Big Fish Little Fish: How scientific reductionism eats the world.

Computational thought, the idea that information from the past gives us knowledge of the future is the source of most if not all of the worlds existential threats.  This is the crux of the argument James Bridle makes in ‘New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future’. Bridles argument uses many examples of scientific reductionism as sources for the evolution of computational thought and culture.  His best illustration of the problem was in his first chapter relating to the prediction of weather and rise of computational thinking in chapter two. As I read through his history of scientific reductionism as a way of knowing and predicting the future through models of complex information I was struck by the underlying phenomenon in every example.  The assumption that all knowledge reduced to its basic form is aesthetically true and useful. Bridle does not make this statement, if anything he argues for the concept of unknowing as a form of thinking which allows one to cut through complexity and see the ‘network’ for what it is. However, it does seem paradoxical that one solution to seeing true complexity and interconnectedness as opposed to reductive thinking, is to reduce one’s thinking? In this case to the here and now.  I believe the concept has merit, I’ve noticed in my own research that reductionism in information systems tends to multiply the information and complexity as opposed to simplifying it, a phenomenon which goes hand in hand with computational thinking according to Bridle. His mention of Lewis Fry Richardson’s ‘coastline paradox’ struck me as the most compelling example partly because I had just read the exact same account in relation to my own research with regards to finding “true numbers” in measurement.

Bridles continued use of examples involving aviation struck me as particularly timely considering the automation systems placed in the Boeing 737 max E without much thought for educating pilots in their use or potential ways to counter the systems when they fail.  Ironically, perhaps morbidly in light of Bridles argument, the supposed “fix” is a software patch with more sensors for more information and automation, while training pilots on a simulator so simple it can be used on an IPAD. The juxtaposition of this example in the real world news cycle while reading the book with Bridle’s focus on aviation examples and automation bias combined with computational thinking was enough to make me believe that this book should be the first text book covered in any science, computer, or engineering based program.

The automation bias and confirmation bias examples beg the question that underlies Bridles entire book, a question I’ve come across in my own research on Processing Fluency and Aesthetics.  If we are entwined in the network and computational thinking is pervasive while at the same time we are compelled by our own mental biases to favor the simple and immediate solutions over the complex and hard, How do we reverse or engineer around the process?  Bridle’s literacy/fluency with unknowing solution seems like an example of what he’s arguing against. It’s too simple, too convenient. I do see it as an approach and perhaps the proper mindset to, at least combat the tendency toward reductionism while believing the information has the answer.  It all reminds me of the Buddhist idea that there is no answer. Being in the present (not even thinking, just existing in the case of Buddhism) is supposed to be enough, but that only works if everyone is Buddhist, or in Bridle’s example, if everyone avoids the computational thinking trap. His final plea, “We only have to think, and think again, and keep thinking” seems reductionist and like a nice hopeful sentence to end on, yet I think he was suffering from his own mental biases in reducing the problem to some sort of action, thinking.  Thinking is what got us here. IBM’s motto “Think” in all over its reductionist glory, seems like the same solution Bridle proposes, yet a solution which was proposed over 100 years ago and is easily shown to be part of the problem Bridle argues against. Fight fire with fire I suppose.

Augmented Inequality and Encoded Bias

Bridle is broadly speaking about “what we know, how we know, and what we cannot know,” making the claim that “new technologies do not merely augment our abilities, but actively shape and direct them, for better or worse.” From this foundation, Bridle warns that if we do not understand how technologies function, interconnect, and interact we become powerless and their potential is more easily captured by the powerful (elites and corporations). To resist this, we must develop true literacy in systems, which is “more than simple understanding and insists upon the interrelationships of systems and the inherent limitations of any single solution.” Bridle also warns of the danger of computational thinking (or solutionism): “the belief that any given problem can be solved by the application of computation.” Technology can be a guide for our thinking, as long as we do not privilege its output. Computers are not giving us answers, instead they are tools for asking questions. The lack of true literacy and computational thinking/solutionism lead to the “darkness” that Bridle speaks of, referring “to both the nature and the opportunity of the present crisis: an apparent inability to see clearly what is in front of us, and to act meaningfully, with agency and justice, in the world — and, through acknowledging this darkness, to see, new ways of seeing by another light.”

There are two quotes from the book that I would like to focus on:

“The complaint of the Right against communism — that we’d all have to buy our goods from a single state supplier — has been supplanted by the necessity of buying everything from Amazon. And one of the keys to this augmented inequality is the opacity of technological systems themselves.” (113)

“Technology does not emerge from a vacuum. Rather, it is the reification of a particular set of beliefs and desires: the congruent, if unconscious dispositions of its creators.” (142)

Both quotes relate to Safiya Umoja Noble’s investigations of this notion of the augmented inequality and encoded bias in Algorithms of Oppression. If the black box becomes more transparent and we actively acknowledge that technologies are biased, are when then truly empowered to change it? Are these new battles or are we dealing with the same oppressive power structures that have existed throughout time? How do these technologies change the nature of inequality and bias? How do they impact the nature of meaningful response/resistance to them?

Bridle’s New Dark Age

The central question of James Bridle’s book New Dark Age is what is technology trying to tell us in emergencies. By using examples from history starting from Bush’s memex, Bridle incorporates various technological devices from the past as a guiding force. The methodology and data that he uses is an analytical approach that considers the implications that technology has had on cultures and community. The central argument of the book is that technologies implications are having global effects on communities widespread. One of the things that Bridle discusses throughout the book is this concept of that understanding implications go beyond just computational literacy and education, that it involves having a metalanguage that describes the complex systems of the world. I think this is the most useful concept in the book is this notion that solving problems with technology goes beyond the traditional methodology of computer literacy, but it also involves determining how these systems operate on a global scale. Several patterns are regularly occurring throughout the book and influence the argument. The section on conspiracies was the most interesting. One of the things I’ve noticed lately ever since I restarted my Twitter account is how people on the platform are quick to develop political theories and methods. What this chapter shows is that conspiracies are consistently present in culture from the belief that President Obama was a U.S. citizen to even early French Revolution theories. This section was a critique of the current system. Bridle provides an overview of how technology has negatively impacted our lives; it seems at times that he’s presenting information that is common knowledge among most individuals. However, I’m left wondering what the solution to this problem is. Does it involve people being more aware and proactive about the information they consume? Or does it include being stricter on companies and enforcing policies?

The Dawn of the Dark Age

The introduction of Bridle’s book came straight to me “It is a book about what we know, how we know, and what we cannot know. From his book, he believed that the idea that the world was deducing from all the examples generated from the book, could be reduced to data. Could be modeled, can be understood entirely is false. More fundamentally, it is a central paradox to view that we could deepen our knowledge in everything if we mastered all the information. This anti technical determinism and pessimist view gained much momentum manifested from the New Dark Age.

Similar to Hu and other authors, Bridle populates his book to a greater audience that he refutes increasing technological education would be sufficient to solve the problem, calling for more systemic solutions that can answer the current issues comprehensively. He quotes people not only to illustrate the point but also to demonstrate that he has digested all the time to find the pattern from the steam engines, SAGE, to ENIAC. The wide range of examples echos Bridle’s role as an artist who steadily produced visual enhancements that challenges our common perspective.

I am interested in concepts that he creates when constructing these arguments, whether the meta-language, computational thinking, or the systemic literacy that he sets up to fill the void of the non-computable space. Moreover, the breadth and depth of the examples he gave were hugely appealing, ranging from forecasting the weather to preventing unbiased judgment at courts. Thinking of the cases he offers in the chapter of cognition, the Alpha Go out through the human player because it could believe in a higher dimension, making the seemingly absurd decision which turned out to be valid. We tend to ignore what we are not able to perceive; in some ways, a protection mechanism that restores our belief and our ability as a human being. Bridle’s solution is to implement ‘a real systemic literacy.’ I have a mixed feeling towards it but mostly are favored. Indeed, the best way to stay calm in this wild world could be to embrace yourself in the luxury of questions as literacy may be the result of our struggle to understand the hidden images. The ‘massive democratization of these technologies’, aligned with the Three Laws of Robotics by Isaac Asimov, tells us that how could we know that AI or robots will not harm us if we do not understand what the robot is doing. The black box needs to be more transparent.

Bridle’s “New Dark Age”: Can Creative Conspiracy Combat Consumptive Computational Conceptualization/Cultivation?

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.