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Review: ‘Meganets’ by David Auerbach

As I was driving across town to have lunch with a friend, I saw an SUV with a bumper sticker that said, “Make Orwell fiction again.” In the spirit of Neil Postman, I thought, Friend, we ought to be more concerned about our Huxleyan present than a potentially Orwellian one.

We fear a world in which we’re oppressed through our relationship with technology and media. We dislike being forced to use devices that surveille us to engage in commerce. We bristle at being forced to consume content, like ads, whose primary purpose is indoctrination. We fear bad actors using the internet technology and social media with which we’re so desperately infatuated to oppress us.

All of these concerns are merited, to be sure. Bad actors and manipulative parties of all kinds find myriad creative ways to use technology to oppress others every day. Yet some continue to hold tightly to the idea that technological innovation is generally good and that novel internet technologies and features should be sort of “assumed innocent until proven guilty” when it comes to matters of privacy and other concerns. If we’ve learned anything from recent developments in the world of the internet, we should know that this sort of techno-Utopian perspective is at best unwise and at worst outright foolish. Meganets helps to explain why.

David Auerbach is a former Microsoft and Google engineer whose writing has significantly influenced the ongoing conversations on technology in general and on artificial intelligence in particular.

In Meganets: How Digital Forces Beyond Our Control Commandeer Our Daily Lives and Inner Realities, Auerbach makes the case that our internet technologies are beyond the creators’ ability to control them. Therefore, we should be less concerned about how these technologies may be used to merely influence us and more concerned about how these runaway technologies can directly harm us.

According to Auerbach, the imminent threat of many internet technologies is that they’re fundamentally uncontrollable.

Meganets: How Digital Forces Beyond Our Control Commandeer Our Daily Lives and Inner Realities

David B. Auerbach

Meganets: How Digital Forces Beyond Our Control Commandeer Our Daily Lives and Inner Realities

David B. Auerbach

PublicAffairs. 352 pp.

Meganets, Auerbach explains, have a life of their own, actively resisting attempts to control them as they accumulate data and produce spontaneous, unexpected social groups and uprisings that could not have even existed twenty years ago. And they constantly modify themselves in response to user behavior, resulting in collectively authored algorithms none of us intend or control. These enormous invisible organisms exerting great force on our lives are the new minds of the world, increasingly commandeering our daily lives and inner realities.

PublicAffairs. 352 pp.

What Is a ‘Meganet’ Anyway?

The internet is simply a network of computers around the world that connect with one another and share data. We don’t tend to think of the internet in such technical terms—rather, we think of the websites we use on a regular basis.

A meganet is something more complex. According to Auerbach, “A meganet is a persistent, evolving, and opaque data network that controls how we see the world” (45). A meganet depends on the existence of the internet but goes beyond it.

Like a fish explaining water, precisely defining a meganet is a challenge. They are ubiquitous and closely woven through the fabric of society. The online revolution has pushed aspects of nearly everything online and reduced much of our lives to data that feeds algorithms, which in turn feed us a stream of suggestions that influence our choices. Meganets are what receive, digest, and transform that data to silently shape the digital world we experience.

Meganets explain why a stranger’s mention of a new shampoo brand in your presence results in a series of ads for that brand on websites you visit. There was no direct human influence that specifically targeted you with those ads. You got ads for that new product because of a complex string of algorithms coupled with an ad purchase by an unknowing marketing assistant.

The whole ad cycle began with someone’s casual reference in the presence of your smartphone microphone and (often unchangeable) privacy settings that allow apps to listen in. Your response to the ad (or lack of one) provides data  used to create further ads, determine their placement, and target you more effectively for other products. Meganets are inescapable.

The persistence of meganets “comes from [their] never being offline and never being reset” (45). Meganets evolve “because thousands if not millions of entities, whether users or programmers or AIs, are constantly modifying [them].” And meganets are opaque because “it is difficult and frequently impossible to gauge why [a] meganet behaved in a particular way.”

Auerbach lists the following essential elements of a meganet:

1. A tightly integrated set of servers and clients running software-based algorithms

2. Programmers and organizations who create and administer the software and servers

3. Participants who use and more importantly operate on that network, making changes to it, and who are in turn operated on by that network in a feedback loop (46)

Auerbach concludes, “Meganets are neither wholly machine nor wholly human but the result of the combination of both on an unprecedentedly large scale” (178).

Frightening Complexity

Some examples of meganets you may encounter or hear about in everyday life include Facebook, YouTube, Amazon, and cryptocurrency. These are all things that started out simply, that many of us use every day, but have become so tangled and transient that it’s hard to explain exactly how they operate. It’s almost impossible to understand how they influence our lives in subtle, seemingly irresistible ways.

Here’s the process that meganets are going through as they continuously evolve:

1. The meganets’ systems are getting increasingly complex.

2. Defects in those systems are increasing in number.

3. Our ability to anticipate and address these defects is decreasing.

4. Our ability to mitigate the consequences of these defects may be worsening.

As we continue to engage these technologies and the content hosted on them, we contribute to a metaphorical flywheel of data storage and dissemination. A flywheel is used to store mechanical energy to keep something spinning smoothly. As the speed of the flywheel increases, the energy stored in it increases exponentially.

The volume of data is so large that these meganets have begun to spin out of control. According to Auerbach, the problem is so severe that, often, their creators and administrators no longer know how to best control them.

Even without the existence of a malicious actor intentionally controlling our lives, we may be under the influence of meganets. Once we depend on a service like Amazon or Facebook, the algorithm is going to significantly influence what products we buy and what events we’re aware of.

Meganets make society more brittle. A minor blip in the algorithm could create product shortages or effectively black out certain world events.

Meganets make society more brittle. A minor blip in the algorithm could create product shortages or effectively black out certain world events.

It isn’t clear that the people who created these systems know how to regain control, apart from simply turning the power off. But we don’t want to turn many of these systems off because they’re now interwoven into the daily aspects of our lives—from checking the weather to shopping for hygiene products.

Disentangling from Meganets

We can’t escape meganets without completely disconnecting. But there’s hope. The goal is to stop feeding the machine as much information and to create turbulence so the algorithm has to keep adjusting. Auerbach offers other large-scale suggestions for how to push back against meganets’ influence in our lives. I doubt some of those are possible. But we can implement some of his ideas to improve our digital lives.

He argues we should inject some chaos into our internet experiences by following people on social media who think differently than us, especially around cultural or political issues. This confuses the algorithm and helps us avoid an ideological bubble.

Additionally, Auerbach suggests a system for having internet users “take turns” at sharing content—a user would not be able to post again until enough others had done so. This could make us use the platforms more thoughtfully. It also reduces the information available to meganets, which shrinks their influence.

Auerbach proposes a top-down solution to regulate people’s posting, which is unlikely to be acceptable to many users. However, we could implement this sort of rule for ourselves. For example, it’s easy for me to rattle off 10 tweets in a day if I don’t pay attention. Therefore, I’ve set up personal limits to keep me from tweeting more than a handful of times in a given week. It’s good to share less than we do. Even small reductions in the ways we use meganets can make our interactions with them better.

Even small reductions in the ways we use meganets can make our interactions with them better.

Auerbach’s work in Meganets is heavy. Some of his explanations are so detailed that even tech-savvy readers may have trouble following. This would be a hard place to enter the conversation.

However, the book offers an important window into the challenges that humanity faces in dealing with technology that seems to be getting out of hand. It’s important to wrestle with the ethical implications of these technologies before things get too far out of control.

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