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New Dark Age reviewed in the Guardian

on Sat, 06/30/2018 - 14:41

I suspect your enjoyment – or otherwise – of James Bridle’s New Dark Age will depend very much on whether you’re a glass half-empty, or a glass exactly-filled-to-the-halfway-mark-by-microprocessor-controlled-automatic-pumping-systems sort of a person.

I like to think that while I may have misgivings about much of what the current technological revolution is visiting on us, I yet manage to resist that dread ascription “luddite”. It’s one Bridle also wishes to avoid; but such is the pessimism about the machines that informs his argument, that his calls for a new “partnership” between them and us seem like special pleading. As futile, in fact, as a weaver believing that by smashing a Jacquard loom he’ll stop the industrial revolution in its tracks.

At the core of our thinking about new technology there lies, Bridle suggests, a dangerous fallacy: we both model our own minds on our understanding of computers, and believe they can solve all our problems – if, that is, we supply them with enough data, and make them fast enough to deliver real-time analyses. To the Panglossian prospect of Moore’s Law, which forecasts that computers’ processing power will double every two years, Bridle offers up the counterexmple of Gates’s Law, which suggests these gains are negated by the accumulation in software of redundant coding. But our miscalculations concerning the value of big data are only part of the computational fallacy; Bridle also believes it’s implicated in our simple-minded acceptance of technology as a value-neutral tool, one to be freely employed for our own betterment. He argues that in failing to adequately understand these emergent technologies, we are in fact opening ourselves up to a new dark age. He takes this resonant phrase from HP Lovecraft’s minatory short story, “The Call of Cthulhu”, rather than the dark ages of historical record, although the latter may turn out to be a better point of reference for our current era. Lovecraft’s new dark age is, paradoxically, a function of enlightenment – it’s the searchlight science shines into the heart of human darkness that brings on a crazed barbarism. Bridle’s solution is to propose “real systemic literacy”, alongside a willingness to be imprecise – cloudy, even – when it comes to our thinking about the cloud.

I’m not against this; indeed, I often think that in a world crazed by its sense of certainty, the best way to stay calm is to allow yourself the luxury of doubt. But while I can see it as making good stoical sense for the individual, I’m not sure it’s sufficiently rousing to prepare humanity, en masse, to cope with what’s coming down the steely, preprogrammed track. Bridle offers us techno pessimists plenty of examples to worry about. Some – such as death by slavish adherence to GPS navigation systems, and the woeful effects of the computational fallacy – I was already familiar with; but others did give me novel heebie-jeebies.

Read full review here

New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future
James Bridle
Verso Books
ISBN 9781786635471
Hardback, £16.99

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