Franklin Foer is the author of the book World Without Mind. We cover the history of technology in culture, the dangers that current tech giants create, and if we will see a rise in movements that emphasize the detachment from technology.
Patrick: [00:00:46] My guest this week is Franklin Foer, the author of the recently published book World Without Mind. The topic of our conversation is one that I’ve been thinking through often this past year: the impact that large tech companies have on our minds and on our behavior.
This conversation is only indirectly related to markets, but given that the companies we discuss are now several of the largest companies by market cap in the global stock market what happens to them likely impacts all of our portfolios whether we own them or not. Given that these companies compete for our attention and dollars, they also affect our businesses.
As an example, my friend Brent Beshore and his team at Ad Ventures recently wrote a long and incredibly thoughtful piece on how they think about Amazon as a force in the market and how they plan on navigating around such a fierce competitor. Franklin’s book, especially the early history, is very thought-provoking, so it is no surprise that our conversation was too. Please enjoy our talk on the modern tech giants.
The Whole Earth Catalog and Silicon Valley
Patrick: [00:01:41] This is going to be an exploration of one of the most interesting topics that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, which is the role that these enormous tech companies play in our lives and the impact that they have on our minds. I love the title of your book, and given the really rich history, which is not what I was expecting at the beginning of the book, was what grabbed my attention. I was hoping we could start there. Maybe I’ll just pick a spot, because it was something that stood out, which is for you to describe what the Whole Earth Catalog is.
Franklin: [00:02:08] The Whole Earth Catalog was the creation of a hippie called Stewart Brand. Stewart Brand was sitting on top of a building in San Francisco one night and he was just coming down from LSD and he sat and he stared out across the rooftops and he just kind of had this revelation. He asked himself, “The Earth is curved. Why haven’t I ever seen a picture from outer space of the whole Earth? Not just part of the Earth but the whole Earth.”
And Stewart went around from college campus to college campus trying to hector people to create a movement for a picture of the whole Earth. He became a godfather of the environmental movement in a way because of this, but more importantly he was hanging out with Ken Kesey and the merry pranksters. One of the totally fascinating things about Silicon Valley is that it had these two things rubbing up against one another. It was the epicenter of LSD and The Grateful Dead and was really a birthplace of the 1960s. And it was also the place that gave us Steve Jobs, the internet, personal computing, and I don’t think you could’ve had one thing without the other: that innovation was actually born out of the spirit of the counter-culture.
One thing that happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s was that thousands of people decamped to go live in communes. Stewart Brand had this idea. He said, “Why don’t I just go sell stuff to help these people who are living in the communes?” He was a proponent of the idea that tools were a necessary thing for these communes to survive and that’s actually kind of expressive of a lot of the spirit of kind of the back-to-the-land utopianism as the communes.
As we know, the communes failed, but Stewart Brand ending up creating this really strange interesting book called the Whole Earth Catalog that was recommending tools and books to the people who were living out in these communes. That book, which celebrated technology as being consistent with the spirit of the counter-culture, became kind of a bible to a lot of people in that generation.
Patrick: [00:04:26] So the book itself sold some absurd amount of copies, right?
Franklin: [00:04:30] Yeah. Millions of copies.
Patrick: [00:04:31] One of the bestselling books of the time. I was surprised I had never heard of it. I went through it, and there’s a PDF of it that you can Google, and it’s this kind of magisterium bizarre collection. I almost wish there was a modern equivalent. Be something that would be fun to create: this kind of amalgamation of tools. Maybe talk about how Brand parleyed that success. He struck me as a brilliant marketer-philosopher. What happened next? And why he is responsible for the founding ethos of Silicon Valley as we think about it today?
Franklin: [00:05:06] He spent a lot of time hanging around all these programmers who were obsessed with the Whole Earth Catalog. Steve Jobs was one person who was obsessed with the Whole Earth Catalog. You had this whole crew at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center at Xerox Park, which is a legendary space for innovation and the birthplace of personal computing. In no small measure because Steve Jobs went there and saw the personal computer that they were building and he totally borrowed from it in order to create the Mac.
What Brand was really good at doing was he was very articulate and he was pithy and he was, as you say, a great marketer. He saw what was happening in these labs in Silicon Valley and he gave a name to it. He was the first person to come up with the idea of the personal computer. Not that people were developing the thing that was the personal computer, but he gave it a name and helped explain it as a tool of personal liberation, which is totally important. Or, one thing that’s fascinating to me is that he went to one of the labs where programmers were playing Pong, which was one of the first video games, and he was like, “Oh my god, this is just like LSD. It’s another way of achieving consciousness.” This is the crucial point. This is like the punchline to this whole story.
The communes completely fail. They’re big flops. The utopian experiment dissolves and people dissipate and go back and get absorbed into society. But the spirit of the communes doesn’t die and it really lives in this part of northern California. I think what Stewart Brand and a lot of other people did is they tried to take the ideals of the counter-culture, the ideals of the commune, and find ways to replicate them in technology.
Video games can transform your consciousness. But I think that this idea of collectivism and utopianism ended up manifesting themselves in a lot of the core concepts of Silicon Valley. Just to give you an example, we think of Silicon Valley as being Libertarian. We think of Ayn Rand worshipers, and those exist. There’s no doubt that they exist. But so much of what Silicon Valley is about is about the collective. It’s about recreating the commune.
It’s the reason why everything is based on this model of collective. It’s social media. It’s crowdsourcing. It’s networked. Everything is done in the spirit of collaboration. To me, that’s the core value of Silicon Valley. In a way, that’s also the core danger of Silicon Valley.
Patrick: [00:07:44] Talk a bit about the personal journey you went on to end up writing this book. Obviously you’ve gotten really deep into the history and the details and the philosophical underpinnings to what we now see as big tech companies. We’ll get back to that in a minute. But what got you so interested in this? Why the deep research?
Franklin: [00:08:03] I’m a writer. Writers are really narcissistic and they can’t necessarily see problems until they afflict themselves. In 2014, Amazon was engaged in a contract renegotiation with the French publishing giant Hachette. Which is the brand, Little Brown is one of their big imprints, I’d written a book for one of Hachette’s imprints. In the course of the ebook contract negotiation, Amazon just kept squeezing and squeezing.
Amazon initially set the price for ebooks at $9.99, which is something they did without consulting the publishers. They just kind of decided that this is what books should be priced, which had the effect of resetting the entire publishing industry. So Amazon says, “We want to set the price here and if you want to get good placement on our pages you have to pay us this much.” They kept extracting terms. Hachette got to the point where it screamed, “Enough!” Hachette took a hard line and Amazon responded by being very aggressive to Hachette. Amazon controls an enormous part of the ebooks market. It’s somewhere between 70% and 90%. Nobody can say exactly how much that they control but obviously-
Patrick: [00:09:22] Dominant.
Franklin: [00:09:22] Yeah. Kindle is synonymous with ebooks. When Hachette said enough Amazon said, “Okay, you want to play that game?” They stripped the buy button off of Hachette books. They delayed shipments on certain books, or if you searched for one Hachette title you were redirected to like a Simon & Schuster title. I was really radicalized by this.
I was like, “Oh my god, monopoly isn’t an abstract problem. It’s actually hitting me in the gut. They’re punching me in the place where it counts.” I got very active with the Author’s Guild and I ended up writing an article for The New Republic, where I was editor, called Amazon Must Be Stopped. So a really aggressive article.
Two weeks after my article appeared my bosses at The New Republic got a letter from Amazon and it said, “Dear New Republic, because of your recent cover story about Amazon we’re no longer running our ad campaign with you. Please confirm receipt of this. Sincerely, Team Amazon.” I was like, “Jesus, these guys just proved the thesis of my book.” I was interested in the way in which the digital economy had settled.
My first job out of college was with Microsoft. I worked for Slate, which was then owned by Microsoft. And I moved out to Seattle and I was really excited about the possibilities of an e-magazine. It just seemed cool. Microsoft at that time was kind of set as the empire and then because of so many reasons Microsoft tumbled briefly from its dominant position and it opened up this seemingly wide open economy where these companies rose in a nanosecond.
We were kind of stuck in this way of thinking about the digital economy as if it was much more dynamic than everything that it had replaced. And I believed that too until around that time when I was writing that piece about Amazon and Amazon behaving so badly towards Hachette and I began to think, “You know what? Maybe things have actually settled now,” and the idea of the platform, the idea of these networks, was such that huge chunks of the economy were going to just become dependent on the platforms and the networks. Which gave the platforms, the networks, huge power to assert control and dominance over the course of markets.
The Role of Tech Giants
Patrick: [00:11:49] I’ve been thinking a lot about this two sided thing between Aldous Huxley and George Orwell’s view of the world where, I can’t remember the book, but it was some line that said, “Orwell had it wrong. It’s not what we fear that will kill us, it’s what we love.” That’s the more Huxley version of the world: people taking soma in Brave New World or something like that.
A lot of the tech giants seem to kind of maybe fit into that mold. I’d love to hear you reflect on the role of technology very generally speaking. There’s a point in the book where you said something like, “There’s always new technology that breaks monopoly or democratizes certain things and then it kind of re-bundles and re-monopolizes.” Do you think that that’s just an inevitable cycle? What’s you general position on the advance of technology in our world?
Franklin: [00:12:37] First of all, just to be clear about a couple things, technology is one of the things that defines us a species. It is our ability to affect nature and it’s something that distinguishes us. Human beings have always tried to have tools that augmented the human body or replaced the human body. Factories automated upper body work. Hammers are an extension of the arm. I think that’s great. Google is one of the most magnificent creations in human engineering. It’s really incredible. And the iPhone is a marvel of design and engineering.
But that said, I think what happens and this is not exactly the answer to your question, but I think we just need to distinguish the ways in which these platforms and these technologies are a bit different. Because a lot of what is being automated are actually mental functions. There’s a form of intellectual automation that’s happening right now.
One thing that distinguishes these technologies is that they stand between us and reality in a way that feels fairly unprecedented. That if I want to understand the world these machines, these devices, become my portal into large chunks of the world. They have a lot of power to set the terms for reality. What happens is that they pick winners and losers. The thing that appears at the top of the Google search engine is the thing that you’re most likely to read. The thing that appears at the top of the Facebook newsfeed is the thing that you’re most likely to read. The thing that appears at the top of an Amazon search is the thing that you’re most likely to buy These platforms kind of shape the world by picking winners and losers. That’s one part of it.
The second is that we are, as a species, becoming cyborg. It’s just kind of a fact. You see it now in the way in which I couldn’t have gotten to this podcast if I hadn’t used Google Maps to guide me here because I have no sense of direction and I’ve outsourced that all to my phone, which is awesome. I’m really psyched to be relieved of that burden. But the truth is that we’re merging and people wear the technology on their wrists and augmented reality is here.
It hasn’t been implemented in mass form but it will be adopted soon. You’ll be wearing glasses or whatever. And the day in which Google or something like that is implanted in your brain is not that far away. Mark Zuckerberg talks about this human-machine interface where Facebook wants to be able to read your brain waves, which is something that Elon Musk also invests in.
Patrick: [00:15:35] Yeah, Neuralink.
Franklin: [00:15:36] It seems kind of crazy to me. But on the other hand the idea that I could watch every television show in the world in the palm of my hand, if you told me that when I was a kid I’d say, “There’s no way that’s ever happening. That’s so far-fetched.” And it’s here.
Patrick: [00:15:51] Go back to Brand again because I really want to crystallize the evolution of this philosophy in terms of how its shaped, I guess, the philosophy of these large companies. You mentioned Steve Jobs already but really the book was more about this modern set of maybe four companies. You’ve already mentioned them in terms of them being enormous gatekeepers. These conflicting ideas of individualism, libertarianism, you said Ayn Rand, versus a much more networked, social world. Very specifically, other than influencing maybe Steve Jobs, what’s the middle part of that story? The evolution from the early ’80s and the personal computer to today?
Franklin: [00:16:30] The big dream was always the one of creating a global village and that’s a really important dream of the 1960s. Marshall McCluhan, who was this Canadian philosopher, theorist of media, who was a regular on TV talk shows in that era talked about the global village. That was a real aspiration that got absorbed into the counter-culture, really, part of the idea of the commune, too.
It’s just that once we understood that we were part of a global village it would reshape human consciousness. We would behave better towards one another, we would behave more responsibly towards the planet if only we could see the way in which it was all connected together. If we could see if we were part of a whole Earth, to use Brand’s phrase.
To me, that’s a lot of the impetus that drives the creation of the internet, which if you think about it, this is one of the fascinating factuals. Is it possible to imagine an internet that exists in a way, shape, or form that’s different from the internet that we now know? Is it inevitable that it gets captured where we have to think of it as one giant network? Or it is possible to think of it as a bunch of smaller interconnected networks?
This idea of the architecture of the internet and how we think about the architecture of the internet. Is it centralized or decentralized? Is there ways to accentuate the decentralization or accentuate the centralization? Those become very crucial foundational ideas that shape the outcome of how it develops as an economic unit, as a communications unit. It seems to me that we were always pointed in this direction of centralization simply because the dream was always having everybody wrapped up into one.
There’s this idea of oneness, of wholeism. It’s just kind of driven through our thinking about the internet. I think in the end it actually becomes the basis for monopoly. That the idea that everybody can be stitched together into one global village is really the basis for the greatest business opportunities ever. It was only a matter of time before the thing that starts off as the utopian commune ends up getting captured by the giant firm.
Patrick: [00:18:55] Such a funny progression. What do you think happens next? Or maybe a different way of framing it would be… We both have relatively young kids, we were talking about before we started. Maybe from their perspective, the way that the world’s evolving, what worries you most about this perversion of the original idea? As I understood it, which was that things like the internet are open networks that allow for incredible innovation that kill gatekeepers. That the model of three channels or one local newspaper, whatever it was, this gatekeeper model, and that was somehow unhealthy because it silenced a whole bunch of other potential innovation or voices. How do you think about the current state of it through the lens of our kids or that gatekeeper idea?
Franklin: [00:19:37] First of all, the idea that we could live in a world without gatekeepers is just an illusion. It’s almost like anarchism or marxism. They dream about the withering away of the state. That there could be a world in which we all interact with one another as loving, caring human beings where you don’t need the power of the state. But the power of the state always returns. There’s always one group that exists to exert dominance.
Patrick: [00:20:05] There’s always power.
Franklin: [00:20:06] There’s always power. You can’t escape power and that’s true of the internet, too. I think that the answer has to with how we as parents end up responding and what we teach our children about how they interact with this universe. When you see your kid with an iPad or a phone hunched over texting or swiping or whatever it reflects yourself back to you. You can see your own addiction to technology but we don’t really focus on our own self-improvement but we’re terribly obsessed with making our kids better than we are. I think a lot of parents go into a state of panic when they look at their kids and their use of technology. They’re filled with a sense of dread.
Patrick: [00:20:53] I feel like technology, it’s propelling us forward obviously. You look the statistics on poverty or health or lifespan, all these things. It’s been an incredibly positive force. You can also extend that to say that the market dynamics behind it that allow for innovation and the reward to innovation is a big driver of that. But the thing I’m always trying to understand is… I love the picture you see sometimes of everyone on the metro north train with their iPhone but then in the 1920s it’s just everyone with their newspaper. We like to be distracted. Maybe that’s just some fundamental part of us and technology just is better and better at capturing our attention in every waking moment. Is there a chance that that’s not unhealthy? That this constant mining of our attention at all hours of the day may not be the horrible thing that instinctually it seems like it is?
Franklin: [00:21:42] I don’t totally foreclose the possibility that there’s some good that comes of it. Let’s just start with one concept, which is privacy. I’m fairly devoted to privacy as a concept. I think it’s essential to human selfhood. But privacy, Zuckerberg argues that the disappearance of privacy is probably a good thing because if we’re transparent human beings we’re going to behave more virtuously. If you’re the same person in the office that you are at home you’ll have integrity and you’re probably going to behave better.
In my book, I’m pretty hostile to that point of view, and in the end I will be militantly hostile to that point of view, but let’s concede a couple of things. Just thinking about the sexual harassment scandal that’s kind of overtaking the world right now you can see the way in which a form of radical transparency is eliminating a very unhealthy power dynamic that when doors are closed sometimes very bad things happen behind those closed doors.
There are ways in which Zuckerberg is right, that as privacy diminishing then maybe we will become, in some ways, better human beings. But what I worry is ultimately that when privacy diminishes we’re ultimately going to be flattened as human beings. An example, if all of your Google searches were made public I think it would make you less likely to search for certain things on Google. It’s just a fact. The truth is we confide in our machines so much more than we confide in our fellow human beings. Google is a primary way in which people explore ideas or try to find out things about themselves.
If I knew every Google search would become public and I had health questions about some condition, would I ask those questions to Google if I thought that they could possibly become public? I don’t want the world to know that maybe I have herpes or that I have a heart condition or whatever it is, or that I’m worried that I have some embarrassing skin condition. Who knows what it is?
You’re less likely to ask those questions if you’re going to possibly be shamed for having them. Or let’s put it in the realm of ideas. What if I am interested in anarchism or Ayn Rand or whatever? I don’t want my future employers to know that I was kicking around those ideas. Maybe I could be penalized for that. Rather than exploring those ideas, I’m just going to be a bit more cautious about the world until I become extremely cautious about the world.
Patrick: [00:24:32] Is another way of saying flattening like homogenization? Like, making everyone more similar? Is that what you mean by flattening?
Franklin: [00:24:40] I mean more cautious, less transgressive, almost more robotic in how we go about the world.
The Power of Gatekeepers
Patrick: [00:24:47] So what is maybe a prescription for this problem? If part of the problem is there’s some really massive gatekeepers for our minds, our wallets, our physical activity. And these big companies, in many ways, control our activity and the ways that we think because of what we’re exposed to, what are some ways around this? There’s some neat passages about books, like real books, and maybe ways of engaging in real contemplation. What are you thinkings on the balance here where, yes, technology is good but here are the ways that we can make sure it doesn’t get perverted.
Franklin: [00:25:24] I’ll answer by analogy, which is that the automobile is created. Automobile, a great piece of technology. Replaces horses and buggies. Very efficient way to get from point A to point B. You don’t have to rely on trains, which are kind of more of a command and control system where you have a rigid line that takes you from point A to point B. And here you have more freedom to go to wherever you want to go faster because of the automobile.
But the problems. The automobile, when it was created, a lot of people got run over because there weren’t stop signs, there weren’t traffic limits, and they were horrible for the planet because we did nothing to control the emissions. Over time we took this incredible thing and we tried to harness it so that it was consonant with human beings, so we created all these rules, from safety belts to fuel emission standards, to try to harness that piece of technology for human purposes.
I think we need to start thinking about how we can create systems and rules that can harness these technologies for human purposes. That’s one part of it. There’s a role that government can play in all that. Right now your data is not protected. Your health data might be protected. Some of your financial data might be protected.
But the data that these guys are collecting is not at all protected and we act as if they own that data. They can trade it on the market and they can do all sorts of things with it and there’s a huge incentive for them to keep ramping up their surveillance of us because that’s essential to their business advantage. We should have some rules about data. Then I think it’s necessary to have a vision, an analysis, about what we want out of our economy and out of these systems.
In the American way of thinking about the world, one thing that Americans have always thought long and hard about is power. That we have a constitutional system that is set out to create balance so that power doesn’t end up getting lumped together in any one place. When Thomas Jefferson and the founders thought about power their biggest concern at that moment was executive power and power invested in a king. A lot of the system in the Constitution focused on that.
But they were also worried about excessive concentrations of private power and they could see the ways in which once you had excessive concentrations of private power it would be bad for the democracy. That was a core thinking in the American political economy up through the 1960s and 1970s and then it’s kind of faded away over time.
Patrick: [00:28:09] What will it take to make people realize that again? You’re starting to see grassroots-type stuff with the monopoly term around some of these big companies. Maybe the different that people have pointed out, which I find interesting, is if you think of monopoly people will often picture Rockefeller, Standard Oil, or something like this where they’re extracting more than their fair share from a market.
Whereas as in the case of let’s take Amazon, everyone loves Amazon. Amazon has made everyone’s life better and easier and cheaper and more convenient. So how do you think that might happen this time around given that typically monopoly has been this kind of corporation-as-evil, whereas a lot of these corporations as the most beloved by their users?
Franklin: [00:28:51] I think one thing is that there’s a split right now between the way that elites perceive these corporations and the way that consumers perceive these corporations. That elites, in some way, have suffered or can feel like they can see the dangers pretty clearly of some of these companies. In media…
Patrick: [00:29:12] It’s a hot topic.
Franklin: [00:29:13] Where ideas are kind of shaped and formed and disseminated and have the ability to affect mass opinion. Media is incredibly dependent on Google and Facebook. With this last election, they’ve seen an opportunity to beat up on Facebook especially. I think that their hostility to Facebook has something to do with the election but it also has a lot to do with the media’s own sense of dependence and the way that on Facebook and the way that Facebook has distorted media. So there’s psychodrama there for sure.
But there’s something really interesting that’s happening in our political system right now, which is that this topic of monopoly has appeal across ideologies and it could actually cause divisions within coalitions. Starting on the left you’ve got people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, especially Elizabeth Warren, who’ve talked about this issue of monopoly. And Elizabeth Warren talked in August of 2005, gave the first speech decrying the platform companies as part of the broader problem of monopoly.
And that’s a split because you had Obama who was very much tied to Google and very supportive of Facebook and I think you’ll have a division within the left between a populous left and a more technocratic left on this issue. But I don’t think that it’s a neat division. If we shift a bit to the center, I was in New York a couple weeks ago talking to a conference for a group called No Labels, which is aggressively centrist and aggressively nonpartisan.
It was organized by Bill Crystal on the right and a guy called Bill Lawston on the center-left. One of their five big ideas for this year was taking on the titans of tech. It was an audience filled with Wall Street types and people who identify as centrists. They were really interested in this topic because they care about the future of democracy. These companies exert enormous influence on the course of democracy and also they’re people who care about the functioning of markets and they worry that if things become too centralized we’re actually stifling opportunities for investment. And the incentive to create startups could start to diminish, maybe even has diminished already.
Then you’ve got the Steve Bannon right, which, Steve Bannon is incredibly hostile to Silicon Valley. There’s a guy who’s running for Senate in Missouri who’s the attorney general, who’s Republican, who just brought a lawsuit against Google. Who knows how this is all going to shake out? I think that the companies are going to face pressure, though, that’s going to come at them from all different angles.
Patrick: [00:31:52] There was a short book by Will and Ariel Durant called The Lessons of History that kind of took their god-knows-how-many millions of words that they wrote and condensed it down to 110 pages. It’s maybe my favorite book ever. The lesson that I always remember from that is this wax and wane between centralization of power, or different levels of inequality of power, things like this, and then it’s never one-directional. It’s like a sine wave. It goes up and it goes down. It goes up and it goes down. It’s interesting to think just because these companies do seem fine or good that they may represent the peak of one of those centralizations of power.
Franklin: [00:32:30] That’s really interesting. I think that’s right, too. It’s kind of instinctually my sense. You see it within American liberalism, for instance, which I think really does follow that type of curve where it goes through periods where it celebrates corporate concentration as being efficient, and then it starts to worry about corporate concentration and starts applying anti-trust pressure on it. So anti-trust kind of comes and it goes in cycles, in generations, as power waxes and wanes.
Trends in Media and Publishing
Patrick: [00:33:01] Talk a bit more about the line of work that you’re in, the media and publishing and editorial worlds, and maybe the pros and cons that you’re seeing in the very present. What the major trends are? Things that have you most concerned in terms of independence of voice and a diversity of opinion. All these things that maybe come under jeopardy when media is so reliant for distribution on these couple big companies.
Franklin: [00:33:26] My biggest concern is actually political, which is that right now in our society there’s diminishing basis for common fact. So that if I say, “The sky is blue,” that becomes a partisan issue. People will process that through whatever media that they’re getting. There’s this term called filtered bubbles. Our politics was becoming really polarized before the internet. There’s no doubt about that. People were starting to sort themselves geographically on the basis of political opinion. But one of the things that Facebook has done is that it’s very powerfully amplified that trend because Facebook is a feedback loop.
Facebook takes everything that you tell it and then uses that data as a basis for sorting information. Facebook, as I said, it knows so much about you. Everybody knows so much about you, unfortunately, but they know basically the things that give you pleasure and they know the things that give you anxiety and the things that turn you off. It takes that information and it arranges the things in your newsfeed in order to exploit those emotions.
Politically, that’s extremely dangerous because it does reinforce the filter bubbles in a very industrial strength way where you’re biases are constantly being confirmed because your information is sorted so aggressively to confirm your biases. If you’re just hearing the things that you want to hear all the time it is intellectually incapacitating. You become weak when presented with fake news or propaganda or demagoguery or when there are bad actors out there who are trying to exploit the system in order to sew distrust or to foment anger.
Patrick: [00:35:28] Facebook seems like it’s got maybe a unique position in terms of the outsourcing of thinking or the outsourcing of the inputs that we put that probably form our thinking. Do you think that extends as much to some of these other tech giants? The same argument doesn’t seem quite there for something like an Amazon where they sell stuff.
Franklin: [00:35:46] No, Amazon represents a different sort of danger. With Amazon we’re kind of returning to a very, right now it’s a fairly inchoate anxiety about size as Amazon kind of drifts in the next couple of years to being 50% of all retail. It’s a pretty impressive achievement. I mean, even if you’re a critic of Amazon you have to say, “Damn.” That is one of the greatest businesses ever. Maybe the greatest business ever.
Maybe Amazon is the greatest business ever. They don’t necessarily have the profits to show for it but it’s because they’re thinking in such a long term sort of way about constructing complete and total dominance. It started off as the everything store, pretty ambitious goal. But then it morphed into all these other different areas where it’s a movie studio, it owns The Washington Post, it owns Whole Foods, it powers the cloud. Where is Amazon ever going to stop? Is it okay..
Patrick: [00:36:48] It’s like the Borg.
Franklin: [00:36:49] But is it okay if there’s just one store? If everything is just in one place? It’s going to come really quickly and it could be really cheap, but isn’t there a problem with that? I think there are definite problems. One problem is that it means that Amazon exerts enormous control over the people who supply it with the stuff it sells, which in economics it’s the problem of monopsony. When you’re the dominant seller it means that all your suppliers are completely dependent on you and you can get squeezed and squeezed like Hachette was in its ebook contract renegotiation. That’s a problem.
Patrick: [00:37:33] Talk about Google, too. I think that’s an interesting one which, like you said, we’re never more honest than maybe with Google. What are things that concern you about that service or that company with their don’t be evil slogan?
Franklin: [00:37:46] It’s the same sort of concern, which is that, let me put it this way. A search engine looks and behaves as if it’s a neutral thing, that it’s kind of using math in order to determine what comes at the top of its search results and what comes on page four. As we’ve said, it’s the thing that comes at the top of the search results that’s the thing that we’re most likely to read or to buy, so that gives Google huge control over outcomes in information and in business too. If you’re able to game that system best you spring to the top.
One problem we see with the platforms is that as these guys keep getting bigger and bigger they go from being simply the platform, simply being a tool, to also being an actor on their own platforms. The classic example is restaurants. Couple of years ago you wouldn’t to type in a restaurant name, the first thing that came up was a Yelp result. Google saw that and they’re like, “This is an important service and a good business,” so what they do? They hardwired into Google, Yelp. Google was no longer a neutral platform. Google was privileging its own service. To me that’s kind of the mega-danger here. It’s the thing that’s got the European Union most freaked out. I think from the perspective of regulation ensuring the neutrality of these platforms is actually absolutely essential.
Here’s another example that’s got me worried. All of media is dependent on Facebook for traffic and therefore for revenue.
Patrick: [00:39:31] Put some numbers on that. What percent of readers will come via Facebook for a major media company?
Franklin: [00:39:38] It’s probably about half.
Patrick: [00:39:39] That’s crazy.
Franklin: [00:39:40] It’s somewhere between 30% and 50%. In some places it’s much higher. Like at Buzzfeed, I think I’ve seen it’s like 70% or 80% or something like that. So they’ve made this decision to switch to video. That video is what will keep their users engaged for the longest period of time. All right, fine, but what’s happening right now. That means that Facebook is becoming your television set. That’s what I think their ambition is at this moment. Everybody in media is now switching to video, so they’re trying to produce videos. And Facebook is going about now commissioning video.
They’re actually paying people to produce for Facebook. Isn’t it Facebook’s interest to make the stuff that they invest in appear first in their platform? Facebook is inevitably going to start to favor Facebook’s own content. That’s even more power. Facebook will supply the eyeballs and will supply the things that the eyeballs see.
Patrick: [00:40:44] Is there a set of, it could be a company, it could be an industry or technology trend that is a counterpoint to all this? So something that you see as a light at the end of this tunnel that you’re really excited by. It could be a platform, company, or anything else.
Franklin: [00:41:00] Here’s one counterintuitive thing, which is that when the Kindle was invented in 2008 everybody said that paper books were going to disappear forever and ever. Nicholas Negroponte, who headed MIT media labs, said by the 2015 paper books will cease to be published. Lo and behold, we’ve passed that date, and paper books continue to get published.
Ebooks have kind of plateaued. Paper book sales tick up every year, maybe 1% or 2% but they’re headed in an upward direction. I think that’s kind of an incredible thing because I think it shows, first of all, book publishers have managed to defend the underlying economic value of the product that they produce. That’s pretty cool and counterintuitive.
Secondly, I think for the culture more broadly, it’s encouraging to me because one thing that paper books are is disconnected. There’s nobody watching over your shoulder as you read. You’re no umbilically connected to a corporate store. You’re not being notified by your book or distracted by your book constantly. You’re able to engage in a deep commitment to text. I think the fact that we’ve been able to sustain that is actually a fairly encouraging thing.
Patrick: [00:42:17] Do you think we’ll see movements or groups or whatever you want to think about it. Like secular religions almost, that emphasize this detachment and, I don’t know, maybe it’s a commune with nature. Maybe it’s about physical books. Is there anything like that that you’re starting to see emerge?
Franklin: [00:42:34] I think that’s almost inevitable, and here’s something that just occurs to me. I think you could have, in a way, almost two competing spiritual and religious visions. One is that as we move into a world of virtual reality and possibly a world where there’s not jobs you can imagine a lot of people sitting around all day on their couches living in virtual realities, playing video games or whatever, and you can see that almost being a religion unto itself. It almost has to become a religion at some point to supply people’s lives with the meaning that they no longer have in work, they can no longer find in work.
On the other side, I think that distraction is actually fundamental threat to us as spiritual beings. I think it’s actually the biggest spiritual crisis. If you’re always being notified, if you kind of lose the possibility for independence of thought because your attention is being reverse engineered. Material is being reverse engineered in this way to addict you to whatever is getting thrown at you by the machine and by the platform, then you no longer have the space for contemplation. It becomes harder and harder to muster independent thought. I do think it’s a spiritual crisis and if religion was smart it would find some sort of way to leverage this opportunity to defend itself.
Patrick: [00:44:03] Talk a bit about, I think it was in your book. Maybe it was something else that you wrote but it sticks out in my memory: the idea that most the big innovations have happened with people thinking in a very separated, maybe solitary, contemplative mode.
Franklin: [00:44:19] Again, there are two visions for creativity. One vision comes from the romantic poets like William Wordsworth and it this cult of the individual as a genius. We know that that’s not entirely true, that every so-called genius is actually borrowing stuff from here and there and…
Patrick: [00:44:40] And part of a system.
Franklin: [00:44:41] And part of a system. Then the other myth is the one of collaboration, which is something that Silicon Valley is deeply into and our society is, on a whole, really into right now. This idea that all ideas need to happen in groups. You see this shift happening everywhere. It’s like when I starting working everybody worked in individual offices but now you’re supposed to work in these open floor plan things where you’re kind of part of this amoeba, you’re part of this team.
It’s true in schools as well where projects are now group projects. Everybody wants to show that they can work across groups. I think both of these myths, the romantic myth of individual genius, Silicon Valley’s myth of the collective collaboration workplace, they’re both myths. But if we’re going to create new ideas you almost have to have the fetishization of the individual genius and this quest for glory, this idea that geniuses can come with totally paradigm-shattering original ideas. We want people to believe that that is true because that’s how we do aim for those big breakthroughs.
Areas of Current Focus
Patrick: [00:45:56] What’s the most exciting thing that you’re thinking about now? You went through this incredible thought process yourself about how this philosophy has evolved and evolved into those companies and what those companies mean for us. What, and it could be some continuation of these ideas, what has your attention right now most?
Franklin: [00:46:15] I’m excited by two things. One is I think that our political system is shifting in way that’s very interesting. That Donald Trump is a giant disruption to the system and that it’s forced people to reconsider a lot of truisms and to rethink things. The idea that our political system is moving to an analysis of power potentially that’s very different than the one that’s dominated and that actually will have truck in both the left and the right, and that there’s a worry of that concentration of power, I think that that’s an interesting development. Attached to that, I think there’ll be ideas about liberty and freedom that grow out of that and a celebration of certain parts of individualism and individuality that I think are both beautiful and underrated and in some degree captured by libertarians but really should be part of a much broader understanding of the world.
Secondly, I’ve interacted a lot with college kids and people who live their lives on the internet and I find that they have, in a way, more self awareness about the problem than anybody else right now. And then I’ve talked to a lot of computer science students who are kind of desperate to change computer science. I think this actually, of all the things we could do, maybe the most realistic and the most necessary, which is that everything in the world is computer science now. Everything in the world is the internet.
That means that computer science has become too precious to leave just in the hands of the people who are currently attracted to computer science. That engineering as a mindset is all about designing systems to be efficient and systems that work on their own terms. But we need engineers and computer scientists who are also humanist, who are able to understand the ethical and political consequences of the systems that they build, to understand that actual human beings are part of the system, not just piles of data.
Patrick: [00:48:27] Do you think that takes the form of another Stewart Brand? Like, a philosopher, pied piper, type leader? Or is it more of a political and regulatory-type outcome?
Franklin: [00:48:38] I’m not sure, but I know if you go to a place like Stanford where it’s like almost half the kids are computer science now, which is incredible. It’s just this shift. I think universities need to take a leadership role in remaking curriculum. I think the changes are so profound that elites, leaders, people across all sectors are going to start to awaken to the problem and realize that we need to rethink a lot of aspects of our educational system as well as our value system in order to get to the other side of these changes in a way where we feel like we’re still recognizably human, where a lot of our values are able to survive these transitions.
Patrick: [00:49:28] What was the most memorable, or maybe the piece of content that you would most recommend others check out that you discovered in the process of doing this research and writing the book? Could be a book, could be an article, could be a person. Anything. Catalog.
Franklin: [00:49:42] I think that so much of my book is actually about the idea of contemplation and the necessity of contemplation and how we can achieve states of contemplation. I’ve read a lot of books about that including Hannah Arendt, who is the famous German-then-American political theorist and thinker. Gave a series of lectures about the life of mind and what is it.
This question of what does it mean to think and how is thinking different than our pursuit of knowledge and how is thinking different than science and to what extent is thinking inherent to being a human being. To what extent is thinking necessary for us to live in a functioning democracy? I don’t know. I find these questions to be extremely primary and that, to me, is kind of the ball game.
Patrick: [00:50:41] What was your conclusion? Obviously, this can’t be one size fits all. What are the best general ways to cultivate more contemplation?
Franklin: [00:50:51] I think the keyword in that question is cultivate. I have a riff in the book where the term culture comes from the Latin root culare and this ideal of cultivation, which is an agricultural term. This idea that you kind of grow and nurture. The idea of culture itself grew out of this metaphor with farming. That the mind needs to be tended to in the same sort of way that we tend to our fields. That means that you can’t be passive in the course of that. You can’t just rely on the weather and seeds getting blown in the wind to guarantee a harvest every year.
I think this idea of self improvement is really profoundly important. That there’s so much about the world right now that seems like, as human beings, we have so little ability to affect it, that technology comes and I think a lot of us think we have no ability to shape the future of technology. It’s just going to happen in this unstoppable sort of way. Or climate change is this unstoppable phenomenon. Really, we need to restore a sense of agency, a sense that as human beings we can affect the world starting with our ability to affect ourselves. That as human beings we can always grow to be more ethical, to be more learned, to be more curious, to be more open-minded. These are things that don’t happen automatically. You need to do it in a very self conscious sort of way.
Patrick: [00:52:33] I’m assuming that that’s happened for you to some degree. That you’ve tried to cultivate this in yourself, being more contemplative, recognizing that this isn’t the answer for other people. Is there any specific activity or mindset or set of rules or whatever it is that you do that you feel has really helped you, has really affected change and agency?
Franklin: [00:52:52] There’s a guy called Tristan Harris. Have you come across him? He was a philosopher, computer scientist, who went to work for, he had a startup called Apture that got bought by Google and Google gave him a position, he was like their ethicist-in-chief. He was embedded in their product teams helping to build Google products to be more respectful of human beings.
He ended up leaving because he felt like these technologies were even more addictive and manipulative than people understood. He created an organization called Time Well Spent that offers suggestions about how we can create space between us and technology. There’s part of this that I’ve integrated into my own life. I used to sleep with my cell phone but I don’t do that any more because I don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night and get trapped in endless scroll, which happens.
Or be on the receiving end of the anxiety that your phone is a portal to. I’ve turned off notifications on my phone so that only a human being has the ability to grab my attention. I don’t let my apps do that or newspapers or whatever. I took Facebook off of my phone so that if I want to do it I have self consciously seek it out on my laptop so that I’m not just in a zombie-like state getting trapped in their endless scroll.
Patrick: [00:54:13] Simple stuff.
Franklin: [00:54:14] It is, but it’s like with food and drink, those things are addictive too, but we are taught moderation. We learn how we can enjoy food, we can enjoy wine, but we don’t abuse it in a way that…
Patrick: [00:54:30] Chug down wine all night every night?
Franklin: [00:54:32] Yeah, that takes over our lives. The same should be true for these tools and these technologies. We should be able to enjoy the fruits of them without them exercising mind control.
Patrick: [00:54:44] Last question I always ask everyone is for the kindest thing that anyone’s ever done for you.
Franklin: [00:54:48] I’ve been lucky to have friends who… Every life has its share of crises and I think the extent to which your friends kind of are selfless in the face of crises is always… When you’re in the middle of a crises you feel alone. You get into this moment of existential fear and this sense that, you screw up at work and you’re going to lose your job and lose your livelihood. Your brain starts to make all these connections about the worst that can happen. When you have friends who are able, in that moment of crisis, to come in and behave selflessly to you, that’s the most extraordinary thing.
I had one crisis at work when I was an editor and we published a series of articles that were alleged to have been fabricated by an author. It was an author who was a solider in Iraq and said to have embellished them. It was in the middle of the Iraq War and advertisers were coming down hard on us and it felt like everything was going to go to shit. I had a friend who was actually worked with me and he was taking over another job. He spent a week just kind of helping me, on his own, going full time, crazy long days trying to help me get through this crisis where he just kind of embedded with me. It was such a beautiful act of friendship.
Patrick: [00:56:22] Fantastic. This has been really fun and edifying. I really appreciate all your time.
Franklin: [00:56:27] Thank you.