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What to Read Next (No. 274): Into the Unknown
Featuring 2023 releases "Meganets" and "Ascension"
Happy Friday, readers!
We’re living in a period of great uncertainty: The internet is increasingly taking over our time and energy (if you have any doubt, just look at your screen time). Artificial intelligence is on the horizon, being molded by the hands of middle-aged billionaires, with little to no forethought or oversight of its possible consequences. Our democratic process is on shaky ground and our global politics are only getting more polarized.
I realize it’s kind of a bleak picture that I’ve painted, but that’s where the books come in! In times of uncertainty books can guide us and, almost as importantly, entertain us.
This week, I’m excited to feature two brand new books about our collective venture into the unknown.
David Auerbach’s Meganets helped me understand the massive influence of internet networks on our daily lives; Nicholas Binge’s Ascension provided a page-turning thrill while also prompting some big questions about finding meaning in the face of the uncharted and unexplainable.
Let’s take a closer look at each book.
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Meganets: How Digital Forces Beyond Our Control Commandeer Our Daily Lives and Inner Realities by David Auerbach
The internet, and social media more specifically, is having an introspective moment. Its deleterious impact on culture and human wellness is starting to be revealed on a larger scale than I’ve ever seen before.
Social media apps have added time controls and reminders (except Twitter, which has gone backward), TikTok is under intense congressional scrutiny, and, anecdotally, thoughtful longform articles about social media’s dangers have proliferated.
This isn’t even to mention the hand-wringing and philosophical angst about ChatGPT and other AI tools. There’s a lot of apprehension in the air.
Is all the anxiety warranted?
According to journalist David Auerbach, it sure is. And then some.
There are a handful of algorithmic networks — deemed “meganets” — that have come to shape our internet experience: Google/YouTube, Facebook/IG, and TikTok are the big ones right now. Auerbach argues that these networks have gotten so big and process so much data, that the humans behind the scenes don’t actually have much control over what happens on their platforms.
When hyper-polarized, extremist content is surfaced in your feed on YouTube or Facebook, it’s because the AI program running that feed has decided what’s most likely to keep you on that platform the longest. There’s no human involvement or moderation whatsoever. It’s not only hijacking everyone’s inner life and habits, but it’s putting our very democracy at stake.
Unless there are larger systemic changes in how internet platforms are governed, there’s not much hope for remedying this massive problem. Meganets is a sobering read, but a deeply important one.
Though Auerbach sometimes delves too far into the weeds for casual readers, anyone with an interest in tech (and Big Tech) will be keenly interested in learning how these meganets learn, operate, and iterate. Meganets isn’t for everyone, but I thought it was fantastic.
Ascension by Nicholas Binge
I was immediately hooked by the premise of this new sci-fi/horror novel from an author I hadn’t previously encountered.
A mountain that’s bigger than Mt. Everest has appeared out of nowhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Nobody knows what it is or where it’s come from.
It’s such a cool idea to dream up and write about!
Our protagonist is Harold Tunmore, a scientist who specializes in mysterious phenomena. He gets himself onto a team tasked with exploring the mountain and figuring out its origins.
What awaits Tunmore when he gets there is beyond what he could have possibly imagined. There are ghosts from Harold’s past, mysterious portals, and forces of evil both physical and mental that threaten to snap the fragile threads that connect the people on the mountain.
I appreciated that Binge connected the story to larger questions about meaning and purpose. Which pieces of the human experience are most worth leaning into and which pieces don’t matter? Yes, it’s a page-turner, but there’s a lot of thoughtfulness and heart at the core of the story.
Though this book is billed as a “speculative thriller” (meaning: the events in the book could theoretically happen), it veers more into the column of sci-fi horror. If you keep that framing in mind, you won’t be bothered by the sometimes outlandish plot.
I really enjoyed Ascension and look forward to seeing more from Nicholas Binge in the future. If sci-fi and/or horror is your thing, definitely give this one a shot.
Thanks so much for reading! I deeply appreciate your time and attention.