New Dark Age: Letter From The Editor

"Autonomous Trap 001" (2017) courtesy of James Bridle

New Dark Age by James Bridle is part of our March Verso Book Club reading. See the rest of our spring book club picks here.

We don’t talk about Big Data anymore, we talk about AI or Machine Learning. We allude to the algorithm as if this forms some explanation for the magical thinking that goes on inside the blackbox. In 2017, the artist James Bridle designed a self-driving vehicle, then drove it up the Mount Parnassus in Greece. He parked in a stopping area, half-way up the mountain and then started his experiment. Using salt – the stuff of the witches’ hex – he sprinkled a line around the car, imitating the ‘do not cross’ road markings. Ancient signs meet modern day signals. He then set the car to drive and recorded as it jumped forwards and reverse but was never able to escape the circle. Magical Thinking. Artificial Intelligence. The warnings of a New Dark Age. 

I wrote this paragraph and then pushed it through the ChatGPT software. After a long blinking pause, this is what it spewed:

James Bridle's experiment highlights the growing concern about the limitations and unpredictable behavior of artificial intelligence systems. While AI and machine learning have been making great strides in recent years, there is still a lack of transparency and understanding of how these algorithms make decisions. The use of salt to imitate "do not cross" markings symbolizes the limitations imposed on AI systems and the need to be cautious in their deployment. The experiment serves as a warning of the potential dangers of relying too heavily on AI without fully understanding its capabilities and limitations.

Personally, I prefer mine. A little rhetorical, perhaps. But if you were to read the news today, it would suggest that we should stop typing for good and let the software take over. In fact, I think that the ChatGPT version gets the argument wrong in parts. Bridle’s argument is not a warning about ‘the potential dangers of relying too heavily on AI without fully understanding its capabilities and limitations’. New Dark Age is more disturbing than that! Bridle argues that we might never know what is actually going on in an AI. We will never fathom what a machine is learning. 

Take for example, the US military experiment in teaching an AI to read tanks camouflaged in woods. The code was fed thousands of images of tanks and trees, tanks in fields, trees and no tanks, from every possible angle, day and night. In the end, when it came to testing, the AI had not learnt to identify trees, or tanks, but had taught itself whether the sun was shining or not. The potential consequences of this – despite the humour – could have been lethal. 

James Bridle is without a doubt one of the most important and profound thinkers about the consequences of technology in our lives. And this new edition of New Dark Age builds on the work that he has done with Ways of Being, which came out last year in laying out, ‘as clearly as possible and without compromising on falsely optimistic solutions, the situation we find ourselves in.’ For some this is deeply disturbing. Arch-nihilist Will Self warned readers might find the book ‘terrifying rather than enjoyable’. Meanwhile Mark O'Connell, author of books on AI and the Apocalypse wrote in the New Yorker, that this was ‘among the most unsettling and illuminating books I’ve read about the Internet, which is to say that it is among the most unsettling and illuminating books I’ve read about contemporary life’. 

This coming Dark Age feels like a data sandstorm that is about to engulf us, grit our eyes, get stuck in throats, disorientate. Nowhere is this clearer, Bridle teaches us, than in our quest to gain information about climate change. At the centre of this book is the image of the cloud, and the complexity of weather. As we use more and more computing power to work out these patterns, the more energy we use, which then adds turbulence to the atmosphere. The more we calculate to predict the future, the more we compromise the thing we are trying to measure. 

In the new material for this edition, Bridle updates the argument to include DALL-E image AI and the fact that it is based on large-scale image appropriation that threaten our privacy, and why the results are often deeply disturbing. He explores the relationship between AI and colonialism and the attempts to preserve disappearing languages in the face of digital ubiquity. How to find agency when technology appears to absorb all our efforts.

I will leave you with perhaps the most disturbing observation here: 

In a study published by the Lancet Planetary Health in September 2022, researchers found that online hate speech – racist, misogynistic, and homophobic tweets, most notably – increased by 22 per cent when temperatures rose above 42 °C (and by up to 12 per cent when they fell below -3 °C). On a planet entering a phase of ever more extreme and abrupt swings in climate, it seems that we too are becoming more extreme, less tolerant, and more prone to argument, disagreement, and violence.

Welcome to the New Dark Age. What are we to do about it?

Leo Hollis
Verso, London

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