New Dark Age

Technology and the End of the Future

Bridle is a writer and artist known for clever installations, including Drone Shadow, in which he painted the outline of a drone on the ground to draw attention to extrajudicial killings made possible by drones; and Autonomous Trap, a performance in which a self-driving car is trapped in a salt circle, in a kind of modern-day witchcraft. In New Dark Age, he takes that astute and critical eye and breaks down the many ways in which technology, including the internet—once heralded as the key to truly knowing the world—have in fact brought about an era of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and post-factual politics: in short, a new dark age. Bridle has an uncanny ability to detail the dangers lurking in a technocratic system trying very hard to keep them hidden, but remains wisely reluctant to prescribe easy solutions. A compelling and appropriately gloomy read.

Reading notes

Illegible

In his tour of the ills of present technology, Bridle spends a great deal of time unpacking computation—how it works and what it’s done to our understanding of the world. About Wikipedia, he writes:

At the last survey, bots counted for seventeen of the top twenty most prolific editors and collectively make about 16 percent of all edits to the encyclopaedia project: a concrete and measureable contribution to the knowledge production by code itself.…

The danger of this emphasis on coproduction of physical and cultural space by computation is that it in turn occludes the vast inequalities of power that it both relies upon and reproduces. Computation does not merely augment, frame, and shape culture; by operating beneath our everyday, casual awareness of it, it actually becomes culture.

Bridle, New Dark Age, page 39

Another way of thinking about this: computers (and bots and the systems they create) have become a kind of invisible strata upon which we build our awareness of the world. We can’t see them or interrogate them, so they become like the air, a thing to be taken for granted, to be accepted. What happens to our knowledge of the world when that strata is uneven or false?

Google set out to index all human knowledge and became the source and arbiter of that knowledge: it became what people actually think. Facebook set out to map the connections between people—the social graph—and became the platform for those connections, irrevocably reshaping societal relationships. Like an air control system mistaking a flock of birds for a fleet of bombers, software is unable to distinguish between its model of the world and reality—and, once conditioned, neither are we.

Bridle, New Dark Age, page 39

The more I think about this phenomenan, the more I come back to the way that technology (and the internet, in particular) make the world illegible: in a system which contains not only all human knowledge, but nearly all anti-human knowledge—every conspiracy theory, every lie, every bit of subterfuge and misdirection—the world becomes a thing unreadable, indecipherable, unknowable. No amount of literacy can counter a system colonized by bots and sociopaths intent on undermining truth itself. At some point, you just have to look away.

Guardianship

In the conclusion to New Dark Age, Bridle refers to various proposals for marking a site of nuclear waste disposal, such that future generations wouldn’t accidentally stumble into their doom. The proposals run the gamut from sculptures designed to communicate a warning, to cats bred to change color in the presence of radiation, to simply erasing all evidence of a burial site, so it can vanish from history.

Bridle raises another option:

An atomic understanding of information presents, at the last, such a cataclysmic conception of the future that it forces us to insist upon the present as the only domain for action. In contrast and in opposition to nihilistic accounts of original sins and dys/utopian imaginings of the future, one strand of environmental and atomic activism posits the notion of guardianship. Guardianship takes full responsibility for the toxic products of atomic culture, even and especially when they have been created for our ostensible benefit. It is based on principles of doing the least harm in the present and of our responsibility to future generations—but does not presume that we can know or control them. As such, guardianship calls for change, while taking on the responsibility of what we have already created, insisting that deep burial of radioactive materials precludes such possibilities and risks widespread contamination. In this, it aligns itself with a new dark age: a place where the future is radically uncertain and the past irrevocably contested, but where we are still capable of speaking directly to what is in front of us, of thinking clearly and acting with justice.

Bridle, New Dark Age, page 251

In a way, the sculptures and cats and erasures presume that nuclear waste is someone else’s problem—someone who may live hundreds or thousands of years from now—and that we need to do whatever we can to help them address it. While guardianship insists, instead, that the problem is ours—today—and that we abdicate our responsibility when we project it into the future. It may be that both presumptions are correct, but we can only do something about one of them.