Are big tech companies trying to control our lives?


HARI SREENIVASAN: But first: Tech giants are increasingly under scrutiny from politicians, regulators and experts on the left and the right. Some are concerned about their growing power, even calling them monopolies.

And the tension keeps building, whether over privacy, politics or the displacement of workers by automation. Yet their role in contemporary life certainly isn't shrinking.

We, too, at the NewsHour have worked and collaborated with Facebook, Google and many other new media businesses. A new book zeros in on some of these criticisms.

Economics correspondent Paul Solman has a conversation for his weekly series, Making Sense.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, what's the problem?

FRANKLIN FOER, Author, "World Without Mind": Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple are among the most powerful monopolies in the history of humanity.

PAUL SOLMAN: Journalist Franklin Foer, former editor of "The New Republic" magazine, author of the new book "World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech."

FRANKLIN FOER: So, the problem is, is that they have tremendous ability to shape the way that we think, the way that we filter the world, the way that we absorb culture.

And if they were just companies, maybe we shouldn't be so concerned about them, but they play an incredibly vital role in the health of our democracy.

PAUL SOLMAN: The most powerful gatekeepers ever, Foer calls them, the first, second, fourth and fifth most valuable companies on the U.S. stock market. Microsoft is third.

Add them together, and they account for some 10 percent of the stock price of the S&P 500.

FRANKLIN FOER: And it's not just the size of these companies that we should be worried about. Their ambitions are to essentially control the entirety of human existence.

And I know that sounds outrageous, but it's true. They're trying to stay with us from the moment that we wake up in the morning until the moment that we go to bed at night. They want to become our personal assistants. They want to become the vehicles to deliver us news, entertainment, to track our health. They want to obey our every beck and call through Amazon Alexa and Google Home.




PAUL SOLMAN: But corporate titans have always wanted to control everything. John D. Rockefeller, oil, but the trains that bring you the oil.

FRANKLIN FOER: Yes. You're right. We have always had ambitious corporations, but we have never had everything stores and everything companies in quite this sort of way.

And I think the crucial difference is that John D. Rockefeller never really set out to control the way that you think or to shape the way that you think.

PAUL SOLMAN: Worse still, Foer claims, we don't realize what's happening to us as a result.

FRANKLIN FOER: Fifty years ago, the way that we consumed food was revolutionized. We began eating processed foods, and it seemed amazing.

And then we woke up many, many decades later, and we realized that food was engineered to make us fat. And I think that these companies are doing the same thing with the stuff that we ingest through our brains. They're attempting to addict us, and they're addicting us on the basis of data.

So, right now, Facebook wants to make money off of video. And so, even though I prefer words to video, it's giving me video constantly when I look at my Facebook feed. And even though I'm somebody who likes to read conservatives, likes to read people on the far left, it's essentially only giving me screeds against Donald Trump, because that's what, based on my data, it thinks that I want.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, it's actually even funneling you. I mean, it's narrowing your vision in terms…

FRANKLIN FOER: It's funneling my vision. It's leading me to a view of the world. And it may not be Facebook's view of the world, but it's the view of the world that will make Facebook the most money.

PAUL SOLMAN: You use the word pander several times in the book, pander to our taste. But what could be better, says economics, than that we get exactly what we want.


PAUL SOLMAN: That's consumer preference. That's the whole point.


Well, that's fine when it comes to picking out socks and diapers, but it's different when it comes to the information that we use to understand and process democracy. We exist right now in two separate political tribes. And those tribes are delivered information that confirms their biases, and that does pander to their instincts.

It tells them what they want to hear.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, wait a second. I have got The New York Times here. I subscribe. The New York Times is a gatekeeper kind of pandering to my interests, isn't it?

FRANKLIN FOER: Well, The New York Times and PBS are gatekeepers of a sort. And they perform that role of gatekeeping with a set of rules and aspirations about where they want to lead their viewers and their readers.

They value objective facts, and they attempt to transmit a comprehensive view of the world. And they do have values. And they do lead their viewers and their readers to certain conclusions. But it's different than these companies which are dissecting information into these bits and pieces, which they're then transmitting to people. And it's about — really, it's about clicks.

PAUL SOLMAN: A vivid example, Cecil the lion.

FRANKLIN FOER: So, Cecil the lion was killed by a hunter from Minnesota who posted a picture on the Internet, and this picture went viral.

It became — it generated 3.2 million articles, according to The New York Times.

PAUL SOLMAN: Articles. This is not hits?

FRANKLIN FOER: Articles. Articles.

And so every publication saw that this was a topic that was trending on Facebook, and they tried to glom onto it. And so everybody wanted their piece of this traffic rush. And so even publications that we couldn't respect more, like "The New Yorker" or "The Atlantic," ended up writing pieces about Cecil the lion.

And the reason that this is important is, it shows the way in which something that's kind of relatively trivial can go viral, and it also shows the way in which we have a certain amount of conformism in our culture.

And my argument is that Donald Trump started off as a curiosity and a joke, but the media glommed onto Donald Trump and covered him, perhaps even when he didn't deserve coverage, because he brought clicks.

PAUL SOLMAN: In your book, you say this all began with hippies, basically, a hippy, Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Catalog.


So, one of the fantastic things about Silicon Valley is that it's both the birthplace of technology and it was one of the birthplaces of the counterculture. The Internet and the personal computer were going to be like the communes, where we would all be networked together, and we would be able to achieve this state of global consciousness.

PAUL SOLMAN: And it was utterly benign. It was a benign vision, right?

FRANKLIN FOER: It was a beautiful vision. And so, the idea of this network in one context could be this hippy dream, but in another context could be the basis for the biggest monopolies in human history.

PAUL SOLMAN: And that's what we have got?

FRANKLIN FOER: That's what we have got.

PAUL SOLMAN: Shortly after we talked, Foer's fears appeared to be supported. The liberal Washington-based think tank New America, recipient of millions in funding from Google, announced it'd fired scholar Barry Lynn, just after he criticized Google's monopoly power.

New America denied that Google forced the firing.

But Foer, once a New America fellow himself, wrote to say it's a prime example of the abuse of power he's worried about.

Finally, how do the tech companies respond to Foer and his concerns? We solicited their thoughts on Foer's book. Amazon declined to comment on the record. Google, Facebook, and Apple didn't respond.

For the PBS NewsHour, economics correspondent Paul Solman, reporting from Washington, D.C.

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