A New Book Wants You to Welcome the Darkness of the Digital Gothic
In James Bridle’s “New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future,” technology is a force for confusion and opacity rather than enlightenment.
Two brokers working at the London International Financial Futures Exchange (LIFFE). Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images
James Bridle wants you to embrace the darkness. New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, the new book from the artist, theorist, and technologist, is a doomy overture to a new era: a work of digital gothic in which the chills are provided by the unpredictable and unstoppable forces we’ve unleashed on the world in the decades since the Manhattan Project—the crucible, in the 1940s, of both early computational thinking and nuclear weaponry.
In Bridle’s book, creeping horror seeps from an environment of overwhelming confusion and opacity. He suggests that rather than fear it, perhaps we should learn from it, and, with cynicism firmly in place, even come to accept it: “We have been conditioned to think of the darkness as a place of danger, even of death. But the darkness can also be a place of freedom and possibility, a place of equality.”
Since the Enlightenment, there has been a belief that understanding, and thus societal progress, is powered by information. The more we know, the cleverer we become, the more we can discover, the better we invent.
Except, Bridle argues, our own data-hungry age is making us less powerful: we have so much information that we can no longer process it. It turns out that you’re not alone in suffering brain meltdown as the information environment bombards you with new, urgent messages: the entire system, from the security services to medical research, produces greater uncertainty rather than greater understanding, a kind of Endarkenment.
For example, Brindle contends that so much surveillance data is harvested that it can’t be processed fast enough to predict major incidents: instead, chains of events are pieced together after the fact. “Everything is illuminated, but nothing is seen,” he writes. “We know more and more about the world, while being able to do less and less about it.” Rather than the data usefully pointing forward to an incident about to take place, the incident itself becomes the aperture through which the reading of the data is focused, serving to identify suspects after the damage is done.
In addition to his writing, Bridle is a working artist, and his projects harness technological playfulness to serious intent. In Autonomous Trap, he imprisoned an obedient self-driving car in rings of salt that resembled road markings. Drone Shadow marked out silhouettes of the unmanned military aircraft that soar unseen in the upper atmosphere. In the grim months after the UK Brexit vote, he wrote an app that explored links between the weather and political polling data.
Since 2011, one of Bridle’s blogs has charted the migration of computer-readable content into real world design—humans aping machines—a tendency he dubbed the New Aesthetic. Recent posts included a brain-melting essay on the algorithms churning out creepy kiddie YouTube videos (an expanded version is included as a kicker to New Dark Age—it still causes chills.)
In New Dark Age, this pattern plays out on a massive scale: humanity is presented as a bunch of hapless idiots, endlessly repeating the same routine. We automate a previously human-driven process—international banking transactions, say, or content production—then watching astonished as speed accelerates, machinations become incomprehensible, and output starts to reflect the nastiest, darkest traits of human behavior back at us.
Online selection algorithms reflect our perceptions and prejudices back at us, leading to a proliferation of conspiracy theories fed by ‘evidence’ proffered by responsive, adaptive search engines: “It’s pretty simple: if you like that, you’ll like this, and down the rabbit hole you go.” Drawing, likewise on historic patterns of behavior, racial bias is deeply encoded in the data on which predictive policing systems are based.
202 years ago, with the industrial revolution in Europe in full swing, the massive eruption of Mount Tambora caused global climatic abnormalities. In what became known as the “year without a summer,” skies darkened, temperatures dropped, crops failed and a group of friends holidaying in Switzerland had their plans royally screwed. Driven indoors by unholy skies, they read ghost stories then wrote their own. Between them, that summer, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, John William Polidori, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron came up with fragments of the stories that would later be published as Frankenstein and The Vampyr.
Bridle, too, is writing in a moment of climatic catastrophe—he describes the accelerated melting of the permafrost, and proliferation of “clear air turbulence” causing airplanes to drop mid-flight—and his work of digital gothic is likewise penned in the face of technologies that, like Victor Frankenstein, we have engaged but failed to fully understand or control.
Groping through Bridle’s darkness for a way forward, hope seems to lie not in running from the monsters, but in working alongside them. It’s happening already: the “Optometrist algorithm” developed by Google Research tempers high-powered computation with human judgement to make complex decisions in nuclear fusion tests; in Advanced Chess, first introduced by grandmaster Garry Kasparov, human-machine teams compete at a higher level than either member alone.
That’s what it takes to survive in the new digital gothic: submit to the bite of the AI vampire; learn to love the re-animated corpse of big data; but more than anything, stay cynical.
James Bridle, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, is published by Verso Books.