Clouds and networks: reflections on James Bridle’s New Dark Age

I started reading James Bridle’s New Dark Age thinking it was another entry in the recent spate of “techlash” books. The subtitle, Technology and the End of the Future, is a hint. And the book does follow the tradition laid out by Carr, Morozov, Zuboff, Lanier, etc… yet it also heads in some very different directions.  There are some interesting and useful aspects for the future of education.

Bridle New Dark Agetl;dr version – I thought this was going to target Silicon Valley, but instead the book reaches more broadly, seeing our world entering a confused, flailing epoch because of many forces, not just technological ones. It uses cloud as a key term, starting from cloud computing, but inflating it to mean a cloudiness of understanding.

New Dark Age does spend a lot of time criticizing technology. Big data, AI, drones… all come under scrutiny, and in many of the ways critics have been following of late. The digital world threatens privacy and institutions, reproducing racial inequalities and exacerbating economic ones, spreading poor information habits and content, while adding to climate change. These technologies “are potentially catastrophic,” even computer simulations (15; chapter 2). Bridle offers some new ways into these issues, such as tracing the history of computing from British meteorology. His metaphors are fascinating, too, like comparing digitally generated data not to oil, but to atomic power (248-9).

He also follows some observers in finding that human-machine collaboration can be more effective than either people or computers acting alone. A chess legend has made this case, but I’m charmed by the term given to a Google AI protocol: the Optometrist Algorithm (“a stochastic perturbation method combined with human choice”) (99, 160). Michael Greer tweeted that the book is “less dark than the title might imply”, and this is evidence for that view.

So where does New Dark Age branch off?

To begin with, Bridle includes non-technological forces among the drivers of darkness. For example, climate change threatens (among other things!) to erode the physical infrastructure of the digital world, gnawing at cables and data centers (58). Increasing amounts of carbon in the human environment may actually threaten human cognition (73-5). The book sees the digital world making climate change worse, but doesn’t blame the planetary crisis solely on bitcoin mining.

Similarly, Bridle spends time updating us on the crisis afflicting scientific research, noting that the pace of discovery has slowed down in some fields. In the pharma world this is dubbed “Eroom’s Law” (Moore’s Law, with “Moore” spelled backwards). The replication crisis, the shocking inability of researchers to reproduce some key discoveries, is sowing doubt across some fields. Bridle sees some role for tech here (see below), but again, doesn’t ascribe blame solely to silicon.

While most tech critics avoid economics, or simply subsume markets and finance to technology, Bridle actually draws out the importance of huge economic forces. For example, a good passage describing the quiet interweaving of data networks through poor neighborhoods doesn’t see this as an effect of sinister silicon, but as high-powered finance capital at work (106ff). (But see below)

State power: while most tech critics focus on technology companies and either ignore governments or call for their assistance, New Dark Age carefully points out the role of states in driving technology’s negative effects. Chapter 7 in particular dwells on military and intelligence agencies as using digital tools to cloak their operations, while expanding their ability to unjustly probe our own. The conclusion calls out states and allied businesses as imperial and colonial (246-7).

All of these forces, technological and non-, combine to suggest a near-to-mid-term future that is, well, darker than the recent past.  I’m reminded of the great Jane Jacobs’ similarly titled, yet differently diagnosing, last book.

This mix of tech- and non-tech-related forces also come together in Bridle’s modified use of the term “cloud.” Cloud computing is only part of the meaning. Bridle extends the metaphor to describe the ways increased information backfires into reducing knowledge, something that obscures our awareness, that not only hosts content but also blots and obscures. “Nothing is clear anymore, nor can it be.” (72) “Cloud” also means “network” in a similarly detourned sense:

to include us and our technologies in one vast system – to include human and nonhuman agency and understanding, knowing and unknowing, within the same agential soup. (5)

Despite its origins in technology and a setting Bridle dreads, he also finds network thinking to be very positive, done right, as the network “can be a guide to thinking other uncertainties, making such uncertainties visible…” (76)

Network, cloud: Bridle wants us to rethink technology’s language, “re-enchat[ing]… all our tools…” (13) If we think in terms of clouds and networks, understood in New Dark Age terms, we may be better prepared to understand computing and the world it helps shape through a cloud hermeneutics (134).

However, at times New Dark Age overfocuses on technology. The chapter on computing history and simulation, for example, charges technology with being “allied to a concentration of power” (34), yet at that point quietly lets the Cold War military – that immense concentration of power! – off the hook. Bridle’s charge that computation thinking helps us confuse the map for the territory is one that applies to other, also influential fields, such as macroeconomics (dinged for precisely this point in 2008) or the modern state, in James Scott’s analysis. A criticism of digital mapping failures should have noted that people have suffered from non-digital mapping mistakes.* A criticism of finance networks working through spaces occupied by underfunded hospitals doesn’t quite land as a tech problem (110-111). The description of Amazon’s workers being strictly controlled by software somehow misses a century of “scientific management.”** Criticisms of Amazon and Volkswagen focus on tech and leave business, or neoliberalism, off the hook (119-120).

At other times New Dark Age zeroes in on technology’s costs without noting its benefits. A discussion of mapping software correctly notes information that’s left out, but fails to admit the resulting tool is actually quite useful, despite that flaw (35-6). Bridle argues that “computation… occludes the vast inequalities of power that it both relies upon and reproduces,” yet is silent about the way millions use that same computation to expose, understand, and resist power (39). The discussion of mounting problems in scientific research does admit that technology helps correct it:

frauds are also being revealed by a series of connected, network effects: the increasing openness of scientific practice, the application of technology to the analysis of scientific publications, and the increasing willingness of other scientists – particularly junior ones – to challenge results. (88)

One page complains that new taxi drivers in London can get up to speed on that city’s road system more quickly than they did in the past, and it’s not clear that this is a bad thing. (119) To be fair, Bridle allows that some of us see the internet as “allow[ing] many to realize and express themselves”… only to damn the entire thing by concluding that our use of the net is for ends “overwhelmingly violent and destructive.” (229) No evidence is adduced for this claim.

Further, Bridle’s account of information problems – overload, a lack of consensus reality, conspiracies flourishing – admits no existing way for us to address them, which misses key realities. Media/information/digital literacy makes no appearance, nor do librarians. This lacuna may help explain a contradiction in the book’s information discussion, as at certain points Dark Age argues that the digital world has shattered consensus, while at others claiming computation thinking forces us into artificially constrained, single, too simple thoughts (44).

There are also some curiously too-quick dismissals. Bridle slams geoengineering and new developments in material science in less than a sentence, without citation (64). Hollywood is paranoid, but it’s not clear what that means (130). The charge that tech companies “are still predominantly white” (143-4) manages to ignore the large numbers of Asians in those firms, disproportionate to their representation in the general population. An early chapter makes good use of an 1884 Ruskin lecture, but then mistakingly sees it describing, rather than anticipating, World War I’s battlefields, a generation later (195).

Overall, recommended, for all of its flaws.  The book offers a different take on technology in the world from today’s techlash.

*In one margin I jotted down a note about the Donner Party, misled by Hastings’ Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California, because that’s how I think.
**In Zamiatin’s great dystopia We the doomed denizens must conform many physical activities to Taylorist strictures.

(an early version of this posted to Goodreads)

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