump. And by returning to monopoly, which is a venerable part of the American political populist tradition, they’re able to — in an evidence-based, empirically minded way — make an honest populist case.

Alexander Bisley

I liked your analysis of Peter Thiel as the chief representative of Silicon Valley’s view that monopoly is natural and desirable. Interestingly, he’s bought both property and citizenship in my home country New Zealand, which suggests he’s not quite as confident in the tech utopia outcomes in the US as he has sometimes boasted.

Franklin Foer

He invested in Donald Trump. He knew the crazy he was ushering into the United States and probably had the reasons to want to have an escape hatch better than most. I think he shows part of the sham that’s at the heart of Silicon Valley, which is that he masquerades as a libertarian while bankrolling and promoting a candidate who has both authoritarian tendencies and also is a crony capitalist who’s exploited the state throughout his career.

When it comes to Silicon Valley, [Thiel] pretends to celebrate the heroic individual and to celebrate competitive capitalism, yet he’s also helped bring about this world of monopoly, where competition becomes harder and harder.

You see that even Wall Street is starting to have an allergic reaction to Silicon Valley’s lock on the economy, because the nature of these monopolies is that it’s harder to find startups now. You look at the macroeconomic data, we haven’t experienced this boom in productivity that was promised. This great revolution in technology hasn’t unleashed a wave of innovation where people are toiling away in their basements and garages now. Facebook and Google and Apple managed to lock up the best brains, they managed to buy up the most promising competitors.

Alexander Bisley

Julian Assange seems a pungent symbol of tech dystopianism.

Franklin Foer

Right. He claimed to create this world of transparency and openness and ended up a lackey and stooge of Vladimir Putin. That’s a sad tale of how the ideals of tech and the ideals of this information revolution have come crashing down. What I try to argue in the book is that the ideals of tech are beautiful, but they end up becoming captured by really powerful entities. When they end up captured, they become the opposite of what was promised.

So instead of the idea of the network, which is a classic example of an ideal that grew out of the 1960s, which was a vision of the commune where we would all be interconnected and we would achieve a global consciousness — instead of that lyrical vision of interconnection, what we get is monopoly. And instead of the Julian Assange vision of transparency, what we get is fake news, propaganda, and manipulation.

Alexander Bisley

Is your proposal of a Data Protection Authority, designed to protect privacy as the government protects the environment, likely?

Franklin Foer

Not terribly likely, but the point of proposing a Data Protection Authority was to stir the pot. I wanted to make two points. One is that data is not owned by these companies. That we can allow them to exploit the data, but there have to be limits on their exploitation of it. One of the horrifying things about the United States is that there is no comprehensive law protecting the data of users. Effectively, I find that our existing antitrust regime is so inadequate in the face of the challenges that these companies pose.

And so one of the important things is to look holistically at the ways in which the issues of monopoly and the issues of surveillance are so deeply interrelated that these companies are able to maintain their monopolies because they have more data than their competitors. And in order to preserve those monopolies, they have to keep pushing surveillance.

When I proposed the idea of a Data Protection Agency, what I was suggesting is that we basically need a whole new regulatory regime if we’re ever gonna get serious about these companies. Now there’s a lot that you can do short of that, but I was trying to open the Overton window, if you will, to try to get regulators and to get policymakers and wonks to think more broadly about how we deal with this problem.

Alexander Bisley

Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering, is a Singularitarian, which describes the merging of artificial intelligence and human. But there’s some pushback on these ideas from others within Google.

Franklin Foer

Yes, Google is a massive company and it’s not like you have to belong to the singularity cult in order to work there. But the point that I included in the book is that it is an artificial intelligence company and the vision of artificial intelligence that it’s pursuing traces back to Larry Page, the founder of the company. It is stamped in the Singularitarian mold, that its ambitions for what it wants to do with artificial intelligence, and the way in which it wants to complete the merger of man and machine, are the things that make it a radical company.

The theological pursuit of artificial intelligence within the company means that there’s almost a religious fervor to its work. And some of it is simply idealistic, but I think it’s idealistic about how it can advance human evolution. It regards that task as so urgent and so important that it means that Google sometimes pays little heed to more trivial considerations like the law, like copyright, like ethical considerations. And Google just wants to burst forward at this feverish pace.

The correct response for society is to say: “Whoa, slow down. You’re monkeying around with things that have been essential to the very definition of humanity. And before we go tearing them down and erecting something new, let’s pause and think hard about what we’re doing.”

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