The Sunday Magazine·The Sunday Edition

The anti-democratic reign of Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon

Franklin Foer believes the hegemony of the Big Four poses grave dangers for democracy in the digital age. His book is called “World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.”
Franklin Foer believes the hegemony of the Big Four poses grave dangers for democracy in the digital age. (Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images)

This segment originally aired on Oct. 15, 2017.

There were no smartphones as we know them until a decade ago. Now, nearly two-thirds of all North Americans own smartphones. And ninety-nine percent of those phones run on software by Apple or Google.

Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon have come to dominate their markets. And they've done so by creating products that people wanted.

But to Franklin Foer, their hegemony in the digital age poses grave dangers for democracy, let alone the principle of competition.

Franklin Foer's new book reveals the existential threat posed by big tech (Penguin Random House)
There would be a public uproar if governments in Western democracies did as much to monopolize our attention, our minds and our way of life.

Foer is a former editor of The New Republic magazine, and he's currently a national correspondent for The Atlantic. His new book is a jeremiad against the digital oligarchs called World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.

Foer sees a handful of huge corporations dominating our conscious lives and shaping our consciousness itself.

"We already outsource a lot to these technologies," he says. "They've become appendages of us, and we're not far from the day when these devices will be implanted in our (brains), when they'll be creating the virtual reality we're going to inhabit."

For Foer, the fundamental question is the existential threat that this tech domination poses to the human race. 

"The threat comes from the fact that these tools are not just hammers; they're not neutral devices. They're machines that are operated by corporations, and those corporations are trying to manipulate those machines in order to generate profit," he says.

And, he's concerned about the ways in which corporations like Facebook impact access to information.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. (Getty)
While Facebook gives the appearance of news and information being organically shared and "curated by human beings," it is in fact sorting that information, he says.

"It's using algorithms to determine what you want to see first ... using its data to try to figure out what is the thing that's going to keep you on the site the longest," Foer adds.

Foer believes that the grand mechanisms at work by Facebook in using data to toy with people's emotions are mostly imperceptible to those using it to get information.

"All we need to do is look at the last election in the United States to see the ways in which this system that Facebook created can go wrong," the author says.

Franklin Foer is currently a national correspondent for The Atlantic. (Evy Mages)
Concerns about big media companies acting as massive gatekeepers of news, culture and information are nothing new.

But, for Foer, what's most troubling now is that the number of these gatekeepers has shrunk — giving immense control to just a handful of corporations.

"Their power lies in the fact that everything is the internet now. There's nothing that's disconnected from the internet. And so if you can control that gate, if you can control that portal to the web, then you've amassed unprecedented powers."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview. 


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