Do you ever open Instagram, Twitter, or TikTok and feel like the world is spinning rapidly off its axis? And that you’re just along for the ride, powerless to slow things down?
Perhaps that feeling of vertigo is not as much a result of the worsening state of the world so much as the product of the digital systems—with the new addition of AI and ChatGPT to the pantheon—that portray it. Their designers meant to hold your attention, and what better motivator than fear and loathing?
In Meganets: How Digital Forces Beyond Our Control Commandeer Our Daily Lives and Inner Realities, David Auerbach argues the the distinctly modern feeling of a loss of control over our lives is the result of these new online forces. The vast influence of Facebook, Google, TikTok, and other tech giants is neither in the hands of the technology’s creators nor its users, but somewhere maddeningly in between, leaving both sides frustrated.
Read an excerpt of Meganets below:
The Googles, Facebooks, cryptocurrencies, and government systems of our world accumulate influence at a mystifying rate. The constant critiques and attempted regulation directed at these systems never seem to yield real reform. Such efforts run into a brick wall for one ultimate reason: no one is really in control. Even the companies and executives who run them are trapped by the persistent, evolving, and opaque systems they have created. What is it that has so destabilized our elites so that they have lost control of the very systems they built and run? With every passing day we intuitively sense a loss of control over our daily lives, society, culture, and politics, even as it becomes more difficult to extricate ourselves from our hypernetworked fabric. No explanation ever seems sufficient.
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I saw this new world being created when I worked in the engine rooms of Microsoft and Google for more than a decade. I can say, for certain, that we did not know the impact of what we were creating. We were wildly overoptimistic about it, to be sure: Google’s slogan “Don’t be evil” made that clear. But moreover, we did not fully grasp the uncontrolled power of the systems growing around us. Very few among us not only understood that these new, huge networks could behave unpredictably and uncontrollably but that they were also becoming intrinsically more unpredictable and uncontrollable. And we did not know how to prevent this because the systems extended beyond our direct control. Yes, we controlled the code, but we did not control the people using it, nor did we choose the data that was being put into it. And the ever-growing networks moved faster than we could keep up with. Coarse-gained, approximate influence increasingly replaced total, microscopic control. We did not predict the consequences of that loss of control either.
When I transitioned to being a technologist, policy analyst, and writer, I moved to a world that was alternately dazzled by and resentful toward the new technological leaders. Yet nearly without exception, my colleagues assigned unwarranted agency to the creators of the technologies and tech companies that they criticized. They would tell me: “If only tech companies would change this, life online would be so much better!” Either regulation or user pressure could make Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter, and whoever else see the light and remove the ugliness. I would respond: “What you’re asking for, the companies just can’t do. It’s too difficult. There’s too much data and not enough ability to process it.” Without exception, they would disagree. How could such big companies not be responsible for the world they foist on us? Whatever problem was wrought on society through social media or the internet more generally, whether it was fake news or online abuse or cryptocurrencies, the assumption was that the Mark Zuckerbergs and Steve Jobses of the world could fix these growing problems if only they had a stronger ethical core and less attention to profits—if only they would put people before profits and ethics before growth.
I overestimated tech companies myself. Though I had left Google by 2011, when it rolled out its social network Google+, I expected that on the strength of its successes, Google would be able to assemble a social network to rival and even surpass Facebook’s. What I didn’t expect was the aimless, confused product that followed, one that poked its nose into Google’s more successful properties (Gmail, YouTube) without ever gaining traction. By 2015, Google+ was thoroughly irrelevant, and Google finally shuttered it completely in 2019. Just because Google had organized the web for utility and profit did not mean that it could organize people for the same ends. If one of the largest and most successful companies in history could not gain any ground in creating a social network out of its hundreds of millions of existing users, was there any more reason to think Facebook had any greater degree of control over its users?
This book is addressed to those who feel lost—or at least perplexed. If you feel at home in the world today, comfortable with the size and scope of daily and global events, what I say will likely seem superfluous or irrelevant. Yet it is rare that I meet people, however happy they may be, that do feel at home in such a way. Even the most successful and contented bemoan a world that, in its complexity and its inseparability, leaves them only with the options of being trapped in engagement or else opting out completely and escaping. Indeed, the happiest seem to have chosen the latter. Money has become less a tool for changing the world than for merely regaining one’s autonomy. Fame and prestige have far more negative associations than when they were the preserve of a remote, elite class. Whether one is an internet celebrity, an influencer, or a movie star, fame today is more like having a target on one’s back. Visible impact in the world has come to feel less important than privacy, autonomy, and independence—the freedom from the automated and semiautomated processes that sweep up most of us into routines from a very young age.
We repeatedly point to one or another phenomenon that seems to have created this new world: computers, smartphones, social media, data more generally. No doubt, the injection of exponentially growing computing power set the stage for the loss of control we currently experience. This unprecedented growth has created an unprecedented situation, but that nonlinear sheer size does not point to a way out of this mess we are in, nor does it fully explain what has happened. The fundamental explanation lies in how humans and technology have combined to form unfamiliar, disruptive phenomena.
The Industrial Revolution brought about great shifts in human existence as cities became centers of industry and modes of work drastically shifted, for better and for worse. Industrial technology and the science behind it were necessary precursors to the societal changes of the nineteenth century, but by themselves, they hardly explain the new economic and social organization that resulted. From looking at the steam engine, one would not immediately make the jump to filthy factories, child labor, and the migration from traditional rural life to the explosive growth of cities. Yet the Industrial Revolution lies in those social changes just as much as it does in the technology that spurred them. Similarly, today’s enormous online networks have produced new forms of social, economic, and political organization, but we have been slow to perceive them because they are so unfamiliar to us. Growth and connectivity have fueled the invisible human-machine behemoths that I call meganets, radically restructuring our lives as drastically as the Industrial Revolution did—a fact that we are just beginning to comprehend. These meganets are fundamentally new combinations of huge numbers of people and enormous amounts of computational processing power. They evolve faster than we can track them. Their workings are opaque even to their administrators. And they irreversibly occupy our lives with an ongoing persistence that makes them inextricable from the fabric of society.
The driver behind our loss of control is neither “populist” masses of people nor technology per se but this new kind of force, something that did not exist even twenty years ago. It emerged sometime in the first decade of this century and exploded in the second, triggered by the massive deployment of mobile computing devices that connected huge numbers of people to the internet without interruption. The tight tethering of humans to global communications networks created this new sort of beast operating beyond the control of the individuals, companies, and governments that created them, commandeering our inner lives and daily reality.
Conspiracy theories are fundamentally comforting. When confronted with uncertainty and chaos, it is a reassuring backstop to imagine that in some secret location, behind closed doors, someone is still in control, orchestrating the mystifying events around us. Whether it’s foreign governments, our own government, industry CEOs, or the 1 percent, hypothesizing conspiracies lets us believe that if only we could seize control from the secret actors, we could set things right. If no one is in control, then the worst may likely be true: no one can be in control. Unfortunately, it is this latter situation that is far more frequently the truth, and it is why, in the words of philosopher Kenneth Burke, we build our cultures by “huddling together, nervously loquacious, at the edge of an abyss.”15 It may not be a conspiracy theory to believe that Mark Zuckerberg is choosing to sow social unrest for profit, or that Silicon Valley elites are undermining democracy, but it is conspiratorial thinking. And it is incorrect.
Meganets, in truth, strongly resist attempts to control them as they accumulate data about all our daily activities, our demographics, and our very inner selves. They construct social groupings that could not have even existed twenty years ago. And, as the new minds of the world, they constantly modify themselves in response to user behavior, resulting in collectively authored algorithms none of us intend—not even the corporations and governments operating them. And in keeping with the exponential explosion in computation, they too will continue to grow at nonlinear rates, faster than we can keep
From the internet came subrevolutions like Web 2.0 and social media, followed by an ongoing series of buzzwords that capture whatever new forms of growth we have discerned in meganets. Whether it’s big data, the cloud, the internet of things, blockchain, augmented reality, the much-ballyhooed metaverse, or AI, these labels all present partial time-sliced views of the larger, sweeping trend of the meganet sweeping up our lives into a part-machine, part-human leviathan.
Excerpted from Meganets: How Digital Forces Beyond Our Control Commandeer Our Daily Lives and Inner Realities by David Auerbach. Copyright 2023. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.