World Without Mind by Franklin Foer review – the turn against Big Tech

It’s open season on Silicon Valley, for obvious reasons. But we can have both Twitter and Turgenev, and this book fails to see the new forms of collectivity created by the internet

Once upon a time, everybody loved the internet. It would make us freer, richer, smarter. It would make us better citizens, better consumers, better humans. This gospel of digital optimism first arrived in the 1990s, when the dotcom boom made it something of a religion. And somehow it persisted, long after the rest of the decade’s delusions washed away.

It’s only relatively recently that this faith has begun to unravel. Later historians will pinpoint the precise moment, but two obvious traumas stand out: the revelations of Edward Snowden and the election of Donald Trump. The first demonstrated how much the companies who own the internet know about you, and how easily that knowledge can be acquired by government agencies. The second illustrated how deeply the tech industry shapes the public sphere, and how little it cares about basic civic norms.

Now, suddenly, it’s open season on Silicon Valley. Even our mildest commentators and most purchased politicians are finding the courage to say critical things. The tech industry still gets everything it wants, of course, and the spectre of meaningful regulation remains distant, at least in the US. But the narrative has shifted. The dotcom dream, stubborn residue of the 1990s, has died.

Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind belongs to this turn. And it couldn’t have appeared at a more opportune moment, with the news cycle constantly feasting on fresh infusions of tech mischief, from Facebook’s fondness for Russian trolls to Google’s forced reorganisation of a major Washington thinktank. Foer is writing for a readership that is ready to re-evaluate the role technology plays in their lives, and to pay closer, less credulous attention to the companies that are building it.

To his credit, he seizes the opportunity. This is not a book of small, gentle criticisms. According to Foer, Silicon Valley threatens our souls and our civilisation. Big tech companies, he believes, are on a global crusade “to mould humanity into their desired image of it”. And this moulding is highly destructive. It involves the demolition of privacy, individuality, creativity, free will, competitive markets, the media and publishing industries, the distinction between facts and lies, the possibility for political compromise, and the space for solitary contemplation.

The book describes these demolitions in detail, dwelling in particular on Google, Facebook and Amazon. In Foer’s telling, Google wants to hijack human evolution by stockpiling all information and using it to build an artificial mind. Facebook wants to automate away our capacity to think and choose in order to forge a more harmonious social whole. Amazon wants to make knowledge worthless and to kill the traditions that nurture creativity, culture and complex thought.

Your receptiveness to these claims will probably have a lot to do with how technology has touched your life. Foer is candid about how it’s touched his. He writes as someone with skin in the game – as someone who has already lost some skin, in fact. He not only comes from a magazine industry decimated by Silicon Valley, but is the former editor of a journal that has a specifically tormented history with tech.

In 2012, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes bought the New Republic, and hired Foer as editor, a position he had previously held from 2006 to 2010. Foer says their relationship began well, then soured when Hughes demanded they turn a profit by becoming “a technology company”, which essentially meant chasing clicks more aggressively. In 2014, Hughes fired Foer, triggering an editorial crisis that resulted in the resignation of two thirds of the staff.

Foer writes about his time at the New Republic vividly. He comes across as a humane and honourable editor, the kind any writer would want to write for. He tries to resist the rising power of corporate sponsors, who want to peddle propaganda via “native advertising”. He tries to resist the ruthless Taylorisation of his contributors into streams of clickable content, ranked by their traffic metrics. Above all, he tries to resist the deprofessionalisation of literary labour, as the economics of writing deteriorate to the point of pauperism.

One can admire these acts of defiance without sharing all of Foer’s nostalgia for the worlds that Silicon Valley killed. After all, the New Republic often played a toxic role in American political life. Its longtime former owner, Marty Peretz, on many occasions expressed anti-Muslim sentiments, and its 1994 publication of excerpts from Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve supported the “race realism” that survives to this day.

More broadly, the institutions that Foer celebrates for their stewardship of the public sphere in the era before big tech sometimes stewarded it poorly. Those of us who grew up with the Iraq war rather than Watergate may find it harder to recall a time when journalists placed meaningful constraints on power. Not that we’re better served by having Facebook as our information overlord. But there’s no doubt that the digital dismemberment of old media has cleared space for new voices. Ideas long banished by editorial boards can now bubble up into the mainstream, propelled by the internet and the communities it sustains.

These communities couldn’t exist without new technologies of connectivity. And this connectivity is what Foer fears the most: the “hive mind”, he calls it. In Silicon Valley, he sees not merely an industry but a forced collectivisation campaign aimed at melting us down into a Borg-like mass. Solitary genius is replaced by the wisdom of the crowd. The networked mob enforces conformism. Algorithms make it impossible to think for ourselves.

Leaving aside the question of whether this characterisation is accurate, the more pressing question is whether it’s politically useful. Because Foer sees collectivism as the problem, he has trouble imagining collective solutions. He proposes that we each make a personal commitment to consuming more artisanal forms of culture. He asks us to forgo the easy pleasures of technology in favour of “the sustaining nourishment of the contemplative life” – a slow-food movement of the soul.

But there are many who don’t find the contemplative life all that nourishing, and others who prefer to draw their nourishment from the new forms of collectivity created by the internet. Telling these people to read more books will do little to curb Silicon Valley’s growing power over our lives. At best, it amounts to a lifestyle choice; at worst, it risks alienating potential participants in a political movement to tame the tech industry.

Politics is about giving people stuff, not making them eat their vegetables. With scepticism about Silicon Valley reaching a record high, there’s never been a better time to advance a vision for how to organise technology in a way that benefits everyone, not just a handful of executives and investors. “We have deluded ourselves into caring more deeply about convenience and efficiency than about the things that last,” Foer writes. This is a false choice. We can have Twitter and Turgenev. We can keep our humanity intact while enjoying the new tools tech has built – and use politics to make them better.

• Ben Tarnoff is editor of Tech Against Trump, published by Logic magazine. World Without Mind is published by Jonathan Cape. To order a copy for £16.14 (RRP £18.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Ben Tarnoff

The GuardianTramp

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