Book Review: “Meganets”, by David B. Auerbach
“Just a word. Are you listening?” Mr. Maguire told Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate” (1967). “Plastics”.
Twenty-five years later, a cheeky horn player warned me, a literature student who didn’t yet have an email address, that the future lay in something called “hyperlinks.”
Now here comes David B. Auerbach with a new piece of slang and a book, for our rapidly changing times: “Meganets”. It’s a tough term that a few companies, including a communications provider and a sprinkler system, have already claimed. (I discovered this, of course, on Google, which, along with Microsoft, once employed Auerbach as a software engineer.) But his definition of “meganet” is essentially a big mass of lethal, computational power, a “man-machine behemoth.” . controlled by anyone. If the internet is fictional doctor and scientist Bruce Banner, stealthy and a little troubled but basically benign, the meganets are the Incredible Hulks, surly and out of control.
On the competing concept of the metaverse, the vision of an imminent, investable digital world that’s been on everyone’s lips, but especially on the lips of Mark Zuckerberg, Auerbach is a bit agitated, calling it “woefully vague.” And besides, nothing so new. “Aren’t we already socializing, playing and working in an overly immersive online world?” he writes. “This world may not be ‘The Matrix’, but all the connective tissue is already there.”
With all the literature about “unplugging” or learning “how to do nothing,” as Jenny Odell titled her flowery bestseller of 2019, “Meganets” made me feel deeply uncomfortable at About the time I spend on Instagram, Reddit, TikTok and Twitter. Not Facebook, Never Facebook – “a source of misinformation”, as Auerbach calls it, “a petri dish in which false facts and crazy theories grow, mutate and metastasize” – except for the burner account that I occasionally use to see what the exes are doing.
When my little “private” Instagram account was hacked last year by an enterprising bitcoin entrepreneur in a distant land, I went into complete panic – especially after an anonymous Insta entity asked and then rejected a series of slow-motion video selfies, leaning my head towards the very ceiling, to verify my account.
Was it the experience of a validation addict in withdrawal? No, let’s reframe: I was trapped in a meganet (especially now that Facebook’s parent company Meta owns Insta): a middle-aged mermaid struggling in the great online ocean as data floated around me, multiplying like plankton.
A Gen Xer might just feel at sea too in Auerbach’s long chapter on cryptocurrency. “Reality bites,” we naively thought, but here “reality forks,” the blockchain folding in on itself like a caterpillar. “No Rousseau-style ‘general will’ emerges from insects and pitchforks,” is the takeaway.
Auerbach is as comfortable with literature and philosophy as he is in the engine room, quoting Kenneth Burke, George Trow and Shakespeare (in a discussion of the inability of artificial intelligence to determine the authorship of the Elizabethan play” Arden of Faversham”). “I’ve waited over five years for Amazon to notify me of the availability of a copy of Grigol Robakidze’s novel ‘The Snake’s Skin’”, he writes, “supposedly published in 2015” – it would be a reissue of a 1928 Georgian modernist classic that sounds fascinating – “but I’ll never get that notification because the book’s Amazon page is actually a tombstone for a book that never existed.”
According to his previous memoir book, “Bitwise,” Auerbach first gave America the ability to type smiley faces into chat. If I answered “Meganets” this way, it would be with , which may mask intermittent misunderstanding. It is a deeply interesting book, but for the average “user”, what meganets have made readers and writers, a book that is sometimes difficult to access. It was fascinating to remember the failed experiment of Google+ (remember?), the search index response to Facebook, and to learn about Aadhaar, the national identification program of the India: “a unified, government-sanctioned meganet,” writes Auerbach. A “Data Abundance” graph that shows how many messages are sent and photos shared across different platforms every minute captures the new tangle of life with uncanny accuracy.
But trying to follow as Auerbach described a virtual pandemic called Corrupted Blood that spread through the World of Warcraft video game in 2005, arguing that “the distance between Corrupted Blood and a global financial collapse is smaller than you might think. think so”, this “user” felt trapped in a dark playroom with a hoodie pulled over my face. It was like trying to solve CAPTCHAs with different types of obscure motor vehicles. (Why never flowers?)
“Cloud” is a term that Auerbach finds as nebulous as “metaverse”, and yet his own text is quite hazy – though worth the occasional break through to see the horizon; flashes of his own philosophical insight.
“We are looking for where the power really is, when it is nowhere – or it is everywhere at once, which is no longer useful.”
“If you don’t give people what they want, what do you give them?” (“What they never knew they wanted,” Diana Vreeland retorted.)
And, in a biblical-sounding proposal to alleviate this Orwellian inferno: “If Big Brother can’t be stopped, we should focus on throwing sand in his eyes rather than trying in vain to kill him.”
Take my Wi-Fi – please!
MEGANETS: How Digital Forces Beyond Our Control Control Our Daily Lives and Inner Realities, by David B. Auerbach | Public Affairs | 339 pages | $30
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