Tom MacWright

tom@macwright.org

Tom MacWright

I read New Dark Age by James Bridle on

Review

This book by James Bridle, the artist who coined The New Aesthetic, is a tour through tech-pessimism with an emphasis on scale and networks.

I thought it was hampered by overwrought style and an overuse of references. Bridle introduces high culture figures like Trevor Paglen, Walter Benjamin, Deborah Cohen, Guy Debord, and countless others, just to cite a few lines of their clever thinking. One multi-page citation was notably mis-cited - Douglas Hofstadter didn’t write The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter did.

He scans through the topics of every popular thinkpiece of the last years: flash crashes, machine learning bias, Amazon labor conditions, the Svalbard seed vault, video-producing algorithms on YouTube. Some of these topics are familiar because you’ve probably read Bridle’s pieces about them already - for example, Something is wrong on YouTube is essentially the same as the discussion in NDA.

If I had to summarize Bridle’s points, I’d say that ‘our current era is noted by a wealth of data and a lack of understanding’ and that ‘world-scale networks and algorithms are yielding systems with irrational and unstable behavior.’ Whether each of the examples ties into this theme is iffy: Eroom’s law and the declining usefulness of the surveillance state certainly fit the mould, but does Google Translate help to tell his story, or is it just a neat anecdote?

I realize that, on the other hand, I’ve criticized books like Shock Doctrine for repeating their titles every few paragraphs, as if shouting “this is all the same!” I don’t want to blame Bridle for the inverse - of leaving a little synthesis as a challenge to the reader.

But I do think it’s critically short on synthesis and analysis, at the same time as being long on poetry and anecdotes. Where it does draw comparisons, they are sometimes soaring to the point of poetry or incoherence, depending on how you read them.

Discussing the effects of climate change on Siberia, he then compares aerial imagery of the fields to brain scans of spongiform encephalopathy victims, and then discusses the mechanism of the prions that cause that disease, and then the effects - memory loss and personality changes. The paragraph ends with “The words don’t make sense any more, and with them go the ways we have to think about the world.”

Later in that chapter, talking about Greenland’s melting landscape, he delivers this passage:

…the sponging of Greenlandic landscape reiterates a return to the fluid: the marshy and boggy, the undifferentiated and gaseous. A new dark age will demand more liquid forms of knowing than can be derived from the libraries of the past alone.

Again, how you take this kind of writing depends on your state and expectations. If you’re along for the ride, this impresses and engages. If you aren’t, it sounds a bit like a dad joke, or an everything-is-connected musing.

New Dark Age has been well received: 4.3 on GoodReads, a glowing Book of the day recommendation from The Guardian, and a positive mention in the New Yorker. Take a big grain of salt with my opinion because I’m simply incredibly online and thus had already encountered well over half of the stories contained herein.

So if I were new to the anecdotes, I’d probably think much differently about this one. That star rating represents my personal experience after all, not an objective truth. I’d recommend it to folks new to this field of thought, and possibly for people with exposure to technology but who haven’t considered the ramifications.

But if you’re familiar with pessimism, read too much, and are already skeptical of machine learning and the like, your experience might be like mine: searching for the synthesized theory and the narrative voice, and instead finding endless anecdotes and collected quotes.

I should also temper this review with yet another note: I’m a big fan of James Bridle. I followed the New Aesthetic blog. I loved Laaaaaaandsat and all his Drone Shadow works. His aesthetic, artistic voice, and clever creations have been a good part of the internet and as far as I can tell, the world.

This review section being an explicitly personal, opinionated medium means that I simply share how much I enjoyed the thing, and this thing in particular is probably objectively better for everyone than it was subjectively for me.

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