New Dark Age, by James Bridle, provides a lyrical and nearly eschatological argument for greater intellectual engagement with the possibility that computation and contemporary computational thinking is undergirded by “an ever-increasing opacity allied to a concentration of power, and the retreat of that power into ever more narrow domains of experience” (34). Consider the “automation bias,” which, according to Bridle, “ensures that we value automated information more highly than our own experiences, even when it conflicts with other observations” (40). Extrapolating from such a principle, Bridle carries his analysis through various technologically mediated industries and infrastructures: climate change, neural nets, contrails, YouTube algorithms, etc. “We find ourselves living among things designed to dispossess us,” writes Bridle—in characteristic style—during his discussion of procedurally generated “product spam” in online marketplaces (127). Against such forces, that is, against the “elevation of [computational] efficiency above all other objectives” (132), Bridle advocates for a “hermeneutics, or hermetic understanding, of technology that might account for its perceived errors by pointing out that reality is never that simple” (134).
Thus, Bridle’s hermeneutic approach to critical inquiry forms the epistemological basis for this project. Regarding the sadistic corners of children’s YouTube, he writes not only that “to expose children to this content is abuse,” but moreover that itself “the system is complicit in the abuse, and YouTube and Google are complicit in that system” (230). Layers of meaning—of actual meaning, in opposition to disinterested and devalued “data-driven correlation” (147)— reveal themselves not passively, but through a ceaseless and potentially infinite application of thought. Of course, Bridle is unabashed in the association of the hermeneutic and the paranoid. “Conspiracies,” he writes, “literalise the horror we feel lurking unspoken in the world” (194), their resulting theories “bringing into view objects and discourses otherwise ignored” (195), for better or for worse. Riffing on Hofstadter’s famous articulation of the “paranoid style in American politics” (205), Bridle concludes that the “gray zone” of “half-truth” information overflow we have computed into existence around us conjures conspiracy theory as “the dominant narrative and the lingua franca of the times” (214).
“We can neither confirm nor deny,” a.k.a. the “Glomar response,” is a “third category of statement between affirmation and renunciation” cited by Bridle as a refrain of the contemporary problematic (165). In the same spirit, his book is fashioned as a series of disparately unsettling essays, neither wholeheartedly affirmational nor renunciatory—but in their ambiguity made not dissimilar to, and indeed admittedly indebted to (11), collections of Lovecraftian (or perhaps Ligottian) horror stories. A careful scholar, having uncovered a secret connection, is destroyed by the terrible knowledge of the very network unearthed, over and over. Bridle goes on searching “for the traces of hidden systems in the landscape” of South East England (103). That being said, having made myself somewhat familiar with Bridle’s other artistic work, I find myself wondering where something like this book—produced at the intersection of the critical and the aesthetic—touches down in an academic context.