Does anyone at Facebook have the will, or even the ability, to control Facebook? That’s the question underlying last week’s New York Times investigation of the social media giant. It’s increasingly clear that the company’s growth and survival are premised on its complicity not only in the kind of invasive data exchange revealed by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but also on its ineffective, whack-a-mole approach to dealing with the promotion of violence on its platform — an approach that failed to check a coordinated campaign by Myanmar’s military to carry out a genocide of the country’s Rohingya population. These problems appear immune to the company’s attempts at reform, so its leaders have opted instead for an aggressive defense, lobbying lawmakers and trying to reassure the public by denying and downplaying their responsibility.
Are Facebook’s problems a perversion of tech’s utopian promise, or are they a logical outcome of the structure of the internet and its products? A new book by writer, technologist, and artist James Bridle suggests the latter. “New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future” argues that it is precisely the core purpose of the internet — the combination of high-speed computation and global networking — that is largely responsible for the ascendance of invasive data mining, “fake news,” and mass surveillance. In other words, the internet has not been corrupted by nefarious influences. Instead, more than ever, it is operating according to its central principles and imperatives. And in doing so, it is both clouding our understanding of the world around us and making that world more dangerous.
One seemingly mundane example demonstrates Bridle’s argument in miniature. Thanks to the internet, I can get a weather forecast anywhere, at any time. This forecast may end up being wrong, and I may end up stuck in a downpour, but I appreciate the feeling that I stepped outside with the best information available to me. The worst that can happen is I get a little wet.
Bridle demonstrates the profound ways that I am in error. Weather forecasting, like all types of predictive computation, ultimately assumes that the future will be like the past. It synthesizes data points from the past into projections for the future. However, the rapid acceleration of global climate change means that this kind of computational forecasting is less and less accurate over the long term. The future is less and less like the past.
Not only that, but the act of computational forecasting itself — an enormously energy-intensive enterprise on the scale that we’re now doing it — actually contributes to the decrease in its own accuracy because of all the carbon emissions it requires. This is why, as Bridle writes, “computation is both a victim of and a contributor to climate change.” Every time I refresh a forecast, I make a small contribution to reducing its accuracy by contributing to climate change, which is already unleashing unpredictable weather patterns and wreaking havoc on the world. So in the short term, I may avoid rain. In the long term, much of my city will be underwater.
This is how the internet as we currently know it leads us into what Bridle calls the “New Dark Age”: It internalizes assumptions about the way the world is and should be, but renders invisible its own contributions to a more volatile future. And as the future begins to diverge from the past upon which it is modeled, we may well find ourselves knowing less about the world rather than more.
One reason for this, according to Bridle, is that the architecture that led to the internet was never intended to produce disinterested knowledge. For instance, meteorological computation itself was developed by an Anglo-American military-business alliance for the specific purpose of providing Western powers with strategic air and nuclear supremacy in the Cold War. (The midcentury architects of this enterprise later constituted the core of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the U.S. government entity that pioneered the internet as we know it.) To assume that the extension of these technologies to the broader public can be severed from the imperatives under which they were developed — namely, the hegemony of Western capital and the profit-maximizing of its corporations — is naive. Instead, our use of these technologies contributes to a world in which those very assumptions are further and further entrenched.
Each chapter of “New Dark Age” provides a different lens that reveals how deeply these imperatives have permeated our social relationships and how opaque they have rendered actual knowledge. The chapter on “Climate” discusses how our networked, high-tech society not only accelerates climate change, but actually destroys analog sources of knowledge (seed banks, archaeological remains stored in permafrost) in the process. “Complexity” argues that computational technology in high finance distorts economic information and accelerates inequality. “Conspiracy” shows how the algorithmic sorting of the internet channels ordinary people’s justified feelings of powerlessness and suspicion into siloed fringe groups, and “Concurrency” zeroes in on YouTube, which, in its drive to maximize viewers’ screen time (and Google’s bottom line), abets the computer-generated production and autoplay of ultraviolent, hyper-disturbing children’s videos. (Bridle posted a version of that chapter on Medium last year, tracing how a parent who puts their toddler in front of an innocuous “Peppa Pig” video may return to find the child watching Peppa being tortured.)
At the core of many of these problems is what Bridle calls computational thinking. Computational thinking assumes that perfect information about the past can and should be collected and synthesized to inform decisions about the future. In a chapter called “Complicity,” Bridle argues that this mindset informs government mass surveillance as well: Government intelligence agencies’ well-known policy to “collect it all” has no demonstrable track record of improving public safety or reducing violence. (This fact led even a U.S. presidential commission to declare mass surveillance “not essential to preventing attacks” in 2013.) The problem, Bridle suggests, is that the practice is “essentially retroactive and retributive.” It assumes that simple exposure is an end in itself, that problems will reveal, and even solve, themselves when thrown under the proverbial light.
This conceit is not limited to shadowy governments. Journalists, too, are guilty of it. Bridle’s primary example of this is the 2013 revelations of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden (revelations that catalyzed the founding of this very website). Despite the initial outcry over the exposure of the precise mechanics of mass surveillance by the U.S. and its allies, reforms were negligible at best, and public attention quickly shifted elsewhere. The problem, Bridle argues, is the expectation that exposure in itself will lead to understanding and action. This is how journalism itself adopts the same obsessive, paranoid logic as computation and surveillance: It forgoes a true understanding of the present and future as it obsessively crafts a perfect image of the past. “We have become convinced that throwing light upon the subject is the same thing as thinking it, and thus having agency over it,” Bridle warns.
What “New Dark Age” proposes in order to tackle this problem is not so much a course of action but a new way of thinking. “What is needed is not new technology,” Bridle writes in the opening pages, “but new metaphors.” In contrast to computational thinking, which falsely thinks it can behold and comprehend every fact about the world, Bridle proposes “cloudy thinking,” a practice that acknowledges what is unknowable and seeks “new ways of seeing by another light.” Bridle actually intends the “New Dark Age” of the book’s title to be read as an opportunity, not a lament. To embrace this opportunity, he argues, we have to give up pretensions about perfect knowledge, and instead embrace responsible skepticism informed by our recognition that the network we live and work in is actively obscuring our understanding of the real world and reinforcing injustice in the process.
“Nothing here is an argument against technology,” Bridle insists, “to do so would be to argue against ourselves.” Technology is both a tool for remaking the world and a metaphor for understanding it. Fair enough: Bridle is probably right that we need to learn to expect different things from our relationship with technology. We cannot expect it to provide perfect information or social consensus. We should be ready to act on provisional information from trusted sources, rather than waiting for technology to synthesize and verify every last fact. If we wait, it will be too late.
But to take this advice without confronting head-on just what the internet has become seems foolish. While Bridle is right to suggest the inextricability of our lives with the contemporary internet, he at times seems to succumb both to a kind of fatalism and a naive optimism. The fatalism is his assumption that we are stuck with the internet we have. The optimism is the suggestion that by simply thinking about the internet differently, we can subvert its socially destructive ends.
The problem is that the internet as we know it is not only, or even primarily, a virtual thing: It is made possible by a worldwide network of cables that span oceans, brutalist skyscrapers that punctuate skylines, and massive data centers that require as much energy as cities. This infrastructure is capital, a series of investments by governments and corporations. And they expect a return on it.
Bridle, along with the writer Ingrid Burrington, has done us a great service by emphasizing the tangible nature of the infrastructure that constitutes the internet. “New Dark Age” also points out the enormous material interests that motivate continued investment in it. “Empire has mostly rescinded territory, only to continue its operation at the level of infrastructure, maintaining its power in the form of the network,” Bridle writes. Unfortunately, he does not follow this insight to its logical conclusion. Power cannot be seized by mere thought — it can only be seized by action. If the infrastructure of the internet is operated by the vestiges of an empire invested in the exploitation of the greater part of humanity, how we can we expect the internet to work for that same humanity?
Calls to socialize the internet, or demand public control of data, may seem unrealistic, but at least they confront this question. It’s disappointing that a book that is so clear-eyed about the seemingly apocalyptic scenarios facing human civilization doesn’t tackle it head-on. Maybe it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the internet. But future elaborations on Bridle’s work will have to reckon with this question he refuses to address: whether the only way to save the internet and the planet is to actually seize its infrastructure — every last data center and switchboard — from the powers that be so that it can finally serve egalitarian, socially responsible purposes. Or, failing that, whether it would be in the best interest of humanity to destroy the internet entirely.