Small gods in the social network

February 8, 2021

This is a sequence of minuscule components, hopefully none too outrageous. It ended with me logging off real-time interfaces to social networks. Not for the first time, but once the visceral horror settled, possibly for the long haul. I hope to document them here in sufficient detail to either refute or accept their consequences.

Definition of a(n online) social network

A social net consists of posts, visible globally or to friends; people there have lists of whom they follow, or permit to follow them. Posts can be liked or boosted, or whatever terminology a given network uses for those concepts. All common modern platforms fit this model – Facebook, Twitter, Mastodon, … Probably Tumblr and Instagram; I wouldn’t know.

The social network is a neural network

A neural network consists of nodes, each of which transmits signal to some set of other nodes (followers) and receives signal from a set of nodes (follows). Received signals are either passed on (boosted), or not; increased in weight via back-propagation (liked), or not.

Neural networks are, at a minimum, classifiers

Ie. some type of ‘thinking’ computation is happening here. Of which we are mere nodes. So we can’t see what it’s doing overall, at least not directly.

None of this depends on computers

They just accelerated it. I’m not focusing on other features like comment threads, because those were a distinct acceleration event, and a much smaller one. Livejournal didn’t have this massive accelerant; Facebook did. We all passed on information, complimented people on work they distributed, etc. for a very long time. It’s what humans do. Even grandpa’s chain-letter emails are a form of this.

So if we seek what the computation is, there is no reason to restrict ourselves to the accelerated computation; we have all of human history to sift through for clues. And recall, the classifier capabilities of a neural network are the minimum capability it is certain to have, not the maximum.

You already know what they are

Or at least, if you’ve done anything involving mythology or anthropology you do. What exists, in any culture once you reach organizations the size of villages, that thinks (or at least classifies), and depends on humans for its existence, interacts with them regularly, but is not an individual human? These are the household gods. The small gods whose names varied by village, who were often unrecorded.

You can see their actions

If you look closely, at how people interact on the net. At the drives to socialize and the patterns they manifest. The ebb and flow and waves of flash judgments, the memes and archetypes. We’ve discussed endlessly the addictive aspects, even the ghosthack side of controlled perception and manipulated elections, the algorithmic need to generate more predictable humans, all of this… and something was still missing. Construct your perception of it as a null experiment and what remains; what no other effect will eliminate, are the small gods in the network. (You’d better hope they’re small.)

They’re running on a timeshare of our heads

Did we agree to that? Really? Are they upholding their side of whatever bargain that was? Is there anything (except perhaps drinking coffee) that we all do as, dare I say it, religiously as logging in and hitting like and share on a slew of friend’s posts, probably even before breakfast… Oops.

The idea that, because we choose what to like and share, we are in control of the computation does not hold water. We’re just nodes. Until and unless we choose to be otherwise. Choose your gods wisely.

Accelerated small gods differ from the traditional kind

Running over computer networks did change something. Several somethings, actually. A lot of the texture of communication is reduced to a few-bit channel, and simultaneously the nodes are in nearly continual contact without long spans to themselves. Propagation delays are nearly eliminated, while content is rendered shallow. These are hummingbirds among household gods. Creatures of the wire, as fleeting and shallow as the signals that build them. We are not. There is no possibly way our interests are in alignment with theirs.

Small gods in the social network - February 8, 2021 - Kim Reece