New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future
By James Bridle, Verso, ₤16.99
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.
If we’re in ignorance of what our robots are doing, how can we know if we’re being harmed?
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.
I hadn’t bitten down on the fact that the very heat generated by the internet itself is a strong factor in global warming, which pretty much nixes any view that a more wired world will be a more sustainable one. Nor was I aware of the increase in a phenomenon known as “clear-air turbulence” (although really, it speaks for itself), which may well ground a lot of commercial aviation by the middle of this century.
And while I may have known at an intuitive level that the Syrian conflict had an environmental dimension to it, Bridle is the first person I’ve read who authoritatively labels it as a resource war, provoked by drought. Meanwhile, those hot and powerful secret government computers are being used to speciously survey us (he makes a convincing case for the complete uselessness of CCTV systems), while with their spare processing capacity they try to crack the prime-factoring encryption system that’s vital for online privacy and commerce.
That the US National Security Agency has already cracked some of the more commonly used prime number factors was, again, news to me. And I don’t think of the fake variety: for Bridle isn’t just a purveyor of the armchair jeremiad, who sits there blowing filter bubbles — he does fieldwork as well on our hideous and looming fate.
I particularly enjoyed his inquiry into the weird and wobbly realm of British airspace and the link between drone programmes and so-called “plausible deniability” — the invisibility cloak for so much of our rulers’ dabbling in the dark arts. But perhaps the strangest and most unsettling aspect of the coming new dark age is the emergence of machine intelligence.
Here Bridle makes an excellent and possibly original point: we’re accustomed to worrying about AI systems being built that will either “go rogue” and attack us, or succeed us in a bizarre evolution of, um, evolution — what we didn’t reckon on is the sheer inscrutability of these manufactured minds. And minds is not a misnomer.
How else should we think about the neural network Google has built so its translator can model the interrelation of all words in all languages, in a kind of three-dimensional “semantic space”? I’d wondered why it was that Google Translate had massively improved — moving from being a reliable provider of nonsensical silliness, to, well, an effective and instantaneous way of translating.
The problem is, we have a general idea how the program is doing it — but it can’t tell us exactly; and, as Bridle observes, this is tantamount to transgressing the first of Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics — for if we’re in ignorance of what our robots are doing, how can we know if we’re being harmed?
Intelligent computer systems are already menacing us with weird products devised algorithmically and offered for sale on Amazon, as well as bizarre and abusive “kids’” videos, which are mysteriously generated in the bowels of the web, and uploaded by bots to YouTube . Bridle borrows Timothy Morton’s modish conception of the “hyperobject” as a way of discussing our inability to apprehend the totality of the risks embodied in such vast phenomena as machine intelligence and global warming — but I’m not sure that acknowledging the ungraspable nature of anything really helps us to grasp it.
Bridle looks to so-called “centaur chess” as a way forward for our wetware: computers may now effortlessly beat the grandest of masters at the game, but one of the defeated, Garry Kasparov, has developed a fight-back method, in which humans partnered with computers can indeed regain the podium.
On this basis, Bridle argues, it’s possible to conceive of a new kind of “guardianship” of our frazzled planet and its poisoned wells, one in which we all work together. This seems Pollyanna-ish as much as Panglossian to me — I’m more struck by Nicholas Carr’s observation, in his takedown of the coming era of self-driving cars, The Glass Cage, that our inability to grasp the emergent techno realm may be a function of our having devised tools that do away with our need to use tools.
Most of us already float free from the world of making, doing, extracting and refining — and observe it indolently and imperfectly through the scumbled lens of the cloud. We carry on ditching single-use plastic, and ordering stuff from Amazon, and giving our personal information away promiscuously, not, I’d argue, because global warming and AI are too big to grasp, but because we understand only too well that real change could only be effected by a great mass of individuals. And that, as Bridle acknowledges, is an impossibility, given the new technologies atomise rather than fuse our social formations.
Still, no doubt once the microprocessors malfunction and the pumping system splutters to a halt, we’ll hopefully pick up pretty much where we left off before the Enlightenment — or possibly the Renaissance. One thing about the old dark ages was that they only seemed dark in retrospect, once the dread weight of state power had been reimposed.
I bet there were plenty of people besides the Goths (and the Visigoths for that matter), for whom the fall of the Roman empire was a cause for celebration. I realise this isn’t a popular view. And I expect many readers will find Bridle’s perceptive and thought-provoking book terrifying rather than enjoyable.
–Guardian News & Media Ltd