Editor’s note: Franklin Foer, a former editor of the “New Republic,” is the author of the new book, “World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.” Foer argues that the corporate ambitions of four major technology companies — Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple, or “GAFA” — are “shredding the principles that protect individuality. Their devices and sites have collapsed privacy.”
NewsHour business and economics correspondent Paul Solman sat down recently with Foer at his home in Washington, where he offered his thoughts on the big tech corporations, the media, “fake news” and what we can do about it.
In his words:
On Google’s influence:
Google’s ability to pick winners and losers in the information world is a menace. These companies have the ability to determine which media companies are successful and which ones are failures. If I adopt a business plan that doesn’t line up with Google’s, then they’re not going to reward me. If I produce content in a way that somehow doesn’t accord with the values of their algorithms, they’re not going to reward me … That gives them incredible power in our society.
Google likes to pretend that it’s neutral. That it’s this scientific search engine that’s just about the mathematics that leads it to say one thing is more important than another … Who knows why those are better than others? Only Google. They don’t explain their algorithm to anybody else. It’s highly un-transparent.
On Facebook’s algorithms:
If I’m reading my Facebook feed, it’s using algorithms, procedures and methods to give me what I want, or what it thinks that I want, or what suits its business plan.
Right now, Facebook wants to make money off of video. So, even though I prefer words to video, it’s giving me video constantly. 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.
On our dependence on Amazon:
Booksellers initially thought of Amazon as their best friend. They were coming in and they were challenging Barnes and Noble, and Borders, which were the big, dominant corporations of the day, and that they would disrupt them and make them less powerful, but they could never envision that Amazon would overtake them all.
The problem is that, as producers of books, we’re utterly dependent on Amazon. And Amazon has the ability to pick winners and losers in the book world just as Facebook and Google pick winners and losers in the information world. And that’s just too much power to be invested in one company.
On Apple’s disruption of the music and TV industries:
I’m a little bit less hard on Apple in the book because they’ve been less successful at being an informational gatekeeper in some ways than Google or Facebook.
Apple was very important in terms of disrupting the music business and remaking the television business. They made it harder for people to make money on the things that they produce. In news, they’ve created Apple News and they’ve tried to steer people towards information. It is important, and it is powerful, but it’s not quite the same power that Google and Facebook have when it comes to the distribution of information.
On the media:
Our media companies — even the New York Times and the Washington Post — are extremely dependent on Google and Facebook for their traffic. Their readership has declined in terms of subscribers. So, in order to thrive, they have to get viewers and readers through Facebook and Google. They adopt the techniques that Google and Facebook reward. And, in the case of politics, the thing that they reward are the things that tell us what we want to hear …
Media companies are profit making enterprises. But they’re also companies that serve an important democratic function, and at a certain point there’s tension between their profit making motive and their democratic motive.
On fake news:
When you see an article on Facebook, it’s an article on Facebook. It’s not necessarily an article from the New York Times or Fox News.
People stopped paying attention to the source. They stopped thinking about the authority of the source, and it just becomes this stew. We’re constantly taking spoonfuls from the stew, not really thinking about what vegetables we’re putting in our mouth and what pieces of meat we’re putting in our mouth.
That’s the problem. That’s why fake news, or less credible theories, are able to flourish.
These companies are using our data. They act as if they own that data, but really that data is ours. It’s a reflection of our psyches, it’s a reflection of our personal history. It’s ourselves in numeric form.
I think the fact that they’re using something that doesn’t fully belong to them requires certain obligations of them. It’s like the environment. We allow companies to degrade the environment. The environment doesn’t belong to them, but we say, “Okay, you can do a little bit of polluting. You can do a little bit of logging. You can do these things that we all suffer from to a certain extent because that’s capitalism.” But, on the other hand, we say, “because you’re using the environment, there’s certain obligations that you have. You can’t abuse the environment too much.”
I think the same thing should be true for our data. These companies should be allowed to exploit our data to some extent, but we need to put more severe restrictions on them about how they can degrade our data because it does not belong to them …
This conversation, edited for length and clarity, is part of a longer interview with Foer about his new book. Watch the full report on Thursday’s NewsHour broadcast.