The Existential Threat of Big Tech

DownloadJohn Naughton at Literary Review:

World Without Mind thus joins a lengthening list of blistering critiques of our networked world that already includes works by Jonathan Taplin, Andrew Keen, Frank Pasquale, Astra Taylor, Cathy O’Neil and others. In its take-no-prisoners attitude to the digital giants, it echoes these protests against the hijacking of our culture by youthful moguls imbued with the invincible arrogance that often accompanies great – and suddenly acquired – wealth. What sets it apart is the style and verve of the writing. In this respect, it is more reminiscent of a much earlier critique of digital culture – Sven Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, which was published over two decades ago.

But whereas Birkerts’s predominant tone was wistful, Foer’s is steely and hostile. The tech monopolies, he believes, ‘aspire to mold humanity into their desired image of it. They believe they have the opportunity to complete the long merger between man and machine – to redirect the trajectory of human evolution.’ He sees them as akin to the companies that transformed the market for food in the postwar era. And as with food, the tech giants ‘have given rise to a new science that aims to construct products that pander to the tastes of their consumers’ – a process that leads, ultimately, to homogeneity (not to mention the cultural equivalents of obesity, diabetes and heart disease).

World Without Mind is full of sharp insights, elegantly expressed. Like the companies, Foer devotes a lot of attention to algorithms. ‘The origins of the algorithm’, he writes, ‘are unmistakably human, but human fallibility isn’t a quality that we associate with it.’ And although it’s at the heart of computer science, the algorithm ‘is not precisely a scientific concept’ – it’s a tool created for specific purposes.

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