Illegible

A Reading Note

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.

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New Dark Age

James Bridle

James Bridle’s astute and critical eye breaks down the many ways in which technology—once heralded as the key to truly knowing the world—has in fact brought about an era of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and post-factual politics: in short, a new dark age.