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

Dr. Douglas C. MacLeod, Jr.
State University of New York College of Agriculture and Technology
Cobleskill, New York, U.S.A
MacLeoDC@cobleskill.edu

Auerbach, David B. (2023). Meganets: How Digital Forces Beyond our Control Commandeer Our Daily Lives and Inner Realities. PublicAffairs. 352 pages, $27.00

Over the last several months, there have been numerous news items, commentaries and talk-show conversations about ChatGPT, a form of AI that has now become the bane of many educators. Unlike good-old-fashioned plagiarism, where students cut-and-pasted random quotes or passages from a variety of websites, online newspapers, and sketchy op-ed blog posts, or purchased essays from any number of nefarious paper mills, they can now type in a question, word, or topic and ChatGPT will craft a relatively lucid work that can be submitted to their hapless and oblivious instructors.  As it pertains to education, this present-day reality is hugely disconcerting and quite disheartening; however, when viewed from a much broader context, many of the discussions have rather been about the frightening prospect of potentially having the entire planet and its inhabitants someday being ruled by artificial intelligence.  In other words: Will humans lose control?

According to David B. Auerbach in his new book Meganets: How Digital Forces Beyond Our Control Commandeer Our Daily Lives and Inner Realities, humans and computers have already merged to create what he calls meganets, which are “fundamentally new combinations of huge numbers of people and enormous amounts of computational processing power” (11).  These meganets “evolve faster than we can track them” and “the workings are opaque to their administrators” (11), which means that the answer to the question above is: humans will not lose control because they already have.  As Auerbach states: “Whether it’s big data, the cloud, the internet of things, blockchains, augmented reality, or the much-ballyhooed metaverse, these labels all present partial time-swiped views of the larger sweeping trend of the meganet sweeping up our lives into a part-machine, part human leviathan” (12).

The thought of meganet creation already taking place is, for lack of a better word, scary; yet, Auerbach does claim that humans should not fear this change because a power dynamic does not truly exist.  What humans need to be concerned about, instead, is ineptitude: the lack of data organization, the dissemination of disinformation and the resulting profiting from these issues, as well as the lack of oversight to ensure that self-interest is being served (among other things).  And, at the present time, these problems cannot be fixed because humans have no idea how meganets are to be broken.  Coming up with solutions has therefore become a necessity: “We can ban the dream of fixing meganets while retaining some ability to shape their functions” (21).  Thus, humans are not obsolete in that we can utilize a form of social engineering where free speech is not infringed upon and where “the ham-fisted censorship performed by corporations and governments in response to the complaints of politicians and media” (22) can be prevented.

Each chapter in Meganets is an illustration of Auerbach’s introductory points.  He first speaks about cryptocurrencies and blockchains, where the vision is “to take centralized power away from the hierarchical human organizations and lock it up with impermeable algorithms” (28).  The misnomer here is that the cryptocurrencies will be privately owned as the ability to access those cryptocurrencies would be virtually impossible.  So, who has control over those accounts?  Administrators, companies, organizations, corporations, Big Tech.  As of right now, humans can go to the bank and take out their money from their accounts when needed.  But what happens if we acquiesce to blockchains and make cryptocurrency our primary source of money?  Allowing those in charge of an already inept and bloated system to be the keyholders to what we earn and what we accrue could prove hazardous.  As Auerbach says, the “exponential growth of computing technology and data collection has yielded a world that, upon examination, is too big for us to know” (30).

This all began with the development of Big Tech companies like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube; however, it is not their fault that we are in our current situation.  We are the ones that turned our entire lives “into data, online and offline” (33-34), which is why data is so very marketable.  Indeed, as elucidated by Auerbach, we have morphed into data, and this has been of our own doing.  It has resulted in us now being saturated by a sea of information that is beyond our comprehension, and in which we are drowning.  This is why artificial intelligence and what Auerbach calls “deep learning” can exist in this newer technological revolution.  AI takes all our data and can now use it to produce whatever it wishes to produce. In truth, AI has a mind of its own, even though it may tell us it does not, and on some level – being as vast as it is – it is “all-knowing”.

Another aspect of the meganets, according to Auerbach, is that they are “a persistent, evolving, and opaque data network that controls how we see the world” (45).  These networks are produced with three different key parts: “1. A tightly integrated set of servers and clients running software./2. The programmers and organizations who create and administer the software and servers./3. The participants who use and more important operate on that network, making ongoing changes to it, and who are in turn operated on by that network in a feedback loop” (46).  It’s true that nothing “is stable in a meganet” (46), but the meganet cannot function without clients, programmers, and participants.  The question is: Are we here only to serve a function for the meganet?  One could say that Auerbach is trying to figure that out throughout his text, yet he certainly does recognize that these meganets affect the “human social order” (47) with their volume, velocity, and virality; and, it is because of influencers like Elon Musk, Donald Trump, Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan and a slew of others, who use these three elements to their advantage, that we have become a scattered and transforming world where even the economy can chaotically flounder because of the market for disinformation (Auerbach smartly uses the GameStop debacle of 2021 as a clear example of how meganets have created a fragile market). Meganets, thus, have become sufficiently influential to persuade corporate CEOs into believing their businesses are in a financial freefall, or voters into believing an election can be rigged, or that a violent insurrection is similar to a leisurely tour of the Capitol.  We have become more engaged with what is happening around the globe, but how much of it is truth?  How much of what are we seeing on the internet is real or just clickbait that we are easily manipulated by?  Are our interactions with those in the metaverse going to be fruitful and help us communicate with flesh-and-blood human beings?  Can we get an honest understanding of the cultural background of someone who presents themselves an avatar?

Auerbach subtly points out the fact that much of our experiences in meganets are constructed narratives, produced by both the data that has been amassed by algorithms and our own communications with the platforms we use and with others through those same platforms.  According to Auerbach, much of this has to do with Microsoft and their implementation of Messenger in 1999.  One of the more fascinating aspects of Meganets is the way Auerbach demonstrates to his readers the speed at which this all came about: within the last twenty years or so – how quickly we embraced and perverted these technologies to the point of melding with them, and how quickly we gave our agency to those that created these technologies – the Bill Gateses of the world.  No longer are these devices merely in our homes.  We now engage with them constantly and in all places; they have become extensions of us, while companies like Google, with its implementation of an all-knowing search index and employment of advertisements, have capitalized on what is now an ongoing feedback loop (103).

Auerbach speaks masterfully about how the meganet, though evolving and lucrative, is still not carefully maintained by those who now have limited control over It (108).  Amazon, where inaccuracies and fraud occur consistently and targeted solutions are not used to stop these issues,  is an apt example of this problem (109).  In essence, we have placed all our confidence in what is an inept system, run by equally inept and corrupted CEOs that perceive us as gamers and consumers rather than flesh-and-blood human beings who not only have wants, but also needs.  Auerbach speaks to this as being similar to Mark Zuckerberg’s “Metaverse Strategy” (118).  Auerbach writes, “The metaverse business strategy is to expand…in-game transactions into the wider online world and thereby merge them with the offline world” (114).  For us to connect us with the Metaverse, we would have to use virtual reality technologies, which have been primarily used for gaming.  The primary goal of this is for the meganet to get bigger, for Facebook/Meta to get stronger, and for Mark Zuckerberg to get richer.  Online currencies are connected to gamification as well.  No longer are we digging for gold; we are now mining for Bitcoin and a variety of other volatile blockchain cryptocurrencies in a constructed universe, which nonetheless depletes real-world resources, and is in fact costing us more than it is making us richer.  At this point in the narration, much of Auerbach’s argument consists of current examples of companies making or losing money because of cryptocurrencies, which further proves his claim in a very powerful way.

Ultimately, it is this that makes Meganets such a good piece of writing.  Auerbach is a strong writer, who is able to combine theoretical concepts, argumentative points, and tangible examples with l ease.  He is also extremely skillful at showing readers the toll a meganet universe takes on human beings, not only on our wallets but also on our identities and our abilities to take responsibility for how ungovernable this has all become.  Are we sacrificing our own abilities to learn so that artificial intelligence can learn more and more?  How important is it to have deep-learning AI in our everyday lives? And how dangerous is it?  Have we lost control, and is this because of AI?  By the end of Auerbach’s book, we learn that, indeed, human beings find it easier to blame AI for all of our world’s problems; however, as Auerbach states: “If we must continue to cede power to meganets, we can at minimum remember how we got here” (291).

Suggested Reference Citation

APA

MacLeod Jr., D. (2023). Review of Meganets: How Digital Forces Beyond Our Control Commandeer Our Daily Lives and Inner Realities. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, 10(2). http://journaldialogue.org/reviews/review-of-meganets-how-digital-forces-beyond-our-control-commandeer-our-daily-lives-and-inner-realities/

MLA

MacLeod Jr., Douglas C. (2023). Review of Meganets: How Digital Forces Beyond Our Control Commandeer Our Daily Lives and Inner Realities, Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2023, vol. 10, no. 2. http://journaldialogue.org/reviews/review-of-meganets-how-digital-forces-beyond-our-control-commandeer-our-daily-lives-and-inner-realities/.

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