Friday, April 13, 2018

Book Review: World Without Mind by Franklin Foer

As "what's wrong with the world" screeds go, this is above average. Foer grounds his complaints against Google/Facebook/Apple/etc. in both his personal and our national history. His personal history was as editor of The New Republic who clashed with the new tech-billionaire owner over how to preserve journalistic integrity in the 21st century, and who was ultimately fired. Mostly this leads to substantial insights rather than sour grapes. The national history was the real surprise for me. I didn't know that Lincoln was a tech addict (to the telegraph); that Western Union was a precursor to today's tech monopolies; or that Rutherford B. Hayes was likely put into office by Western Union's machinations. I would have preferred to hear more about the technocrat angle, which is detailed early on but seems dropped later. The line from Leibniz to Locke to Comte to Herbert Hoover is fascinating -- all were technocratically minded and (in my view) all failed in particular ways. Foer criticizes the mindset but I'm not convinced that he gets to the root of the mindset. Foer's solution includes increasing journalistic professionalism (this is a problem in the sciences as well, I'm sure) and creating a version of the EPA to safeguard privacy (how exactly would this work?). A lot of good connections and caveats here, and it points to a way forward, but I think it needs to go a little farther and deeper to be truly effective.

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