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Cloud Cuckoo Land: James Bridle’s New Dark Age
Bernard Hay , July 6th, 2018 10:20

From ecological collapse to GPS glitches, artist and writer James Bridle’s new book urges us to re-think our relationship with the network

Almost all writing on technology can be marked on a scale between the utopian and the apocalyptic. At the start of the industrial revolution, the critic John Ruskin declared that the new ‘plague clouds’ rising from the factories were a moral abomination. Today, each year seems to bring a new pile of books warning us about the imminent disasters of global surveillance, automation, and the mass exploitation of the planet needed to sustain our augmented reality. It is arguably one of the stranger aspects of our relationship with technology that we shroud it in the language of prophecy. Perhaps it’s an important device for making sense of its power, scale and complexity.

In his new book, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, James Bridle interrogates the limits of our technological understanding. From the failures of using algorithms in scientific research to the stupidity of computer-generated slogans, Bridle shows that our blind-faith in technological progress has led us to an impasse. As we extract information from every aspect of our lives, we seem to know less about the world. For Bridle the answer is not knowing more, but finding new ways to act in the present. The new dark age, he remarks, “refers to both the nature and the opportunity of the present crisis … through acknowledging this darkness [we can] seek new ways of seeing by another light.”

As an artist and journalist, James Bridle has explored the politics of networked technologies through a range of media. And the crises that underpin this book will be familiar to anyone who has dipped into the news over the last few years. Environmental collapse, revelations about the NSA from Edward Snowden, Wikileaks, and others, and the precarious working conditions at Amazon and Uber all make an appearance. So too do glitches on a smaller scale – such as tourists driving into oceans because they followed their broken GPS, and financial algorithms that sell stocks because of a single fake tweet. In Bridle’s hands these are not to be treated as isolated incidents, but as symptoms of deeper processes that reveal the darker side of the technologies they depend on.

Throughout the book, Bridle reminds us that thinking about technology is far more than understanding the mechanics of devices and systems. In the second chapter of the book, Bridle takes issue with what he describes as ‘computational thinking’: a blind faith in the problem-solving ability of computers and a conviction that only what is quantifiable as data counts as fact. Echoing the twentieth century theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, for whom technology in Western Modernity embodied a pernicious form of instrumental rationality, his critique of technology is not only about its products, but about understanding their hidden power-structures, the kinds of thinking they encourage and the behaviours they engender. For Adorno especially, the essay offered an alternative form to technological thinking, allowing the writer to create new perspectives by weaving together knowledge and experience that couldn’t be reduced to one’s and zero’s. This is equally the case in New Dark Age, with many of the chapters drawing on past projects, histories of technology, personal reflection and investigative journalism.

Also like these thinkers, Bridle is a master of finding contradictions within existing technologies. The cloud is a recurring motif: “the central metaphor of the internet”. Starting with Ruskin’s plague-cloud lecture, Bridle traces the evolution of the computer from attempts to understand and regulate the weather. Beginning with mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson’s vision of a human-computer weather machine this narrative runs through to the US military attempts to control it during the mid-twentieth century as a tool of warfare.

In the 21st century data centers, Bridle states, now have the same carbon footprint as the aviation industry, making them a major contributor to climate change. For Bridle, there’s a further irony to this situation, with climate scientists relying on big-data and computational systems to tackle the very problem they’re perpetuating. The story of the computer comes full-circle from Richardson’s once fantastical visions, with climate change now threatening to de-stabilise the entire network.

Interestingly, Bridle doesn’t think the deeper knowledge we need to correct our relationship with networked technologies will take the form of web-transparency, even if leaks and greater awareness are vital for holding those who abuse its power to account. Instead, Bridle argues we live in a crisis of over-knowing, where the public becomes confused or indifferent with each new revelation. Neither does he believe that there can ever be a technological utopia. Taking issue with the rising voices of the Accelerationist movement, Bridle also argues that the inherent complexity in technology will always lend power to a few. Despite this, Bridle is largely silent on giving a positive alternative, leaving the reader to make up their own mind on the cases put before them.

This is not to say that the book adopts a wholly negative view. In several passages, Bridle suggests that we can find examples of humanity beginning to work in a positive way with networked technologies. Developed by Tri-Alpha and Google, the ‘Optometrist’s Algorithm’ uses a mix of machine learning and human judgement to refine medical research, blending the unique capacities of human judgement with the ability of algorithms to process vast data sets. The other is Gary Kasparov’s ‘Advanced Chess’, in which human-computer teams compete against each other to beat even the best ‘chess-playing computers’ acting alone. Although these examples are helpful, they raise the question of whether these hybrids might also have dangerous implications, who should control them, and how they could be applied to the many challenges identified in the book.

Nonetheless, New Dark Age is an important text for the present moment. Many of those reading it – myself included – will not be the ones producing the technologies of the future. But we can still think through their effects and have a say in what their future should be. As Bridle concludes: “We only have to think, and think again… The network – us and our machines and the things we think and discover together – demands it.”

New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future by James Bridle is published by Verso