David Auerbach, author of Meganets – How Digital Forces Beyond Our Control Commandeer Our Daily lives and Inner Realities – Hashtag Trending Weekend Edition March 4, 2023

My guest on Hashtag Trending, the Weekend Edition is David Auerbach, author of “Meganets. How digital forces beyond our control commandeer our daily lives and inner realities.

There’s been a raft of news about artificial intelligence in the past weeks. While we marvel at the abilities of OpenAI’s ChatGPT, there’s also a rising level of concern filtering into public discourse. Are we seeing the future takeover of humanity by an out of control technology?

But what if that “takeover” has already occurred? What if our technology infrastructure was currently out of our control? That idea is a the root of this new book – Meganets – and the subject of my interview with the author, David Auerbach.

“What are Meganets?

According to Auerbach, a “Meganet is a data network that is persistent, doesn’t shut down, evolving. It’s never in the same place twice. And it’s opaque. And this sort of data network that controls or at least influences how we see the world. And it arises from not just from hundreds or thousands of servers, and their algorithms, but also millions upon millions of people interacting with those servers constantly creating a loop of feedback that causes the servers to change that change how we behave.”

“And so it gives rise to the three C’s – three qualities that I assigned to making massive volume of content, the high velocity of which content can be transmitted from anywhere to anywhere across many people, and explosive virality. Where a small initiating factor can blow up before anyone even has time to reflect on it and say, ‘What the heck is going on here?'”

How did this come about and largely without our noticing? Auerbach outlines in the book how the evolution of technology and the size and complexity of these systems has made them impossible to fully control.

“While the mainframes of the 1960’s and the PC’s of the 1980’s were localized and simple enough to permit us a near-perfect understanding of the work they did, the rise of large-scale internet-based networks, Facebook and Google chief among them, has obliterated most of that certainty. Our computer networks today are just as immune to fine grained control and perfect prediction as the weather, tectonic plates or the prices of cryptocurrency.”

For Auerbach, what we are seeing with ChatGPT and similar systems is consistent with the emergence of the Meganets. These new systems are not “intelligent in a human way,” says Auerbach. But while they cannot be considered as human intelligence, they do “perform a pretty good simulation of it that’s been able to convince a lot of people.”

That may be the biggest issue with this new development. “Even if we don’t have true machine intelligence, if we have machines that can fool people into thinking they’re intelligent, that’s a problem of it’s own, especially if they behave in unpredictable ways.”

Have we already lost control forever? How will we ever get the transparency and audit-ability to allow us to control AI? Auerbach doubts we ever will. In fact, he asks, “do we have audit-ability of Facebook or Twitter?”  He notes that, “all these calls for transparency and explainability” are “well intentioned, I just can’t see that coming out of them.”

These systems have grown so large and complex that it may not be possible for humans to fully understand their processes. It’s not “who watches the Watchmen, but who’s got time to watch the watchmen?”

Our interview, which dove deeply into this and more, did end with a degree of optimism.  We might not be in control of the algorithms, but they may also be past the control of their corporate billionaire owners as well. “Each of us control a bit of it, and very few people control enough of it to make a difference.”

While this idea of loss of control may seem frightening to some, to Auerbach it may be better than the alternative. “That nobody’s got the control – that’s better than somebody having it.”

His final advice – and why he wrote the book. “The loss of control is something that I tried to communicate.” That realization affects people differently, he says. “There are some people who still seem to think that it could be easily fixed in one way or another.”

While Auerbach disputes the idea that we can easily regain control, or even whether it is possible at all, he says, “there are people who seem to think I’m vastly more pessimistic than I am.”

“I also recognize the tremendous benefits that technology has. Its just that I think that in order for those benefits to be actualized, and to continue – the dark side of it needs to be recognized more clearly.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Jim Love
Jim Love
I've been in IT and business for over 30 years. I worked my way up, literally from the mail room and I've done every job from mail clerk to CEO. Today I'm CIO and Chief Digital Officer of IT World Canada - Canada's leader in ICT publishing and digital marketing.

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