- Dark New World
304 Pages; Print, $8.48
C, c, c, to see, see, see: that is what artist and writer James Bridle wants to help us do in his New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future. What I first c/see on the contents page is a set-up of ten chapters with single word chapter titles: Chasm, Computation, Climate, Calculation, Complexity, Cognition, Complicity, Conspiracy, Concurrency, and Cloud. Perhaps it is my own preoccupation with paranoia that turns this pattern into a problem, but I can't help thinking that the confusion and complexity of contemporaneity—the very thing Bridle wants to convey—is not easily captured in such a considered configuration. Along with some telltale terms in the title—"New," "Dark Age," "End," and "Future"—and a recurring insistence on giving agency to technology ("what technology is trying to tell us," "technology hides its own agency"), my first impression of this book is formed by what appears to be its open secret, that is, its paranoid proclivity. Identifying or creating patterns from a messy or chaotic reality, ascribing agency in unexpected places, and employing a grandiose and apocalyptic vocabulary are all recurring features in definitions of paranoia. Bridle is aware of this, no doubt, and acknowledges—indeed outlines—paranoia as a quite reasonable response to the present. Yet his book wavers on that borderline between reasonable awareness and paranoia that many of us struggle to maintain. It also, symptomatically, triggers my own suspicious reading—is Bridle purposefully messing about with his alliterations, vocabulary, and agential assignment? Is what I sometimes perceive as this book's lack of self-reflexivity really my own?
The borderlines between reasonable awareness and paranoia became evident with industrialization and the professionalization of knowledge in modernity, and it has manifested itself with a vengeance from the Second World War and onward. Today, we witness an irreconcilable rift—or chasm, to stick with Bridle's terminology—between long-standing and ideologically crucial beliefs in the autonomous liberal subject on the one hand, and the increasing sense that both the neoliberalism and technology are running rings around us on the other. Indeed, how can we know about technological and digital surveillance and control mechanisms, algorithmic processes, Macedonian troll farms, automated tweeting accounts, governmental complicity, NSA wiretapping, high-frequency trading, advanced computational thinking, Infowars.com, Deepdream (if you don't know about it, read the book), epagogix (ditto), and more or even just some of these and not worry about our own individual agency—indeed, about human agency more broadly? The complexity of our technological present is now far beyond us and precisely because this same technology is capable of providing us with endless amounts of information—more than we can ever process—we are becoming increasingly aware of our fundamental inability of comprehending it. The informational overload enabled by new technologies is, as Bridle shows, fundamentally incompatible with our cognitive systems; we are profoundly incapable of transforming this information into human size knowledge. To this cognitive dissonance, we must also add the interminable array of disparate and polarized views and opinions that reach us in and through this constant onslaught of information. A result, Bridle notes, is the proliferation of simplistic and conspiratorial narratives; we herald "the arrival of a new age of paranoia" in which "the paranoid style has gone mainstream," and "[c]onspiracies literalise the horror we feel lurking unspoken in the world."
Bridle's book does something very important for academic readers and the general public alike. He does what conspiracy theorists in their homes or headquarters, or academic theorists in their offices or conference rooms, or really any person trying to navigate everyday life in a post-truth society tend not to bother with, that is, the time-consuming dirty work of trying—often quite literally—to dig out the real connections that fuel our more or less abstract uncertainties. He makes some half-hearted and brief elaborations on a few theorists—to the classic "The Paranoid Style...