Franklin Foer is the author of the new book World Without Mind: The Existential threat of Big Tech. His other books include How Soccer Explains the World. He is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and was the editor of The New Republic.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and why did you choose to focus on Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon?
A: The book is fairly autobiographical in the sense that it grew out of my own experiences as a writer witnessing Amazon’s role as a monopolist, and my experience editing The New Republic, where I had worked with a co-founder of Facebook and had a unique view into journalism’s dependence on Facebook corrupting it.
So much [of our] knowledge and culture has grown so dependent on these four companies. I had the biggest worries about the damage they are doing…
Q: As you mentioned, throughout the book you discuss your own experiences at The New Republic. How would you describe the overall impact of the tech industry on yourself and on journalism overall?
A: My first job in journalism was at Slate, then owned by Microsoft. I started optimistic about technology’s potential for extending journalism. But over time I have grown more pessimistic. The whole idea of magazines and newspapers has been taken apart. Everything is an individual piece promoted on Facebook or Twitter, separate from the institution.
It’s had the effect of destroying the character of institutions and flattening journalism. Everything has become more and more the same.
Q: What do you see looking ahead?
A: In a way I’m pretty optimistic. Since I wrote the book [the situation] has changed pretty dramatically about the big tech companies and journalism. We’ve experienced a backlash against the companies that I thought was years off into the future, and journalism has found itself in response to Donald Trump…
Q: I was going to ask you, what role do you see the tech companies playing in the rise of Donald Trump?
A: It’s been kind of shocking to watch Facebook, at first saying they had no role in spreading fake news, and over time we see the scale of it all. Donald Trump was not elected because of Facebook, or because of the mistakes the media made, but when journalism or tech stares at itself in the mirror, it has to assume some responsibility for the rise of Donald Trump.
Q: In what way?
A: It’s pretty tricky because to get to some core issues, Facebook talked about wanting to take more responsibility for fake news, and should do it, but that also calls attention to their power—Facebook then is the one deciding what’s true and not true. There are going to be some earnest, ideological websites that will pay the price and get demoted.
None of these issues is simple. The most clear is the issue of power. We want to be cautious having power concentrated in too few hands. We want to create a pluralistic environment. I don’t pretend the questions are simple.
Q: You quote Thomas Jefferson at the start of the book, “The glow of one warm thought is to me worth more than money.” Why did you choose that particular quotation?
A: Thomas Jefferson is a character who looms throughout the book. Jefferson was somebody who cared deeply about protecting intellectual property and was worried about the dangers of monopoly. He wanted anti-monopoly provisions in the Constitution. He was a humanist. He thought one end of government should be the promotion of quality media, a life of ideas. He managed to live that life himself but wanted it for the everyday citizen too.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m writing for The Atlantic—finishing up lots of pieces that I was supposed to do while I was on my book tour!
And I’m working on a book about Russia. It connects to a lot of the issues in this book. Russia also helped usher in a world where disinformation flourished, privacy is under threat, and ideological extremes have more traction than before.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Questions about technology are fundamentally spiritual questions. As we fight to preserve our attention and our capacity for independent thought, we’re fighting for the core of our spiritual being. In my synagogue on Yom Kippur, the rabbi spoke about phones and the way they draw us away from being truly present in the world…
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Franklin Foer will be speaking at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington on Dec. 7, as part of the Lessans Family Literary Series.