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“Just one word. Are you listening?” Mr. Maguire said to Ben Braddock in “The Graduate” (1967). “Plastics.”
Twenty-five years later a puckish French horn player warned me, a literature major 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 argot, and a book, for our fast-changing times: “Meganets.” It’s a muscular-sounding term that a few companies, including a communications provider and sprinkler system, have already claimed. (I found this out, naturally, on Google, which along with Microsoft once employed Auerbach as a software engineer.) But his definition of “meganet” is in essence a big blob of mortal and computing power, a “human-machine behemoth” controlled by no one. If the internet is the fictional doctor and scientist Bruce Banner, furtive and a little troubled but basically benign, meganets are Incredible Hulks, snarling and uncontainable.
About the competing concept of the metaverse, the vision of an imminent, investable digital world that has been on everyone but especially Mark Zuckerberg’s lips, Auerbach is a little hand-wavy, calling it “terribly vague.” And moreover nothing so new. “Don’t we already socialize, play and work in an all-too-immersive online world?” he writes. “That world may not be ‘The Matrix,’ but all the connecting tissue is already there.”
Along with all the literature about “unplugging” or learning “How to Do Nothing,” as Jenny Odell titled her flower-festooned 2019 best seller, “Meganets” made me feel deeply queasy about the amount of time I spend on Instagram, Reddit, TikTok and Twitter. Not Facebook, never Facebook — “a fount 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 I use occasionally to see what exes are up to.
When my tiny, “private” Instagram account was hacked last year by an enterprising bitcoin entrepreneur in a faraway land, I went into full-blown panic — especially after a nameless entity at Insta requested and then rejected a series of slow-mo video selfies, tilting head to the ceiling even, to verify my account.
Was this the experience of a validation addict going through 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 thrashing about in the great online ocean as data floated around me, multiplying like plankton.
A Gen Xer might well feel at sea too in Auerbach’s extensive chapter about cryptocurrency. “Reality bites,” we naïvely thought, but here “reality forks,” with blockchain doubling back on itself like a caterpillar.“No Rosseau-esque ‘General Will’ emerges from the bugs and forks,” is the takeaway.
Auerbach is as at home with literature and philosophy as in the engine room, quoting Kenneth Burke, George Trow and Shakespeare (in a discussion of artificial intelligence’s inability to determine the authorship of the Elizabethan play “Arden of Faversham”). “I have waited more than five years for Amazon to notify me of an available copy of Grigol Robakidze’s novel ‘The Snake’s Skin,’” he writes, “supposedly published in 2015” — this would be a reissue of a 1928 Georgian modernist classic that does sound fascinating — “but I will never get that notification because the book’s Amazon page is in reality a tombstone for a book that never existed.”
According to his previous, memoirish book, “Bitwise,” Auerbach first gave America the ability to type smiley faces in chat. If I were responding to “Meganets” that way, it would be with 😐, which can obscure an intermittent lack of comprehension. This is a deeply interesting book, but for the average “user,” which is what the meganets have made of readers and writers, a sometimes hard to access one. It was fascinating to be reminded of the failed experiment of Google+ (remember?), the search index’s answer to Facebook, and more about Aadhaar, India’s national identification program: “a unified, government-sanctioned meganet,” Auerbach writes. A “Data Abundance” chart that shows how many messages are sent and photos shared on various platforms each minute renders life’s new entwinement with unsettling precision.
But trying to follow along as Auerbach described a virtual pandemic called Corrupted Blood that spread through the video game World of Warcraft in 2005, arguing that “the distance between Corrupted Blood and a global financial meltdown is smaller than you think,” this “user” felt trapped in a dark rec room with a hoodie pulled over my face. It was like attempting to solve CAPTCHAs with different kinds of obscure motor vehicles. (Why never flowers?)
“Cloud” is a term Auerbach finds as nebulous as the “metaverse,” and yet his own text is pretty densely fogged — though worth the trip for the occasional breaks through to see the horizon; the lightning bolts of his own philosophical insight.
“We search for where the power really lies, when it does not lie anywhere — or else it lies everywhere at once, which is no more helpful.”
“If you do not give people what they want, what do you give them?” (“What they never knew they wanted,” Diana Vreeland would retort.)
And, in a Biblical-sounding proposal to mitigate this Orwellian hell: “If Big Brother can’t be stopped, we should focus on throwing sand in his eyes rather than futilely trying to kill him.”
Take my Wi-Fi — please!
MEGANETS: How Digital Forces Beyond Our Control Commandeer Our Daily Lives and Inner Realities, by David B. Auerbach | PublicAffairs | 339 pp. | $30
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