BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. On Wednesday, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg finally addressed the mounting controversy on CNN, suggesting that some regulation might not be so bad, after all.
MARK ZUCKERBERG: I actually am not sure we shouldn’t be regulated. I, I actually think the question is more, what is the right regulation, rather than yes or no, should it be regulated?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A new Zuckerberg or just a bit of saving face? Either way, it’s a far cry from the Zuck we thought we knew, the technologist for more interested in effectively supplanting the government than submitting to it. In his newest book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, Franklin Foer places Facebook in the history of techno-utopian enterprises that began following the French Revolution. “Zuckerberg,” he writes, “is the heir to a long political tradition. Over the last 200 years, the west has been unable to shake an abiding fantasy, a dream sequence in which we throw out the bum politicians and replace them with engineers -- rule by slide rule.”
FRANKLIN FOER: That dream that somehow we could automate reason. So after the incredible chaos of the French Revolution, western society started to crave order. They started to crave lives that were less chaotic, less wild, better organized. And so, there was the rise of a thinker called Auguste Comte who wanted to have societies, governments actually run by engineers. Mark Zuckerberg preached his beautiful philosophy, that he was helping engineer the world so that the world would be better connected and through our interconnections we would understand one another better, we would become more peaceful. He said that he wanted to remove the friction from life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
FRANKLIN FOER: And that’s one of the great dreams of technology, that we would have these companies that would be able to anticipate our wants and needs and they would supply them to us. And that's exactly what he tried to do. He created this contraption called the newsfeed that took all of our data and it tried to use that data to figure out the things they gave us pleasure, to figure out the things I gave us anxiety, in order to provide hierarchy to the information that we consumed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say the source of Facebook's power, Silicon Valley's power is the algorithm. Is the algorithm the problem?
FRANKLIN FOER: What is an algorithm? An algorithm, in a way, is the distillation of the engineering dream, this idea that you could just come up with an automated robotic way of dealing with the messy complexities of human life. But I think the problem is the hubris that's embedded in that approach. This idea that we can find the perfect scientific solution to things sometimes just gives too much power to the people who are in charge of the system and sometimes the people in charge of the system, they like to say that they’re running things in the name of science but really they’re running a company to make a profit. And I think that's part of the Zuckerberg delusion, was that he presented himself as somebody who was governing his system in the name of reason but, in fact, he was really tried to addict us to his platform and make as much money as possible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote, “Even as an algorithm mindlessly implements its procedures and learns to see new patterns in the data, it reflects the minds of its creators, the motives of its trainers.” “Computer scientists,” you wrote, “talk about torturing the data until it confesses.” What is it that the computer engineer wants the data to say?
FRANKLIN FOER: The engineer is coming at it with a whole set of assumptions, and there's a whole lot of social scientific work that shows that algorithms can replicate some of the racial and gender biases of the engineers who create the algorithms.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So these algorithms are not neutral parties in themselves and they continuously study us and ultimately decide a lot of things for us. And you’re frightened that we are outsourcing our thinking to the organizations that run the machines. But what else is new? We always knew that, right?
FRANKLIN FOER: Apparently not. I think that what we see in these recent controversies over Facebook is that we largely accepted Facebook's own view of itself. We thought, all right, well, maybe that data is being used influence us in some abstract sort of way, but it's one thing to think that in a distant sort of way but then it’s quite another to see the ways in which that data, that process could be weaponized and turned against us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You quoted in your article that 60 percent of people -- according to the best research -- are completely unaware of the existence of the algorithm?
FRANKLIN FOER: It’s true. When people look at their News Feed, they go along with the myth that Facebook perpetuates that it’s just your friends sharing information. But, of course, it's not that. It’s being organized and it’s being sorted and it's being given hierarchy. And in that hierarchy, there is a hidden agenda to commandeer as much of our attention as possible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We have a hidden agenda too, Frank. [LAUGHS] We --
FRANKLIN FOER: I know you do. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We want you to talk about free will, which we’ve been digging into a bit lately. You’ve argued that algorithms are meant to erode it and to relieve human beings of the burden of choosing. So tell me, what's at stake here?
FRANKLIN FOER: Human beings are both incredibly powerful and incredibly weak, and our weaknesses are exploited by people all the time but as society, we constantly try to fight back. And so, we create rules. We don't like subliminal advertising. We try to impose transparency as much as possible. And we do these things because we believe in our power to make good decisions in a democracy, and so we protect our capacity to make those decisions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote that it’s Zuckerberg’s fantasy that this data might be analyzed to uncover the mother of all revelations, a fundamental mathematical law underlying human social relationships that governs the balance of who and what we all care about. It’s scary to think that something like that actually exists.
FRANKLIN FOER: I don’t think it exists. [LAUGHS] I think though it reflects everything that we've been saying about this dream of having the engineer take care of us. And you see it as is this arms race right now to create personal assistants. Each of the big tech companies wants to have what Zuckerberg has called a “butler” that wakes us up in the morning and that guides us through our day. These companies, because of their data and because of their algorithms, would be able to offload all these decisions that we make over the course of the day.
And, on the one hand, wouldn’t all of us like to free up our time to do things that would provide us with a true state of leisure and we could pursue the things that make us our best selves? But, on the other hand, we may wake up one day and we’d say, holy cow, we've given up all this power and we find ourselves trapped in patterns of consumption that we dislike, and maybe the control that we've given up has actually made us stupider than we were [LAUGHS] going in because our brains are constantly being commandeered by these notifications, these distractions, by these technologies that have been reversed engineered to essentially addict us.
And so, when we lose the time and space and the ability to contemplate the world, I don't think we make good decisions, especially democratic decisions. I worry that it makes us less capable of being spiritual human beings. [LAUGHS] I worry that it makes us less present in the course of our conversations. And I don't think that those threats are actually theoretical ones. I think that we all toil with our addictions to devices.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, do you think we’ve approached a moment when we can stop and consider what we have wrought or what has been wrought upon us or what we have participated in… wreaking? [LAUGHS]
FRANKLIN FOER: Yeah, to me that’s part of the thrilling undercurrent of the backlash against Facebook right now, which is that you have a lot of people who are collectively awakening to the fact that our privacy has been invaded and that we want it back, that we’ve been wasting our time [LAUGHS] on this platform. It's exciting to see people taking agency.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Or is it just the kinds of things that addicts say, along the line of “I’ll quit tomorrow”?
FRANKLIN FOER: You’re, you’re right, that people can be delusional in thinking that they've broken the addiction when it's just a prelude to another binge. But in this case, I do think that we’re making good arguments about this to ourselves. We've drifted with things for a really long time without really reflecting on what we’re doing. And so, we’re not gonna give up our phones but maybe we’ll proceed in a way in which we’re a little bit more self-conscious about how we use our time, about the things that we surrender to these companies and we start to claw back a little bit of space in our lives.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Frank, Thank you very much.
FRANKLIN FOER: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Franklin Foer is the national correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.