The inventions of our age baffle the mind—and their potential affects on us and the world are hard to even wrap our heads around. But with the help of Franklin Foer and Robert Lustig, you’ll be able to do just that.
World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech by Franklin Foer, Penguin Press, 272 pages, Hardcover, September 2017, ISBN 9781101981115
The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains by Robert H. Lustig, MD, MSL, Avery, 352 pages, Hardcover, Septmerber 2017, ISBN 9781101982587
The inventions of our age baffle the mind—are hard to even wrap our heads around. Today’s tech monopolies and the moguls atop them inspire the popular imagination and drive popular culture. But is the rise of the internet and big tech really more transformational than the spreading network of railroads and the communication revolution of the telegraph that sprang up around it in the nineteenth century? Are any of today’s founders or companies as influential or iconic as Thomas Edison and General Electric, or their inventions as essential, still, to our everyday life as the electric light bulb? Are they more wondrous than the phonograph or motion picture camera, more seemingly magical than the first wireless transmissions of radio and television that beamed entertainment into our very homes? Have they changed the way we sustain ourselves on a daily basis more than the industrialization of food production, and preparation, that occurred in the middle of the last century, which freed so many (mostly women) from that laborious task day in and day out?
It is that last example, ostensibly the most mundane, that may be the most informative when considering the present moment. In his new book, World Without Mind, Franklin Foer makes a direct analogy:
Something like the midcentury food revolution is now reordering the production and consumption of knowledge. Our intellectual habits are being scrambled by the dominant firms. Just as Nabisco and Kraft wanted to change how we eat and what we eat, Amazon, Facebook, and Google aspire to alter how we read and what we read. The biggest tech companies are, among other things, the most powerful gatekeepers the world has ever known.
We know that our modern diet has had deleterious effects on our health, but we’re now hurtling headlong into a future that does the same with our intellectual and information diet. In The Hacking of the American Mind, Robert H. Lustig takes on both. Before becoming a practicing pediatric endocrinologist, treating hormone problems in children, Lustig trained as a neuroscientist for over 16 years, and gives the reader a very quick crash course in the neuroscience behind his argument. It largely comes down to a difference in the dopamine (reward) and serotonin (contentment) signals. Lustig’s book is mostly about diet and addiction, but he does venture into the more modern addictions to our devices and social media platforms, noting that the way we consume them, like the way we consume food, is leading us into addiction and depression. The basic premise of the book is that there is a fundamental and meaningful difference between pleasure (or reward), and happiness (or contentment), and that chasing the former has led to drastic reduction in the latter in our society:
In the last half century, America and most of the Western world have become more and more unhappy, sicker, and broke as well. Marketing, media, and technology have capitalized on subverting our brain physiology to their advantage in order to veer us away from the pursuit of happiness to the pursuit of pleasure, which for them of course equals the pursuit of profit. Fueling our quest for reward has only contributed to the epidemics of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and dementia, which are eating away at our health, our health care system, and the fabric of our society.
All this, Lustig contends, “Because we’ve abdicated happiness for pleasure. Because pleasure got cheap.”
You can say the same for information. Stewart Brand once proclaimed that “Information wants to be free,” and it has largely become so—or at least very cheap—thanks to Google, Facebook, and Amazon. And yet, “By collapsing the value of knowledge,” Franklin Foer asserts, “they have diminished the quality of it.” Foer is a journalist, and his assessment of our intellectual health is just as dire as Lustig’s is for our physical health:
The tech companies are destroying something precious, which is the possibility of contemplation. They have created a world in which we’re constantly watched and always distracted. Through their accumulation of data, they have constructed a portrait of our minds, which they use to invisibly guide mass behavior (and increasingly individual behavior) to further their financial interests. They have eroded the integrity of institutions—media, publishing—that supply the intellectual material that provokes thought and guides democracy. Their most precious asset is our most precious asset, our attention, and they have abused it.
Throughout our history, calories and information have both been scarce. What happens when they become abundant, and we binge on them without thinking about how it will affect our health? That experiment is currently underway, we are all its subjects, and the science is largely in. With regards to information, Foer explains how those early experiments at places like Upworthy, Gawker, Buzzfeed, and other “emerging internet behemoths [showed] that editorial success could be engineered”:
The emerging science of traffic was really a branch of behavioral psychology … Psychologists have discovered that a state of unquenchable curiosity could be cultivated. Humans are comfortable with ignorance, but they hate feeling deprived of information.
We are now living in an age of information obesity. And it’s still in its infancy. While Google provides useful tools, and enhances efficiency and convenience, it has much greater aspirations. They aim to alter human evolution itself:
As [Google cofounder Sergei] Brin once told the journalist Steven Levy, “Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” Or as he added on a separate occasion, “Perhaps in the future, we can attach a little version of Google that you just plug into your brain.”
Just last week, Elon Musk made headlines when he announced that Neuralink—a company he announced earlier this year to develop "ultrahigh-bandwidth brain-computer interfaces" that aims to eventually merge man and machine—has raised $27 million. Foer, in a World Without Mind, provides a prescient warning:
The problem is that when we outsource our thinking to machines, we are really outsourcing thinking to the organizations that run the machines.
Ironically, for its current libertarian leanings, the Silicon Valley ethos has its foundations in the collectivist counterculture of the 1960s, which had its epicenter just to the north in San Francisco. The idea of a more egalitarian, communal future was crucial to tech’s development, and remains intact in its focus on collaboration, open offices, and crowd sourcing. Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, a sort of Sears catalog for hippie communes in the late ’60s and early ’70s, became a foundational text—Steve Jobs called it “one of the bibles of my generation”—of Silicon Valley. Brand was an early proponent of the computer as a tool of “personal liberation communal connection.” And while the tech giants of today outwardly espouse similar values, they belie a more paternalistic, almost authoritarian, streak—and the simple fact that, rather than just abolishing the old guard, they have simply erected their own ad revenue toll road in front of the old guard:
Sixty-two percent of Americans get their news through social media, and most of it via Facebook; a third of all traffic to media sites flows from Google.
Meanwhile, Amazon sells “65 percent of all e-books and over 40 percent of all books.” They have all simultaneously built the largest surveillance networks in human history, so they are not only undermining intellectual property, they are essentially abolishing the idea of intellectual privacy in the process. All the while, “By collapsing the value of knowledge,” Foer asserts, “they have diminished the quality of it.” It is for this reason, Foer believes:
The threat of bigness posed by Amazon, Facebook, and Google is a threat to self-government.
In Lustig’s view, “America has devolved from the aspirational, achievement-oriented ‘city on a hill’ we once were,” already, “into the addicted and depressed society we’ve now become.” So how do we turn the tide? Look again to the industrialization of food, and the grassroots backlash to it, the slow food, farm-to-table, organic food movement. Foer argues that there must be an organic revolution in culture that matches the one being made in agriculture, one that begins with producers:
Media must denounce their most recent phase, to lead a rebellion against the processed, ephemeral, speed-based writing encouraged by the tech companies.
There will still be a lot of junk food available out there, but when enough people value intellectual health on both an individual and societal level to pay for it, we could start turning things around. And just as we turned back to traditional ways of growing, preparing, and enjoying our food, he counsels we turn back to a more tactile, hands on form of consuming information:
When we read words on paper, we’re removed from the notifications, pings, and other urgencies summoning us away from our thoughts. The page permits us, for a time in our day, to decouple from the machine, to tend to our human core.
While none of big food or big techs efforts may rise to the level of conspiracy, there is certainly a concerted effort to keep the rules written in their favor (or better yet, not written at all), and big tech, especially, has been enormously successful in its lobbying efforts to do just that—and not pay much, if any, taxes, to boot. But what we still have is our ability to advocate for a change as citizens, and an agency to make healthier choices individuals—as tough as that may be in the face of industrial engineering that knows how to hook people on their products. We will need to exercise both. We don't need to abolish these inventions—we can't—we simply need to stay informed about the unanticipated negative effects they are having on us and our society. They are inventions that baffle the mind, that are hard to even wrap our head around. But with the help of Franklin Foer and Robert Lustig, you’ll be able to do just that.