New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future
2019, pp. 294, Paperback
The book New Dark Age describes the complex entanglements between technology and climate change, surveillance, conspiracy theories, scientific progress, history and historical accounts, power and power relations. Technology clearly affects our ways of thinking and being and James Bridle proves to be a keen observer and investigator of the transformations brought in our lives by technology. Through the countless examples he presents and discusses, he often paints a dark image of the world we live in, but he does so in the hope that as many individuals as possible will decide to engage actively and critically with technology and its effects.
In the introductory chapter, Chasm, James Bridle argues that in a world in which our lives are inextricably intertwined with technologies of all kinds, what we need is technological literacy. In his view, this goes well beyond a functional understanding of technology (so it’s not enough to know how to code), it requires to leave behind computational thinking and to create a metalanguage capable to grasp and express the complexities of the systems we live in. Moreover, literacy means to approach technology with the eye of a historian, to uncover its origins and question its purposes. He clearly states that his book is not „an argument against technology […]. Rather, it is an argument for a more thoughtful engagement with technology, coupled with a radically different understanding of what is possible to think and know about the world“ (p. 12).
In the second chapter, Computation, the author presents some milestones in the history of computation and computational thought, starting from the 1880s, going through some technological advancements during the two world wars and until the 1980s. He highlights how some of the projects, such as the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE), due to several failures switched its military focus to a commercial one. Nevertheless, we are made to believe in an infallible technology, suggests the author, and this facilitates two biases: an automation bias, which is nothing but a blind trust in machines and their work and a confirmation bias – selecting information, which confirms one’s prior belief. The author provides examples of automation biases, he shows how pervasive technology in our lives is, and warns the reader: „As computation and its products increasingly surround us, are assigned power and the ability to generate truth, and step in to take over more and more cognitive tasks, so reality itself takes on the appearance of a computer; and our modes of thought follow suit“ (p. 43).
In the third chapter, Climate, Bridle touches upon climate change issues and underlines the idea of interconnectedness: „[…] there is no such thing as a local effect in a networked world. What we perceive as weather in the moment shadows the globe as climate […]“ (p. 50). For him the climate crisis is also a „crisis of knowledge and of understanding“ (p. 56). Technology plays an ambiguous role in climate change: on the one hand, it negatively impacts the environment through huge resource consumption, on the other hand, technology has the potential to enrich the knowledge about the world we live in and to provide better forecast of possible futures. At the same time, preservation of knowledge is also essential and Bridle discusses briefly the relevance of seed banks, as well as that of permafrost.
In the fourth chapter, Calculation, the author goes through Moore’s law (improperly termed „law“, it is rather a forecast of exponential technological progress following the development of integrated circuit capacity), Eroom’s law (backwards spelling of Moore’s law referring to the slowdown in drug discovery) and scrutinizes the crisis in scientific research. Bridle gives some examples of misconduct by researchers (publishing of fraudulent papers), and presents some possible causes and warns about the erosion of trust in science (p. 91). This image is counterbalanced by the information provided about Tri Alpha Energy, a research company from California, and its success in combining machine-learning and human knowledge in developing the Optometrist Algorithm (pp. 98-101) used in plasma fusion research.
In the fifth chapter, Complexity, Bridle shows how technology influences stock exchanges worldwide and contributes to increasing inequality. Technology can be used to immiserate people and Bridle exemplifies this by presenting some of the scandals in which Uber was involved due to its (mis)treatment of employees. Similarly, one of Amazon’s logistics techniques (called „chaotic storage“) which requires employees to wear hand devices that direct them exactly to where the products are stored, is described as an instrument transforming employees into robots. In close connection with these effects, Bridle sees technology also as „the concentration of power in fewer hands and the concentration of understanding in fewer heads“ (p. 120).
In the sixth chapter, Cognition, the reader is given some insights on how machines learn and the progress they achieved. It goes from describing the Perceptron Mark I machine (designed for military purposes) up to DeepFace (a face recognition software developed by Facebook) or Google’s DeepDream. While the progress of machine learning is indeed remarkable, the author points out that it can be also problematic when machine intelligence is used to identify and predict patterns of crimes (pp. 144-146). Similarly, the neutrality of machine learning is called into doubt and Bridle provides some examples in this sense (Kodak calibrating their films for white subjects, Nikon Coolpix S630 and a webcam from Hewlett-Packard Pavilion failing to recognize non-Caucasian subjects – pp. 142-144). Furthermore, the author underlines that „the historic prejudices [are] deeply encoded in our data sets, which are the frameworks on which we build contemporary knowledge and decision making“ (p. 144).
The seventh chapter, Complicity, is centered on the nexus between transparency, opacity, and surveillance. The author shows how the sentence „We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of […]“, which originates from the CIA, entered the public discourse and continues to be used in different contexts. He harbors suspicions that intelligence agencies, through the researchers they hire, make discoveries that are afterwards kept secret. Moreover, Bridle examines the role played by intelligence agencies, be they American, British or others, in hiding, destroying historical records and whitewashing events and accounts. Considering for instance Snowden’s disclosures regarding mass surveillance technologies, the author rises awareness on the limited willingness of the individuals to deal with and understand certain information. He writes: „Its implications [of mass surveillance] stretch so deep into our everyday lives that it’s easier to add it to the long list of things we simply agree not to think“ (p. 179).
The eighth chapter, Conspiracy, deals with conspiracy theories concerning climate change and with the alterations in media reporting after the 9/11 attacks. Bridle connects the feeling of crisis sustained by the news tickers with Richard Hofstadter’s concept of „paranoid style“ that Hofstadter made use of to characterize American politics (p. 205). Bridle speaks of a „new age of paranoia“ (p. 204) and warns about the easiness of finding answers online confirming own beliefs, in „an endless echo chamber of supportive opinion, no matter what the subject matter“ (p. 212).
In the ninth chapter, Concurrency, the author sheds some light on YouTube’s business with children’s entertainment videos, often displaying violent content to children, who are easy prey for „predatory algorithms“ (p. 229). Adults too can fall prey to deceptive websites, as the author shows in the case of a Macedonian website about healthy food or a Canadian dating website. Along the same line, Bridle discusses briefly the „Macedonia’s fake news boom“ (p. 233) as well as the online activities of the Russian Internet Research Agency and the British Cambridge Analytica.
The closing chapter, Cloud, can be read as a conclusion of the entire book, with Bridle reemphasizing some of the main ideas of the book and presenting his hopes regarding the future. He encourages a critical examination of technology and proposes, as opposed to Clive Humby’s view of data as „the new oil“ (p. 245), that „information more closely resembles atomic power than oil: an effectively unlimited resource that still contains immense destructive power, and that is even more explicitly connected than petroleum to histories of violence“ (p. 248). Bridle recommends „guardianship“ understood as responsible and conscious action in the present, engagement with the past and „thinking clearly and acting with justice“ (p. 252).
The abundance of information in our age should make us more knowledgeable, but as Bridle shows, this is not the case. Sometimes it is this abundance, which clouds our minds, yet we believe that more data is the solution. We trust technology blindly, even though we mostly do not know how it works and we easily dismiss evidence, which does not suit our purposes. But Bridle too gathers and brings forward events and examples which support his view of technology. The author takes us nevertheless on an eye-opening (and disquieting) journey about technology and its effects and makes us aware of the easiness with which we avoid thinking about subjects that concern and affect us all.
The author wrote about many of the topics of the book in various newspapers and magazines and the ten book’s chapters may convey the impression of being separate entities. However, Bridle knows how to establish and uncover the link between everyday life and technology and he connects the chapters making them more than just disconnected essays. He encourages and sometimes forces the reader to open her/his eyes and acknowledge what is actually happening. Bridle’s main request to his readers is to think, to try to understand the world and to question its opacity or its darkness.
Bridle combines a news-writing style with figurative language, he looks for meaning and investigates myths, and proposes metaphors only to deconstruct them afterwards. Yet, his journalistic approach falls short sometimes as for example in his brief analysis of the Macedonian ethnic nationalism and fake news climate, or when he describes extensively nonsensical YouTube videos, but omits to discuss parents’ responsibility for what their children are watching. New Dark Age is in a way a confluence of topics, but the spotlight remains on technology and through the aspects it discusses, the book is both captivating and enriching.
James Bridle presents himself on his website and in the talks he gives as a writer, artist and a person with a deep interest in technology. He holds a Master’s Degree in Computer Science and Cognitive Science from University College, London and before publishing his first book, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future he wrote on various topics such as information technology, surveillance, environment, culture, etc. for print and online media as well as in academic journals and books.
Source: The information about James Bridle is taken from his website – retrieval date 14.10.2020.
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