Ahead of the 2017 Frankfurt Book Fair, the cloud of digital disruption that has hung over the industry in previous years appears to have subsided. However, points of concern and contention remain between the publishing and tech industries. PW recently caught up with Franklin Foer to talk about his new book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, the growing power of Silicon Valley in our information and creative economies, and the rebound of print and the importance of books and traditional publishers as cultural institutions.
The title of your new book indicates it is about tech, but it is also very much about the publishing business. What was the genesis of this book?
Really, I started to think about these issues with the Hachette vs. Amazon showdown in 2014. Until that moment, I had been fairly agnostic about Amazon, even though I have a huge sentimental attachment to independent bookstores. But as I watched what happened with Hachette, I started to think about Amazon’s power, and when I started to think about Amazon’s power, that sent me down the whole train of thought, where I began to realize all the ways in which, as a magazine editor, I felt the pull of Facebook and Google and all the ways in which their power was distorting how I operated.
You have a very personal point of view on how Silicon Valley is affecting publishers, and readers, from your tenure as editor of the New Republic. Tell us about your experience.
So, the really compressed history is that in 2012 the New Republic was bought by Chris Hughes, who was Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate in college, and one of the original Facebook employees. Chris’s promise was that the magazine would find a dignified way to exploit his understanding of social media that would allow us to preserve and extend all the serious and important things that we did. But after a while he started to panic. He’d spent gobs of money, and he wanted us to increase revenue. And there was really no other way to do that except to produce things that appealed to a mass audience on Facebook.
So, here’s the thing about Facebook: it is a highly masterable medium. There are formulas that work to induce somebody to click, and they usually involve a fair amount of trickery. We did manage to grow our traffic considerably over a short period of time. But the New Republic is a small, intellectual magazine. And suddenly, we were doing pieces about Super Bowl ads, or the latest thing on the menu at Chipotle, and it began to distort the character of our work. So, I got fired because I wasn’t with it enough when it came to Facebook. The way we grew involved doing things that at the time seemed mildly distasteful, and, as I look back now, seem worse.
You write that you don’t want your book to come across as angry, but that you don’t want to deny your anger, which I think is how many publishing people feel about tech these days—conflicted. What has you most concerned, or angry, even, about the way the future is unfolding?
Really, it comes down to our capacity for contemplation. That is our most precious asset, attention, and tech companies today now harvest and use all this data that enables them to capture more and more of our attention. It’s like this arms race in which companies keep extending their surveillance of us to get more data, which they use to induce us into this trance of clicking. These days, we’re meant to binge. We binge watch, binge click; we’re constantly distracted by notifications, and we’re umbilically connected to these corporate stores. I’m not saying that those things are in and of themselves terrible. But they are terrible when they come at the expense of sustained thought, of private thought, of the type of thinking that comes with, say, reading a book on paper.
Do you think leaders in Silicon Valley are just following the technology, or are they actually hostile to the old way of doing things, to the legacy institutions of journalism and publishing?
I think they’re actively hostile. Maybe they’ve toned down that hostility over time, but go back a few years and read what Jeff Bezos wrote about elite gatekeepers, and the way he would talk about book publishers. There was a raw, open, rank hostility to the old guard, which he sees Amazon replacing.
Yet Bezos today is being praised for revitalizing the Washington Post, which you write about in the book—you say we shouldn’t applaud too loudly for Bezos just yet. Why not?
The Washington Post has gotten a lot better. And Bezos has spent money on it, and he has presided over an admirable renaissance. But that shouldn’t be the limit of our horizon. I’d actually argue that the best thing to happen to the Washington Post was hiring Marty Baron, maybe the greatest newspaper editor of his generation. What often happens with oligarchical figures like Bezos is that they try to launder their reputations over time. But I think we can say “job well done” with the Washington Post and still not lose sight of the fact that Amazon is incredibly problematic, not just for book publishing but the entire retail economy.
This fall marks five years since the U.S. imposed sanctions on three major publishers for fixing e-book prices. Looking back, an antitrust case involving Amazon and big corporate publishers was surely not the ideal venue to address the deeper issues that lurked there. But what else is available? Are we left to rely on antitrust law to regulate our emerging digital culture?
No. In the Apple price-fixing case, antitrust was used as a bludgeon against the publishing industry. It was kind of a cut-and-dried case, but the law clearly isn’t right if it’s incapable of addressing the core problem, and in fact, in this instance antitrust law actually became a vehicle for beating back competition. We really need to consider the problem of gigantism, and not just focus on price, because I suspect Amazon, because of its size, will always be virtuous when it comes to price, and it will use price as a guise for expanding into every nook and cranny of every market, making producers ever more dependent on them. That is a huge problem not just for the health of industry, but for our democracy.
The tech industry often touts the democratization they offer. But we are now seeing evidence that Facebook in the last election was manipulated in ways that may have distorted the democratic process, right?
That’s right. And it’s not just Facebook: Google, Amazon—these companies are eroding the institutions that protect democracy, and creating conditions among the citizenry that actually make good democratic decisions less likely. But I’m ultimately hopeful that we’ll see some sort of reversal. In the book I have an analogy to food. What makes me optimistic is that 50 years after we got fat from processed food and TV dinners, we’ve started to awaken to the problems there.
My hope is that something similar occurs with the stuff we ingest with our minds. And I think with the outcome of the last election, a lot of people are starting to rethink the power of these large tech companies. If you look back at some of the 19th-century monopolies, they had incredible power and prestige, but the backlash against them came very quickly. Perhaps, we’re in an analogous place, and what looks like immovable power now may actually be quite vulnerable.
Your book features a chapter on authorship. At a time when we are seeing more avenues for authors to get published, especially in terms of the ability to self-publish books, how do you see authorship challenged?
I look at what happened to the publishing business over my career. The first book advance I got was paid out in thirds. And over time as I’ve had different deals, the advances get chopped up into ever-smaller parcels. I think what’s happening with book advances is something that most of the world just doesn’t fully appreciate. Especially when it comes to nonfiction, because writing a book of investigative journalism is an expensive endeavor, and the system works best if you have publishers making bets on authors. Self-publishing is fine. But in a world of self-publishing, where everything is about what you get on the back end, there’s a serious disincentive from embarking on really important, vital projects.
The last chapter of your book is called “The Paper Rebellion.” There are lots of opinions as to why print book sales are ticking back up. What’s your theory?
At one point, as you remember, people expected all these new digital devices would displace paper. But that hasn’t happened, and there are many reasons why—publishers, for example, have been quite serious about preserving the value of the books they sell, and I think that’s laudable.
But I also think there is an almost subconscious gravitation back to paper that stems from our exhaustion with screens. I think people have this innate sense that they need a break—that they need to tend to themselves, and their minds, and that they actually need some privacy, some moments where they know they are not being tracked. Because it’s in those moments that we’re able to think more freely, and more deeply. And there’s really no better way to do that except for the time we spend with words on paper.