During the past decade three companies have revolutionized the way we shop, socialize, and find information. I’m talking, of course, about Amazon, Facebook, and Google. While these companies have made our lives easier in many ways, my guest today argues that they’re also eroding autonomy and individuality. His name is Franklin Foer and he’s the author of the book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. Today on the show, Franklin talks about how the utopian ideals of Silicon Valley have led to an internet that is becoming more and more homogenized and centralized. We then dig into how the vast amounts of personal information these companies have about us can be used to manipulate us. Franklin then argues that while these companies make us feel more autonomous, they’re actually diminishing our choices and reducing our individuality. We end our conversation discussing ideas on what you can do to maintain your sense of autonomy in today’s atmosphere.
- How and why Franklin quit his job as editor of The New Republic
- Journalism in the world of social media
- The philosophical foundations of Silicon Valley behemoths
- The odd balance between individual libertarianism and utopian collectivism in the tech world
- The differences between the giant companies of old (railroads, oil, etc.) versus today’s
- An overview of modern anti-trust laws
- How tech companies try to own our attention
- The huge chunks of our economy dependent on large tech companies
- How social media is destroying individuality
- How the quality of content has suffered in the world of social media
- What to do about the existential threat of large technology companies
- Why your private data needs to be protected
- My own forms of tech resistance
- Why Mark Zuckerberg wants to get rid of privacy
- The phenomena of self-censoring
- Why you should use DuckDuckGo instead of Google
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- When Silicon Valley Took Over Journalism
- The New Frontier of Flow
- Robert Bork
- Amazon’s secret brands
- Podcast: The Distracted Mind
- Declutter Your Digital Life
- Facebook’s History of Secret Experiments
- How to Protect Your Privacy Online
- Four Questions to Kill Your FOMO
- Facebook is developing a way to read your mind
- Why Utopia is Creepy
Connect With Franklin
Franklin’s articles on The Atlantic
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. During the past decade, three companies have revolutionized the way we shop, socialize, and find information. I’m talking of course about Amazon, Facebook and Google. While these companies have made our lives easier in many ways, my guest today argues that they’re also eroding autonomy and individuality.
His name is Franklin Foer and he’s the author of the book ‘World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech,’ and today on the show Franklin talks about how the utopian ideals of Silicon Valley have led to an internet that is becoming more and more homogenized and centralized. We then dig into the vast amounts of personal information these companies collect about us and how they’re using it on us. The Franklin argues that while these companies make us fell more autonomous, they’re actually diminishing our choices and reducing our individuality. He then provides suggestions on what you can do to maintain your sense of individualism in today’s atmosphere.
After the show is over check out the show notes at aom.is/worldwithoutmind, where you can find links to resources or you can delve deeper into this topic.
Franklin Foer, welcome to the show.
Franklin Foer: Pleasure.
Brett McKay: So you just published a book, ‘World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech,’ sounds ominous. What was the impetus behind this book?
Franklin Foer: Yeah, it’s a wee bit apocalyptic minded. I had just gotten fired as editor of The New Republic, which was an incredibly traumatic experience for me. I’d worked at The New Republic for a really long time and we had just come off this cycle where the magazine had been bought by Chris Hughes, who was 28 years old, worth $700 million, he’d been Mark Zuckerberg’s room mate in college and one of the first, really a co-founder of Facebook. He’d arrived at The New Republic with extremely lofty ambitions. He said, “I share your commitment to serious journalism.” The New Republic was 100 year old magazine devoted to politics, policy and fairly high culture. He said, “I share your devotion to seriousness. I’ve got a lot of money and you guys have been struggling to master this digital world. Well I co-founded social media.” It seemed awesome and for a time it was extremely awesome, but then there was a moment where he said, “Look, we really need to generate revenue and the only way for us to do that is to produce pieces that will be very successful on Facebook.”
So, we were in this super-compressed period in media history where we made this transition from being a magazine that prided itself on its originality and its seriousness, to a magazine that was trying to pander to the algorithms of Facebook, trying to produce journalism that would prove to be popular on Facebook. So, it was a really rushed transition and a new CEO came aboard, a guy from Yahoo, and as soon as he came aboard I kind of knew I was doomed because it took him two weeks to met with me.
Anyway, so I ended up realizing that I was about to get fired so I quit and a bunch of other people quit the magazine and it became this object lesson in the media about how Silicon Valley was swallowing journalism and why that was going bad. It just got me thinking along the lines of the ways in which journalism actually was a case study for the broader world in that everybody in the world is becoming so dependent on these platforms on Google, on Facebook, on Apple, on Amazon. I wanted to both productively channel my anger and also explore this problem that was … It had been extremely interesting me long before I’d run into trouble at The New Republic.
Brett McKay: Right, it’s kind of this idea, the concern about these tech companies, has really hit the zeitgeist, because we’re seeing it with Amazon, with Facebook especially, Twitter even. I feel like it’s in the air, it’s in the social, the milieu.
Franklin Foer: Well when I started writing this book, actually Amazon was really my initial impetus, just because I had been active in the Author’s Guild, which is a group that organizes on behalf of writers. When Amazon had been re-negotiating it’s book contracts with the big publishers it was applying super brutal tactics, and said we dominate this market, and basically you have accept our terms or you’re toast. If a publisher was challenging Amazon they would strip the buy button off of its books, or they would point readers in other directions. That was initially the thing that got me interested in these questions.
When I started writing this book people looked at me like I was a hippie howling into the wind. These companies had such cultural prestige. By the time my book came out, the zeitgeist had already started to shift, I think in no small measure thanks to the election and all the questions about Facebook that arose out of the election.
One radio interviewer last week accused me of mouthing conventional wisdom by criticizing these tech companies. I thought, ‘Wow, the zeitgeist really has turned.’
Brett McKay: Before we get into some of these criticisms, I think it’s important to understand, because it’s amazing, these companies have just risen to power really fast. I think sometimes we take for granted how fast they’ve come to dominate life, our lives. I think to understand how that happened we need to understand the philosophical underpinnings that exist in Silicon Valley. So, what are those underpinnings and how has that helped them or sort of, not helped them, you know, directed how they’ve managed their businesses to where they’ve grown to these giant behemoths?
Franklin Foer: Well, one of the totally fascinating facts that Silicon Valley is that it wasn’t just the birthplace of Apple, the Internet, the personal computer, it was also the place where the counterculture came into being. So, alongside Steve Jobs you had the Grateful Dead, you had LSD, you had the communes, and a lot of the spirit of the counterculture rubbed off on technology as technology rubbed off on the spirit of the counterculture. You had, in the last 60s and early 70s, a bunch of people headed off to communes, which was a bit of a doomed experiment. That real spirit of wanting to tie everybody together in a communal sort of way, of using technology to try to gin up a different sort of consciousness in the same sort of way that LSD had produced a different sort of consciousness. Those ideas came to infuse our ideas about technology.
One of the most powerful ideas about technology that we have is this idea of stitching the world together into one and creating these massive new mechanisms, these communes really, that we can exist in. In reality, that became the basis for the idea of the network, which is so ubiquitous. Where all these ideas about, we think of Silicon Valley as being kind of Libertarian, which it is to a certain extent, but it’s also fundamentally collectivist. You see it in the concepts of crowd-sourcing, social media, collaboration, and networking. These networks, these kind of giant communes that they build are beautiful dreams, but when they get captured by big firms they become the basis for monopoly.
Brett McKay: I think that weird tension between libertarian individualism and this utopian collectivism is really weird, because you do see it. I feel like the Libertarianism, there’s like a few guys and it’s like, ‘Well, I’m the guy who can create this utopian collective network.’ They encourage as little regulations as possible so they can achieve that.
Franklin Foer: Yeah. No, that’s right. I mean, there’s a way in which they’re just asking for Libertarianism for themselves and collectivism for everybody else. You see, what you’re getting at I think is one of the big themes of my book, which is that there’s hypocrisy that runs through a lot of these companies, that they insist on transparency and sharing in everybody else’s lives, but when it comes to revealing how their algorithms work, they’re completely opaque. You know, Facebook is all about sharing but they were so reluctant to share basic information about what Russian ads were bought during the campaign.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So, one of the arguments, so this collectivist idea of creating a … This is their idea of, what you hear a lot in Silicon Valley is monopolies are good.
Franklin Foer: Yes.
Brett McKay: You grew up in high school learning about how monopolies are terrible, you had Teddy Roosevelt busting the trust. Why do they think monopolies are a good thing?
Franklin Foer: Well, I think there’s a business principle behind it, which is that they believe that the world operates as this series of networks. You can see this, this is an old idea, railroads were networks that tied people together, the phone companies operated networks that tied people together, Facebook is a network that ties people together, Google is a network that ties people into Google.
The principle is that these networks work most efficiently when there’s only one. It just doesn’t make sense for there to be, since Facebook is kind of a global telephone book, it doesn’t make sense for there to be two global telephone books, or it’s a mechanism for staying in touch with people around the world. What if there were two of them and it would just be sloppy. The raison d’être is kind of this idea of oneness, the business ideas is the one of oneness.
In Silicon Valley, you have the sense that once a firm captures the network it’s not even worth competing with them because being second place in the network is just not going to yield a huge financial gain. There is a way in which all of this is very different than the monopolies of old. First is that these guys just possess so much data, which is this intimate window inside your head. This history of everything that you’ve read, everywhere you’ve traveled, everything that you’ve bought, which is then used to kind of increase your dependence on the network, to keep you engaged for as long as possible, or you could even say to addict you to their products.
The second thing is that these companies are just so ambitious. There was kind of a limit to what the railroads could swallow, even as they tried to swallow up a bunch of stuff. These companies are everything companies. Google started off wanting to organize knowledge, now it’s building self-driving cars, it’s got a life-sciences company that’s trying to defeat death. Amazon started off as the everything store and not it’s a movie studio, it owns the Washington Post, it owns Whole Foods, it powers the Cloud, et cetera, et cetera. There’s really no end to the et ceteras.
Brett McKay: Yeah. What’s crazy though, you know, back in the 19th Century, going back to the railroads and the telephone companies even in the middle of the 20th Century, is that people, the government and the public were leery of monopolies. They took actions to break those up. What’s changed in the 21st Century where people and even the government are like, “Well, okay, if Amazon wants to buy Whole Foods, okay it’s great, let’s go ahead and do that?”
Franklin Foer: What changed was that in the 1960s there was a famous article written by a law professor called Robert Bork. Robert Bork would later become famous because Ronald Reagan nominated him to the Supreme Court and his nomination was derailed by Democrats.
Brett McKay: He got ‘borked.’ He got ‘borked.’
Franklin Foer: He got ‘borked,’ he got ‘borked.’ You know what else got ‘borked?’ Was our antitrust laws. Once upon a time our antitrust laws existed in order to preserve democracy but there was this fear that one you had private power start to amass into large concentrations that they would just be able to become way to influential in Washington and in elections, et cetera. With Bork, the concern shifted to a concept that he called ‘consumer welfare.’ In his view everything was about price. So long as a big company kept prices low and so long as it didn’t use outrageously bullying behavior on customers or on competitors then there was no problem with it. Everything in our antitrust laws became about price and efficiency. That was a big turnaround in the concept of antitrust.
What you’ve seen is every year since Robert Bork wrote his famous article in the 60s, our interpretation of the antitrust laws has narrowed further and further until in the Obama administration, I don’t think they broke up a company. They did a lot to limit mergers, but this idea that a company has become too big and powerful in its sector and deserves to be broken up is just completely fallen by the wayside, even though that was one something that the government would routinely do.
Brett McKay: Right. So, Bork did have, the monopolists do have a point? It does create lower prices, right?
Franklin Foer: Yeah, absolutely. Just to be kind of be clear about one thing, which is that I think Google is an incredible invention. I think iPhones are gorgeous pieces of engineering and design, and I don’t think we want to throw them all into the ocean and go back to some sort of world before the internet. I mean, not at all. I think we want to try to capture the good parts of it.
When it comes to antitrust, what you’re saying is totally true, which is that Google and Facebook are free. You can’t argue that they’re bad for consumers on those grounds. Amazon keeps prices incredibly low. So, if antitrust is going to have an issue with these, if we’re going to care about these monopolies we need to shift back to a pre-Bork paradigm for considering companies.
Brett McKay: So as a threat to democracy or the government or something like that?
Franklin Foer: Yeah, totally, which is really, I mean, that’s the core right here. Not just to democracy and the government, but I also think there are these questions about privacy that loom extremely large, and I do think that there are questions about the ways that they treat competitors. For instance, classic example is the way that Google treated Yelp. So, once upon a time when you wanted to go to dinner you typed in the restaurants name into Google and a Yelp review came out. Google saw that and saw that Yelp is a pretty good business, we should be owning that space. Google started to aggregate reviews and what do you know? When you types a restaurants name into Google suddenly Yelp got pushed down by the algorithm, and so Google was creating a marketplace that advantaged itself. I don’t want to completely surrender our causes for economic concern.
Brett McKay: Right, I guess Amazon does this too. They’re tracking data on which products sell well and they’ll end up just creating that company for themselves to sell that product. There’s a report that came out. There’s a lot of brands that Amazon owns that people don’t know that Amazon owns.
Franklin Foer: Yeah, I was just reading an article this morning in the New York Times, that was describing the way in which Amazon … So, Amazon doesn’t really like the book publishers, and it’s kind of allowed for a shadowy, gray market to exist where you can buy books used that are basically review copies that have been purchased, or other copies that have been bought on a secondary market. They use that to undercut the list price that has been set by the publishers and that Amazon seemingly has accepted.
The point is that Amazon is not operating on the basis of fair market rules, or not abiding by contracts. They’re kind of allowing this system to exist in order to sneakily stick it to these publishers who have been a pain in their ass.
Brett McKay: Besides this threat to privacy, to democracy, et cetera, I think one of the underlying threats, you made this pretty explicit, just these companies are a threat to the idea of individual, or individuality, or individualism. Can you explain what you mean by that a little bit more?
Franklin Foer: Right. Well, at the biggest level, if you think about it this way, these machines are, they’re just different to other machines. We’ve had tools ever since we emerged as a species. We’ve had hammers, we’ve had plows, we’ve had factories that automated upper body strength, but these machines are intellectual machines. They’re designed to amplify and replace intellectual activities. A lot of that is great, so I don’t need to worry about sense of direction anymore because I’ve got Google Maps and Waze, but it also means that when I’m merging with my machine I’m merging with the companies that operate those machines.
These companies have an agenda for influencing us. They have a view of human nature where they’re trying to steer us, and it’s towards a visions where we’re integrated into their systems in the way that they want, that make them the most money.
To me, one of the biggest issues has to do with the ways in which they come into our attention. So, this will be an example that will be I think familiar to every single one of your listeners, which is the iPhone is constantly beckoning us. If it’s in another room we feel like a limb has been cut off our body. In this kind of almost Pavlovian sort of way, these phones have been reversed engineered to mean that they’re almost screaming for our attention. They buzz constantly with notifications, we sleep with our phones, and in a way they’re trying to own our attention. They want everything to be on their platforms and it’s incredibly destructive to our ability to have a sense of self, to be individuals, when we’re just kind of all guinea pigs in this experiment that they’re running on us.
Brett McKay: Right, speaking of experiments, Facebook has admitted to running giant social experiments where they’ve been able to sway people to do certain things just based on the information they present to the user.
Franklin Foer: Totally, and I’m glad that you mentioned that because when I talk about this a lot of times I think people will give me like, I’m a crank and that I’m concocting some sort of conspiracy, but really, a lot of this is just so explicit. Facebook has admitted to social scientists using its platforms in a way to run experiments on us individuals where they try to manipulate our emotional mood, or they try to sway us to go to the voting booth. They’re just incredibly explicit about how … You know, if you work for these companies you know that everything is being tested all the time to maximize engagement. To maximize the amount of time that we spend on a site. So, headlines are being manipulated, the use of photos is being manipulated, the way in which information on Facebook is ordered is being manipulated all to increase your levels of engagement.
Brett McKay: One of the other arguments you make is sort of the hypocrisy of these companies. They say that they’ve eliminated the gatekeeper, right?
Franklin Foer: Right.
Brett McKay: No more publishers, no more editors, no more people saying what can and cannot, or what is worth putting out there. But you’re like, “No, they’re the gatekeepers now.”
Franklin Foer: They are the gatekeepers. They’re the biggest, most powerful gatekeepers, in a way, in human history. There is this hypocrisy about it. They’ve amassed all this power, everything flows through their gates, journalism is hugely dependent on Facebook and Google for traffic and therefore for revenue, publishing is totally dependent on Amazon and there are massive chunks of the economy that are dependent on these companies. These companies have the ability to pick winners and losers.
What Facebook decides comes up highest in its algorithms are going to be the things that are going to be most popular. The things that they decide to suppress in their algorithms are going to be the things that don’t get attention. It’s an incredible meta-power, yet they refuse to admit that they hold that sort of power, which is part of the reason why they’ve come under such heated attack right now after the election. We can see that they created a system in which fake news, propaganda — the ways in which it was so easy for bad actors to come into their system and to use it in order to manipulate people. Facebook was incredibly reluctant to admit that it had any responsibility over any of that.
Brett McKay: Going back to the consumer and how these monopolies hurt consumers. We get free information, low prices at Amazon, but, you know, you argue that the quality of that information we get for free has gotten crappier.
Franklin Foer: Yes.
Brett McKay: Right? Because your example, The New Republic is a great example. First, they took pride in writing these very long-form, in-depth thorough articles and then you were left having to write clickbaity, you know, ‘you won’t believe what happens next’ type stuff in order to drive traffic because that’s what does well on these social platforms.
Franklin Foer: Right, exactly. This is another way in which it’s kind of destroying individuality, which is that everybody who depends on Facebook is constantly trying to latch onto the thing that’s trending, that is most popular there. What Facebook wants are the things that are going to be popular. Those are going to be the things that will keep people most engaged. There’s this shift in ethos towards the Facebook ethos, which Facebook looks like it’s promoting individual expression, and it does to some extent, but on balance you would have to say that it’s also created a new herd mentality, a new form of conformism and homogenization.
Brett McKay: Right, right. I guess another example, you talked about the publishing industry, how Amazon allows anyone to publish a book, but a lot of those books are just garbage.
Franklin Foer: Unfortunately.
Brett McKay: Right. You have people just cranking out, especially in the fiction world, just cranking out fiction books faster than these dime store Westerns from the 19th Century. Trying to make as much money as possible, but Amazon allows that.
Franklin Foer: Well, Amazon doesn’t just allow it, it encourages it because it’s a thing that … Amazon is no different from these other companies, they want addictive products. It’s true in the realm of television and video, by the way too, where the quality is sometimes higher, but this idea of ‘binge watching’ is, again, they want your attention for as long as possible. We’re just in the early days of the ways in which that’s going to be monetized. As Amazon turns more and more into advertising, your bing watching is going to be a bigger and bigger source of revenue for them.
This is not a new phenomenon. We’ve always been, you know, the ‘couch potato’ is a time-honored American tradition, but given the data that they have and the way that they understand you, their ability to addict you is going to be much, much higher.
Just to return to what you’re trying to bring out of me, which is this point about quality, which I think is hugely important. If you think about it, as citizens, we have to make really important decisions every couple of years about who gets elected to public office. In order to make good decisions we need to have good information. If Facebook is just giving us what it thinks that we want, it means it’s confirming our biases and it’s, in some ways, intellectually incapacitating us. The implications for democracy are pretty catastrophic.
Brett McKay: Yeah, no. So, the existential threat. You know, the thing, the democratization, and the worsening of quality of content, Instagram comedians are the bane of my existence, and YouTube comedians. They’re not funny at all, but they do well on the platform for some reason, I don’t know. I’m on this mission to take down Instagram comedians, all right. We’ll see if we can make it happen.
Franklin Foer: You know what, I hadn’t really fully appreciated the ways in which my thesis could be spun off and applied to other vectors of human life.
Brett McKay: I think so, yeah.
Franklin Foer: Yeah.
Brett McKay: I think Jerry Seinfeld has complained about that. Before comedians and people who write for television, they were put through the wringer, right. You no longer have to do that, as a consequence you don’t really get the cream anymore rising to the top.
Franklin Foer: Right, right.
Brett McKay: So, what’s the solution to this? Is it just, okay, you said it’s like we don’t have to give up on the internet, but what do we do to counter that? Yeah, what can we do on a personal level and maybe on a societal level?
Franklin Foer: Right. So, we’ve talked a little bit about some of the policy solutions, about the return, possibility of taking those anti-monopoly laws that have grown so dusty and hauling them off the shelf and applying them. I think we could even think about breaking up some of these companies. The Europeans are moving to, in a way, break up Google, try to separate some of its advertising business from some of its search business. I could easily imagine doing the same thing to Facebook here. It’s gobsmacking, just truly gobsmacking, that there’s no law protecting your data given how intimate … You know, we tell our machines things that we would never tell our friends and these companies are sitting there holding that data, sometimes selling it on the open market, and it needs to be protected.
On a personal level, let me ask you a personal question. Do you sleep with your phone?
Brett McKay: I don’t.
Franklin Foer: Well God bless you.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Franklin Foer: When did you decide to give that up? Or did you never do it?
Brett McKay: I just never really did it. Wherever my phone ends up that’s where it ends up and that usually is not by me. So, there’s that. I also don’t have a personal Facebook account.
Franklin Foer: Wow, wow.
Brett McKay: I stopped-
Franklin Foer: You are the resistance.
Brett McKay: I am the resistance. It’s for that reason, because I’m just freaked out by how much Facebook can know about you so I was like I gotta stop that.
Franklin Foer: Well, I mean look, it’s really hard. It’s almost better to not start than to engage and try to disengage because the human reasons for being drawn to these devices, the way in which we crave attention, the way in which all of our anxieties and insecurities are amplified by these devices, it’s kind of horrifying. Once you’re stuck in their experiment it’s very, very hard to get out. I struggle with this. I honestly struggle with this. I don’t have Facebook on my phone anymore, I chill all of the notifications on my phone, I try not to sleep with my phone, although there are nights where I find myself kind of doing it because I want to listen to a podcast, say, or because you need your alarm, you don’t have an old-fashioned alarm clock nearby because you’re traveling or what have you. Facebook is just, it’s like, I don’t really do a whole lot of posting on it but the voyeuristic aspect of it is so real.
I don’t know if you use Twitter, but when you tweet something you sit around waiting to see how people respond to it. It’s this craving of affirmation and this desire not to say something that causes people to shame you. The emotions that they’re messing with are really powerful.
I would just say, we’ve got lots of other powerful forces in our lives when it comes to the foods that we eat and our compulsion to chow down, there’s alcohol or what have you, and we’ve learnt to eat and drink with relative moderation, except for some outlier cases. I think it’s possible, even despite all the powerful forces at work, to do the same thing with technology, just to use it in a balanced way where you’re able reap its benefits without permitting yourself to be a lab rat in their experiment.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Yeah, I don’t have a problem with the social networks like Facebook or Twitter. Amazon is the one that freaks me out because we do have Alexa in our house and I don’t know about Alexa. I’m a little suspicious of her now. I don’t know if she’s always listening to what I’m saying. Could be, I don’t know.
Franklin Foer: Whoa. It’s amazing you having a question about that. Of course Alexa is always listening.
Brett McKay: Well yeah, that’s right. If you say “Alexa” she’s like, “What’s up?”
Franklin Foer: Yeah.
Brett McKay: But is she also listening to just conversations? They could do that. Amazon could sneak something in their terms of service. They’re like we do this and then when you go to amazon.com you see a recommended product for this thing you were talking about with your wife. That could happen. That’s creepy, that’s really creepy.
Franklin Foer: Yeah. Well, it’s kind of the design, right? These companies, these devices are supposed to know you in a way that’s better than you know yourself and that way they can anticipate your desires and they can … I mean, this is another aspect in which individuals and individuality is threatened. These companies want you to offload decision making onto them. So, here’s the creepiest thing that I think is bubbling up. I don’t know if you’ve listened to either Zuckerberg or Elon Musk talk about how they want to read your brain waves?
Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, I don’t like that.
Franklin Foer: I don’t know how the hell that could happen. I mean, it seems so outrageous to me that that could actually be developed just on a scientific level. I don’t get it. Then again, I never really imagined that you would have a hand-held device where you’d be able to watch every television show ever created or every book ever read. That was a fantasy that was beyond my wildest imaginations as a kid, so maybe they can pull it off.
Brett McKay: Maybe they can pull it off. Yeah, they want you to become part of the hive mind, the nuu, is it nuu? N-u-u or something like that? I dunno.
Franklin Foer: The idea that Facebook could, like I wouldn’t even need to type, I could just think and it would suddenly post or it would suddenly reveal whatever my inner thoughts are. It seems to me, to basically, that kind of exposes the agenda of the company, right? That that’s their next end goal. That is the complete disappearance of privacy when someone’s able to read your brain.
Brett McKay: Yeah, Zuckerberg has made that, like, he wants that to happen. He wants to get rid of privacy.
Franklin Foer: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Because he says it’s good for society, right? You put it all out in the air-
Franklin Foer: Look, if there was the possibility of your girlfriend knowing that you were cheating on her you wouldn’t cheat, and that’s kind of basically what he’s saying because of that. That’s basically what he’s saying, if our public selves merged with our private selves we would be morally better human beings. He also claims we would be more forgiving of other people because everybody would constantly be making mistakes and those mistakes would be exposed.
You’re right, I mean, I find it fascinating to sit there and read through everything that he’s said on this subject, simply because it’s so radical and there’s such a loud view of human nature embedded in what he’s saying and it creeps the hell out of me.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I mean, also going back to the idea of diminished individuality, if you know your thoughts are being read you are less likely to engage with possibly, I don’t know what to say, just like risky thoughts, risky ideas. That could put a stifle on all sorts of things: scientific advancements, advancements in psychology, et cetera, et cetera.
Franklin Foer: Yeah, were you just reading my brain right now?
Brett McKay: Yeah, I was.
Franklin Foer: That was what I was thinking.
Brett McKay: You’re already kind of seeing that already. People censor themselves, self-censor, online because you might get, you know, it gets picked up on Twitter and then the mob comes out with the pitchforks.
Franklin Foer: It’s not even just on Twitter. Here’s an example from everyday life, which is when I started working, offices were a thing then. You had doors that you could close while you were working and people would come into your office and you could talk behind closed doors with them. If you had an idea that you were thinking about for some new thing, you could tell somebody that new idea in private without worrying about the embarrassment of saying something stupid or saying something that was offensive. Now, everybody works in an open office space and conversations happen on Slack, or other chat platforms, so every idea is now turned around in public. If you have a new idea you’re not closing the door, you have to think before you post and so you become more cautious in pitching your ideas. You become more terrified about offending or about … You become, as you say, less subversive, you become less innovative, you become flattened as an individual in that type of environment.
Brett McKay: Right, which goes against the argument that the Silicon Valley make that open source stuff leads to better things. It’s not necessarily the case.
Franklin Foer: No. I don’t know why, I mean, these things become so ideological in Silicon Valley, where openness, transparency, these things become so ubiquitous that they try to force onto everybody else. In some instances they’re great, they work really well. Wikipedia is an amazing thing and we don’t want Wikipedia to disappear. It’s a great example of collaboration working, but I don’t think that necessarily should become our foundational belief for the future of human civilization, which is the way that they tend to carry their ideas.
Brett McKay: So, I’m curious, have you noticed any weird things with your book on Amazon or Facebook because of the things you say about them?
Franklin Foer: Yeah, man. I gotta know why I’m not number one on The New York Times Bestsellers List. I think it’s Amazon keeping me down. No, I don’t think they’re messing with me.
Brett McKay: Right. As I was reading this I was like, “Okay, I wonder if Amazon’s going to put the kibosh on his book.” Well, Franklin, this has been a great conversation. We’re can people go to learn more about the book?
Franklin Foer: Well, there’s this invention called ‘the Internet.’ I don’t love it in its entirety, but I like a lot of it. If you were to go to, you know, fire up DuckDuckGo or Bing.
Brett McKay: DuckDuck … Yeah, that’s what I use for search. That’s my default search too. I’m trying to do what I can to fight. Yeah, I’m part of the resistance.
Franklin Foer: Well, you know what? Here’s something. I want to let your listeners in on a secret. If you get in your car, somewhere within the proximity of your house I think that there might be a store where they sell books.
Brett McKay: Oh, yeah. Okay.
Franklin Foer: Yeah.
Brett McKay: So not Amazon? Go to a store.
Franklin Foer: Yeah, I mean look, far be it from me to dissuade your listeners from buying my book on Amazon. If they bought my book on Amazon, look, this is a judgment-free zone, so I don’t think that they should feel any sense of social programming for doing that.
Brett McKay: We’re big proponents of being an individual.
Franklin Foer: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Rugged individual. You do what you want.
Franklin Foer: Yeah.
Brett McKay: All right. Well, hey, Franklin Foer, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Franklin Foer: Okay, real fun. Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Franklin Foer, he’s the author of the book World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. It’s available, of course, on Amazon, which we talked about today, or if you don’t want to do that go to your local bookstore and pick up a copy there as well. Also, check out his show notes at aom.is/worldwithoutmind where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoyed the podcast or got something out of it I would appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already thank you so much, please share this show with your friends. That’s how the show grows, is word of mouth.
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