A Trust Buster for the New ‘Knowledge Monopoly’

In The News Piece in New York Times
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Oct. 2, 2017

Franklin Foer's book World Without Mind was reviewed in the New York Times.

The technology critic is typically a captive figure, beholden either to a sorrowful past, a panicked present or an arrogant future. In his proudest moments, he resembles something like a theorist of transformation, decline and creation. In his lowest, he is more like a speaking canary, prone to prophecy, a game with losing odds. His attempts at optimism are framed as counterintuitive, faring little better, in predictive terms, than his lapses into pessimism. He teeters hazardously between implicating his audience and merely giving their anxieties a name. He — and it is almost always a he — is the critical equivalent of an unreliable narrator, unable to write about technology without also writing about himself. Occasionally, he is right: about what is happening, about what should happen, and about what it means. And so he carries on, and his audience with him.
Franklin Foer, thankfully, recognizes these pitfalls even if he can’t always avoid them. Who can? The melodramatically titled World Without Mind, Foer’s compact attempt at a broad technological polemic — which identifies the stupendous successes of Amazon, Google and Facebook, among others, as an “existential threat” to the individual and to society — begins with a disclaimer. Foer’s tumultuous stint editing The New Republic under the ownership of the Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes ended with mass resignations and public acrimony. “There’s no doubt that this experience informs the argument of this book,” he writes. He is likewise entangled through his proximity to publishing: The author’s friends, colleagues and immediate family members — including his brother, the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer — depend to different degrees on the industry Amazon consumed first. The book is dedicated to his father, Bert, a crusading antitrust lawyer.