Conservatives more than anyone else view with a gimlet eye the rise of the Internet and the gigantic tech companies that are taking over ever larger parts of our lives.  Even the place where most of these companies dwell, Silicon Valley, is a bastardization of its real name, Santa Clara, or St. Claire of Assisi, who worked real wonders with Saint Francis.  And probably few people in Apple Inc. know that their city, Cupertino, is named for St. Joseph Cupertino, a Franciscan with an IQ so low he wouldn’t get a job as a janitor at Apple’s “campus,” as it’s called.  And he levitated without the help of Siri.

We need help wherever we can find it, so I welcome World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, by Franklin Foer, a former editor of The New Republic.  His analysis is a bit off, and his prescriptions involve more government, when what’s needed is less.  As an old print journalist myself, with 29 years at the Orange County Register, I sympathize with the bytes and arrows slung at him.  Like him, I left my publication and was then called back as an editor, only to be pushed out of a job for the first time in my life after the Register went bankrupt a second time.  Jobs were slashed by the aptly named Digital First Media, itself owned by a hedge fund.

In Foer’s case, TNR was bought by Chris Hughes, the Harvard roommate of Facebook honcho Mark Zuckerberg and one of the firm’s first employees, who shared in its exponential increase in wealth.  Hughes, who admired Foer’s previous work at the magazine, brought him back as editor in 2012 and promised him a large budget for investigative reporting.  “Chris’s view of the world was essentially technocratic,” writes Foer.  “Mine was moralistic and romantic.”  His prose includes references to names not found in most techie tracts: Dickens, T.S. Eliot, William Dean Howells, and Foer’s namesake, Ben Franklin.  “Where [Hughes] liked the idea of long-form journalism, I ideologically believe in it.”

For those not in the trade, long-form journalism involves setting a team of reporters on a story that could take months or years to complete, is published in serial form,  and leads—the editor and writer hope—to a book deal and a Pulitzer Prize, and it’s not nearly as common as it was before the Internet conquest of the media.  Long-form journalism, then, is the exact opposite of a “tweet,” the short blast on Twitter made famous by President Trump as his means to get around the gateway media—including the New Republic.  Foer recalls, “Chris gave our fusty old magazine a millennial imprimatur, a bigger budget, and an insider’s knowledge of social media.”

Creative differences ensued as Hughes wanted to lower his financial subsidy and increase TNR’s influence by emphasizing what he knew how to do: gain more readers on the Internet.  Hughes fired Foer in 2014, causing two thirds of the staff to resign in protest.  Foer now roosts at The Atlantic, another liberal magazine, but one that retains more of the vision Foer sought for TNR, as well as a strong Internet presence.  It’s subsidized by another tech billionaire, Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow.

Foer takes his story beyond the usual one of a journalist pushed into outer darkness by the new media looking at the big computer screen in the sky.  Today, our lives seem to have been sucked into devices that enthrall us for most of the day, except when we’re interrupted by sputtering conversations with family or driving in traffic.  And the whole shebang is controlled by five gigantic companies run by mega-billionaires: Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.  As I write, their stocks are the five most valuable in the world.  For conservatives, an added concern is that these firms censor not only neo-Nazis, but mainstream conservatives.  And although they are private companies, all of them have contracts with, and other ties to, the U.S. government.  For example, in 2014 the CIA inked a $600 million cloud-computing deal with Amazon.  In 2016, almost every top executive at these and other firms campaigned Stronger Together with Hillary.

Google remains the world’s most dominant search engine, the means by which most people find what they’re looking for on the Internet.  According to Foer, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin “are creating a brain unhindered by human bias, uninfluenced by irrational desires and dubious sensory instructions that emanate from the body.”  That’s pretty alarming.  But conservatives have noted all sorts of examples of political bias on Google and its video subsidiary, YouTube, which are run by liberals.  In November 2017, Breitbart reported information leaked from  Google insiders that revealed that “conservative Googlers who voice concerns about political bias are often belittled and ignored by fellow employees.”  In August 2017, James Damore, an engineer, was fired for circulating a controversial paper about women employees that called for more diversity of thought, including conservative views.

Facebook has conducted similar censorship.  In October, Twitter shut down the account of Roger Stone, President Trump’s former campaign head, for an unfortunate, profanity-laced diatribe against CNN—but one not nearly as nasty as those of such leftists as Keith Olbermann.  And in November, Apple fired Denise Young Smith, its newly hired diversity director, who also is black, after she caused “an outcry by saying that being a minority or a woman are not the only criteria for diversity,” according to the New York Post.

Yet, as critics have pointed out, these firms not only tolerate but profit from the most vile pornography, accessed sometimes by young children despite parental precautions.  Amazon is a concern also because it has effectively become a monopoly in many areas, having put most brick-and-mortar bookstores, even purveyors of used books, out of business and gone on to dominate one market after another, from clothing to hardware and now,  with its acquisition of Whole Foods, groceries. 

Despite the drawbacks, these developments have brought good things for conservatives, along with everyone else.  Although I still prefer the print edition, Chronicles now can be read online anywhere in the world.  No more library and bookstore “gatekeepers.”  It’s now easy to find books online, many of them free, such as the first edition of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind.  But lost is the serendipity of finding an unknown but soon-to-be treasured volume in a used book store—places that are still around, just a lot fewer of them.

Foer’s solution is the one TNR’s progressives advocated at the time of the magazine’s founding in 1914: the strenuous application of antitrust policy.  Break up the Big Five tech companies!  It’s a tempting one.  But it wouldn’t work—and it could make matters worse still.  As Foer himself notes, antitrust law “has grown so technical and morally desiccated that it has little to say about the dominant firms of our time.”  Yet he urges, immediately after, “We need to return to the spirit of those original laws, but we have spent decades [going] in the other direction.”

The problem is that technology advances so fast now—Moore’s Law, from the 1960’s, holds that computing power doubles in less than 18 months—while antitrust lawsuits usually take decades to formulate.  Foer notes the Justice Department’s lawsuit against IBM lasted 40 years.  By 1996, the Japanese, not older American firms like Burroughs/Unisys, had become the main challenger to IBM.

The antitrust lawsuit of the late 1990’s against Microsoft concerned the company’s practice of “tying” its browser into its operating system—one shortly made irrelevant by the rise of Google, then smartphones.  A decade ago, the dominant cellphone company was Nokia.  Five years ago not even the Big Five tech companies were as large, and any one or all of them could fall victim to a dot-com bust similar to that of 1999-2000.  My Orange County Register was about to be sold to the Los Angeles Times’s parent company at top price, when Obama’s Justice Department threatened an antitrust lawsuit: Instead, it went to Digital First’s lower bid.  As one antitrust lawyer quipped, it was a case of charging that two merging buggy companies were colluding to dominate surface transportation.

So what’s a conservative solution?  Rod Dreher recommends, as he suggested in an interview, taking “measures to build a kind of ark for ourselves with which to ride out the dark ages, to hold onto our faith, and tender the faith for such a time as light returns and civilization wants to hear the gospel again.”  The problem is that the present  is a very different time.  When the Roman Empire collapsed and Saint Benedict established monasteries around which civilization could be rebuilt, the barbarians were interested in pillaging, not in dominating people’s minds and souls, allowing the native survivors to retrieve and reconstruct something of what had been destroyed.

That is an enormously difficult enterprise today.  Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza, tried to build a “Catholic Town” in Florida in accordance with the zoning laws established in many places, such as senior communities.  But the ACLU sued to overturn the town’s ban on contraceptives and pornography, despite the fact that these would remain available beyond the limits of the small city.  Howard Simon, the head of the Florida branch of the ACLU, told Tucker Carlson, “There are some constitutional principles that come into play here, that the U.S. Supreme Court has issued in the 1940’s and the 1980’s and the 1990’s.” 

Well: What happened to the “diversity” the left is always yapping about?  Why can’t we allow a Catholic Town, a Lutheran Town, a Mormon Town, a Jewish Town, and so forth?  Without government subsidies, of course.  Some of them could limit, or even ban, the Internet.  Such communities might recall to us the people learning books by heart at the end of Fahrenheit 451.  Freedom usually means having not more, but less.


[World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, by Franklin Foer (New York: Penguin Press) 272 pp., $27.00]