As the world around us increases in technological complexity, our understanding of it diminishes. As we have more accessibility to information, we are lost in a sea of data, too overwhelmed to act. This state of paradox gave rise to the book New Dark Age in which artist and writer James Bridle surveys the history of art, technology and information systems from a fascinating perspective. Trained in computing, Bridle still believes that technology is full of possibilities; it’s just, he says, that most of us have either lost control over it or never had it in the first place. From financial systems to shopping algorithms, artificial intelligence to state secrecy, we no longer understand how our world is governed or presented to us. So how do we access this proactive space of experimentation and possibility, online and in real life?
The title of Bridle’s book is, of course, a reference to the ‘old’ Dark Age, a term applied in retrospect to medieval times by the 14th century Italian scholar Francesco Petrarch. Petrarch believed that ancient Greek and Roman cultures were highly advanced, but the medieval period regressed as a result of religion and superstition, leading to a period of stagnation. Petrarch’s idea was very influential, though highly generalised, condescending and totally subjective.Bridle offers his definition of what a ‘new dark age’ is, more inspired by the words of the early 20th century English author, Virginia Woolf.
James Bridle (English accent): A new dark age is not a thing in which nothing happens. It is not a time in which things are not possible. Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary in the early 1920s that she felt we were entering a dark age and she thought that might be a good thing, because the darkness was a good place to think. That it doesn’t need to be a frightening place it can be a place of extraordinary possibility.
The subheading of the book is Technology and the End of the Future. Bridle explains what he means by this.
James Bridle: I read an article by someone who runs the American Weather Corporation, which is one of the largest US-based weather forecasts in the world, and one that pioneered the use of vast amounts of data to feed ever more powerful computer programs in order to be able to predict the weather. But what’s increasingly apparent is that our ability to predict the weather is starting to falter. Climate change and the increased instability of the planet means that our models aren’t working as well anymore and we’re getting more and more freak weather events, things are more complicated than we’re capable of modelling.
DAY BY DAY
As a result, says Bridle, all our long-term forecasting is getting worse.
James Bridle: All our long-term forecasting and so much of our technologized society is entirely dependent on our attempt to predict the future in various ways, whether that’s moving goods around, sowing and reaping crops — any of these things. The ability to predict the future is something that we’ve based contemporary society entirely upon. The end of the future means we’re not going to be able to think so much in terms of what we’re going to be doing in a week’s time.
LOST IN DATA
While life becomes less predictable, information overload blocks us. Take surveillance and climate change, big issues that we know all about but that no one is acting on, says Bridle.
James Bridle: Climate change has poisoned our ability to have nice conversations about the weather: we actively reject thinking about it. Maybe the ‘darkness’ is a response to that. Nothing is gained by knowing all of these facts. We have to be aware of something else that’s off-kilter in our very way of thinking about the world. And it’s in that sense that I invoke this idea of ‘unknowing’, of a wilful rejection of that form of Western empirical knowing because it’s not helping us address these issues at all.
One effect of this has been a rise in alternative ways of thinking. In recent years, there has been a notable rise in mysticism. Bridle sees it as a productive attempt to reassert agency over things that we don’t understand.
James Bridle: How do we live amongst vast and dangerous systems that we don’t understand? Because the whole idea was that we were taming everything; we were making it all safe and good and now we’re inviting things into our homes and into our pockets that we don’t understand and that may contain all kinds of strange dangers, and we need some way of balancing that and so mystical practices have always been a way of asserting agency and I think that’s a really productive way to think about it.
LISTEN TO ELDERS
And given our lack of productivity on climate change, we should resist trying to give scientific reasons for observations that we assume are superstitious. Take the viewpoint of certain First Nations people, for example.
James Bridle: Certain First Nations people, they’ve been saying that the Earth is “off its axis”, because the Sun is setting in a different place, the land has changed to a radical degree. That something is afoot on the planet, and this was how they rendered it. I think it’s really essential to resist going like, “Oh, but they mean this when we say it in scientific terms”. To actually engage with this stuff thoughtfully and critically, it’s really necessary to hold both those ways of talking about what’s happening with equal value, because it’s quite clear from our inability to act on climate change that our dominant ways of talking about it are radically insufficient.
If we can’t think too far ahead into the future, how we behave right now is everything, says Bridle. That is why a more democratised approach to technology and our understanding of it is required.
James Bridle: We see the ways in which the technologies we’re dependent upon, the ways in which they’ve been developed, so whether they’ve been developed originally as military systems and brought into civilian life, whether they’ve been developed as industrial corporate systems... what logics have put this particular configuration of technologies in place. And given that we’re not going to step back from making stuff, do we make stuff in ways that is at least is not the way we’ve been doing it thus far. How do we open up wider participation, freeing up more and more people’s agency to be part of that process?