New Dark Age – James Bridle

Although my work hasn’t focussed on modern socio-political currents in any obvious way, these topics are something I read and think about a great deal on a day to day basis. I suppose in some way my rejection of the ‘everyday’ in my practice might be a reaction to the amount of time I spend thinking about contemporary issues. When I saw James Bridle’s “New Dark Age” pop up in a review on Brainpickings I immediately ordered it.

It’s hard to give a precis of what this book covers because it sprawls across a large and fascinating territory. I’ve described the book to a few people who I thought might appreciate it as an overview of the vast effect big data and computation is having on our culture.

“Over the last century, technological acceleration has transformed our planet, our societies, and ourselves, but it has failed to transform our understanding of these things… we ourselves are utterly enmeshed in technological systems, which shape in turn how we act and how we think. We cannot stand outside them; we cannot think without them.”
Bridle, J (2018) New Dark Age. England: Verso. P2 (emphasis mine)

I’ve pondered extensively the changes brought about by the vast oceans of unmediated information available on the internet over the last few years. It’s impossible to ignore the gravitation in contemporary society toward extreme black and white thinking with no subtlety or ambiguity, to a distrust in academia and intellectualism, and to a distinct inability to engage in critical thinking. Talking to a number of secondary and tertiary teachers about the effects on education confirmed what I have suspected; knowledge is now wide but very, very shallow. There is also an inability to retain information due to the fact that its is constantly available at ones fingertips. This creates an environment where ideas and information cannot be readily contrasted and compared in the mind of the student because nothing is held there for long! There is also a propensity for students to use the first source they find without digging any deeper or questioning whether the source is reputable, resulting in conspiracy and debunked information being presented as fact.

While we may look at the internet as an amazing source of information which makes available knowledge we might not have been able to access in the age of the written word, it has no ‘filter’ on worthy or useless information, which leaves it up to us to learn to analyse what’s available. Unfortunately the easy access to information makes us lazy too and less likely to engage in critical thinking, preferring to just take what’s easily on offer and run with it.

Bridle talks extensively about the way that mining society for big data creates a culture that is, in turn, moulded by that very data; a self-referential feedback loop with little chance for escape.

“The danger of this emphasis on coproduction of physical and cultural space by computation is that it in turn occludes the vast inequalities of power that it both relies upon and reproduces. Computation does not merely augment, frame and shape culture; by operating beneath our everyday, casual awareness of it, it actually becomes culture. That which computation sets out to map and model it eventually takes over. Google set out to index all human knowledge: it became what people actually think. Facebook set out to map the connections between people… and became the platform for those connections, irrevocably reshaping societal relationships.”
Bridle, J (2018) New Dark Age. England: Verso. P39 (emphasis mine)

We are interconnected, but also enmeshed. Enabled by the wealth of information, but also overwhelmed. The scope and volume of available data creates a society in which it’s unnecessary to think and we can sit back and let the machines do the processing for us. We are spoon fed by computational outcomes, made complacent and encouraged not to indulge in critical thinking or exploration by the very fact that information is so readily available. Unfortunately we are also blinded to what is occurring on a macro-scale by the small conveniences and joys of what we experience in our local systems. It might be nice to have access to social networking and online shopping, but what is happening at a grander scale and why can’t we see it?

Philosopher Timothy Morton uses the word ‘hyperobject’ to describe things like climate change, evolution and the internet that completely surround and envelop us, but that are too big for us to see. We can only perceive hyperobjects by their effect on other, more immediate things on a local level. Modelling a hyperobject so that we can perceive it requires vast amounts of computational power, and that vast data processing is a hyperobject in itself.  A phenomena like climate change acts in a physical way that can be compared to the actions of big data computation on our cultural landscape. Weather is perceived by us as a local phenomena but is no such thing as ‘local’ in a networked world, it is part of the greater global system known as climate. It is often hard for us to grasp that what might be seen as ‘good’ or ‘nice’ in our locals system is often indicative of something that is ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ in the larger system – this is because we only can only perceive our small local system. Artist Roni Horn points out that “Weather is the key paradox of our time. Weather that is nice is often weather that is wrong. The nice is occurring in the immediate and individual, and the wrong is occurring system-wide.” p50

As a very concrete material example of this; we think we are ‘doing the right thing’ environmentally by trying to go paperless, but we are creating more and more data online that needs to be processed and stored. The virtual and perceivably unlimited nature of the storage facilities results in vastly unedited amounts of data. As of 2015 the worlds data centres consumed approx 3% of the worlds electricity (more than the entire UK) and accounts for 2% of the worlds global emissions (roughly the same carbon footprint as the global airline industry). This is in data storage alone.

Along with mass data processing comes mass surveillance; how else is the data to be gathered? Another example of a hyperobject, mass surveillance has become too big and too overwhelming for us to comprehend:
“Thinking about climate change spoils the weather, rendering it an existential threat even when it’s nice. Thinking about mass surveillance spoils phone calls, emails, cameras, and pillow talk… it’s easier to add it to the long list of things we agree not to think.” p179

“The operation of surveillance, and our complicity in it, is one of the most fundamental characteristics of the new dark age, because it insists on a kind of blind vision: everything is illuminated, but nothing is seen. We have become convinced that throwing light upon a subject is the same as thinking it, and thus having agency over it.” p185

This quote reminds me of the fashion for ‘raising awareness’ of a cause on social media. So what if we’ve shined a light on a problem? It’s illuminated, what now? Are we actually seeing it or just showing those watching us that we are pretending to care and putting a little flag in the ground to promptly forget.

Bridle appears to be very interested in hidden systems, and thats something that captures me as well. His work tracking the movement of unregistered aircraft and drones in the skies of England is both fascinating and disturbing. I chose the header image for this essay from his 2014 work Drone Shadow 007: The Lavender Hill Drone. It is a fine example of situationist philosopher Guy Debord ideas of ‘psychogeography’ or deliberate engagement with the hidden systems in our landscape. Perhaps this is a way to start to become aware of the larger processes at work by searching for how they interact with us on a local level?

“Debord was concerned with the increased spectacularisation of everyday life, and the ways in which our lives are increasingly shaped by commodification and mediation. The things we encounter in everyday life in spectacular societies are almost always a proxy for some deeper reality of which we are unaware, and our alienation from that deeper reality reduces our agency and quality of life. Psychogeography’s critical engagement with the urban landscape was one way of countering this alienation…” p103

On the other hand looking for hidden systems can result in conspiracy-thinking where criticality is abandoned through the very act of looking too hard. Bridle likens conspiracists to the haruspices of old; digging through the entrails of events looking for meaning and omens while potentially becoming sidelined and tricked by false truths and inconsequential avenues of thought. He comes to the conclusion many times that we are in a culture where even though we are looking at the same things we are getting very different outcomes and that we have built a system that reinforces this.

“Self-confirmed groups, from Targeted Individuals to Morgellons sufferers, and 9/11 truthers to Tea Partiers, seem to be a hallmark of the new dark age. What they reveal is what the chemtrailers show directly: that our ability to describe the world is a product of the tools at our disposal. We’re all looking at the same world and seeing radically different things. And we have built ourselves a system that reinforces that effect, an automated populism that gives people what they want, all of the time.” p211

There is so much to find of interest in this book – my copy is currently bristling with post-it notes. In this blog post I haven’t even begun to touch on the interesting chapters about manipulation by algorithm or the influence of Friedrich Hayek, father of neo-liberalism, on AI technology! I’ll leave with a quote from towards the end of the book where Bridle compares the insidious pollution of oil leaks to the pervasive power of a society driven by data:

“In the present, the extraction, refinement, and use of data/oil pollutes the ground and air. It spills. It leaches into everything. It gets into the ground water of our social relationships and it poisons them. It enforces computational thinking upon us, driving the deep divisions in society caused by misbegotten classification, fundamentalism and populism, and accelerating inequality. It sustains and nourishes uneven power relationships: in most of our interactions with power, data is not something that is freely given but forcibly extracted…”
Bridle, J (2018) New Dark Age. England: Verso. P247

Featured image: Bridle, J (2014) Drone Shadow 007: The Lavender Hill Drone

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Prof Brian Cox & Robin Ince live in Auckland

Last night I went to Prof Brian Cox’s lecture at the Aotea centre. I had some predictions about what he would include in the talk; light speed as a universal constant, ‘red shift’ and the expanding universe, the moons in our solar system with water that could potentially hold life, and the new LIGO discovery that I wrote about in my last post – very exciting!

The Aotea theatre stage was completely covered in a huge hi-def screen that he used to show photos and video of various cosmological events and to explain some of the more important theories and the relevant equations. Although I would say most of the audience there were not scientists, just enthusiastic amateurs like myself and my friends, he didn’t dumb things down too much like often happens with TV series, so I felt engrossed for the whole 2.5 hours.

My favourite visuals were the Cassini images of the moon Enceldus, the video of Mercury’s transit across the face of the sun (I’d seen this before but it was incredible on the giant screen), the real data visualisation fly-through of all detectable galaxies and the computer simulation of two black holes converging (data also captured by LIGO). I’ve linked to the video below on the LIGO YouTube page, it’s fascinating how spacetime around the holes is warped and stretched as they merge. The event horizon is shown as the thin edge of light before total blackness.
Black Holes Merge video

(While I was hunting around for videos of the Mercury transit this morning, I kept coming across videos from flat-earthers ‘debunking NASA’. I find the whole thing fascinating! I still can’t quite get to grips with what they feel is to be gained by NASA pretending to the world that the earth is a sphere orbiting the sun? So curious.)

An Alchemical Explosion

(Image:Artist’s illustration of two merging neutron stars. The rippling spacetime grid represents gravitational waves traveling out from the collision, while the narrow beams show bursts of gamma rays expelled just seconds after the gravitational waves. Ejected clouds of glowing, neutron-rich material swirl around the merging stars. Credit: NSF/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet)

Scientists at LIGO have detected, for the first time, spacetime ripples known as gravitational waves from the collision of two neutron stars. This phenomenon was predicted by Einstein but had not been observed until August 17 2017. All of the previously detected gravitational waves came from merging pairs of black holes which are so dense that light cannot escape their grasp, making such mergers essentially invisible to normal telescopes. While neutron stars appear to create less extreme gravitational force than that generated by black holes, these super-dense stars created by the collapse of supernova, have gravitational fields strong enough to squeeze and break down an entire sun into a ball of neutrons the size of a small city. Unlike a black hole, a neutron star’s gravity is too weak to trap light, meaning the huge burst made from two of them slamming together can be bright enough to be observed from Earth.

The collision of these two neutron stars likely produced a black hole, allowing the observation of the birth of one of these phenomena. It also provides evidence that it is neutron star collisions that forge the universe’s heavy elements including uranium, platinum and gold. The bulk of the universe’s hydrogen and helium was produced in the first moments after the big bang, and most of the lighter elements—oxygen, carbon, nitrogen etc—were formed from nuclear fusion in stars, but scientists were unsure as to the origin of the heavier elements. This new cosmic observation provides evidence that the collision of the universe’s densest stars is the true alchemical forge.

“If you think about it, the universe is sort of a cosmic particle collider, with neutron stars as the particles,” O’Shaughnessy says. “It throws them together, and we now have the opportunity to see what comes out…. This event is a Rosetta stone, giving us real data to connect disparate threads of astrophysics that previously only existed in the mind of theorists or as bits in a supercomputer simulation. It allows us to understand the cosmic abundance of heavy elements. It allows us to probe the squishiness of nuclear matter at extreme densities. It allows us to measure the expansion of the universe…. We are now reaping the reward, a mountain of gold 10 or a hundred times the mass of the Earth, that the universe just gave us.”

Richard O’Shaughnessy, an astrophysicist and LIGO team member at Rochester Institute of Technology quoted in Scientific American. (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gravitational-wave-astronomers-hit-mother-lode1/)

Carl Sagan: A Glorious Dawn

The NASA announcement today of their new solar system discovery immediately made me wonder how Carl Sagan would have felt on hearing this news. There are 7 Earth-sized planets orbiting a small star 40 light-years away in the constellation of Aquarius, they could hold life, they could even support our life. Sagan said it was time for us to ‘venture to the stars’ if we manage not to destroy ourselves.

Because of my interest in working in the zone where science and mysticism overlap, I find Sagan a continuing source of inspiration.

We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.
Sagan, Carl (1990). Cosmos: A Personal Voyage

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.
Sagan, Carl; Druyan, Ann (1997). The Demon-Haunted World.

We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever.
Sagan, Carl (1980). Cosmos

Something about remembering your own tininess and insignificance along with acknowledging that you have the ability to create something wonderful despite only ‘fluttering for day’ is infinitely liberating. A bit hippie, but there you go.