In a tech environment fixated on systemic disruption, the artist and writer James Bridle (who uses they/them pronouns) has earned a reputation as a disrupter among disrupters. In their writing and artwork — and also at the glossy tech conferences where they often speak —- Bridle holds forth a dark vision of where big tech has actually led us, for all its utopian claims. In their first book, “New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future,” Bridle depicted a world smothering under dark clouds both literal and figurative, a planet whose ecological and structural collapse cannot even be grasped by its people, obscured as it is in a fog of impenetrable complexity. In Bridle’s view, world culture is currently locked in a vicious and deadly cycle, endlessly insisting “on the power of images and computation to rectify a situation that is produced by our unquestioning belief in their authority.” It’s suicide by data, on a global scale.
Bridle’s new book, “Ways of Being,” picks up where “New Dark Age” left off, in a world doomed by our collective twisting of needs and beliefs into inscrutable and largely malevolent systems. “Ways of Being” opens in Epirus, Greece, a rugged and pristine mountain terrain that is home to “bears, wolves, foxes, jackals, golden eagles and some of the oldest trees and forests in Europe,” but which has recently fallen into the clutches of the massive energy company Repsol, and with it the sophisticated artificial intelligence Repsol employs for the speculation and extraction of petroleum. As Bridle walks this mountainous idyll, the Ionian Sea distantly shimmers, but the land is staked and flagged for hundreds of kilometers for imminent drilling, “alien probes, the operations of an artificial intelligence optimized to extract the resources required to maintain our current rate of growth, at whatever cost necessary.”
As in the postapocalyptic fictions of Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy, Bridle’s landscape belongs simultaneously to our ravaged future and our mythic past, and their voice, in these first pages — and in significant portions of the book that follows — comes from this portentous world like a doomsday prophet’s. “We become more like the machines we envisage,” Bridle warns, just as we face “the wholesale despoliation of the planet, and our growing helplessness in the face of vast computational power.” But it is here that Bridle begins to open a route to salvation: By abandoning our limited, Western ideas about what constitutes intelligence, we might look “beyond the horizon of our own selves and our own creations to glimpse another kind, or many different kinds, of intelligence.” In the very world we are destroying, Bridle writes, is “a whole realm of other ways of thinking and doing intelligence,” with which we — and our technologies — must find more symbiotic ways to coexist and interact. “In short,” Bridle declares, “we must discover an ecology of technology.”
In the chapters that follow, Bridle offers a heady and often astonishing survey of recent discoveries from the “more-than-human” world, where science is only beginning to glimpse the myriad forms that nonhuman intelligence can take. Bridle describes cress plants that can respond to the sound of approaching caterpillars by filling their leaves with chemical defenses; goats on the slopes of Mount Etna whose panicked behavior might predict an eruption before any man-made observation device; the newfound evidence of advanced intellect in our Neanderthal and other humanoid forebears. Spanning millenniums, continents and academic disciplines, the scope of Bridle’s curiosity and comprehension is immense, and the possibilities of how other intelligences might augment or complement our own are exhilarating to consider. Bridle describes the paradoxical political stability ancient Athenians discovered in surrendering some of their governance to the forces of randomness; slime molds that can solve spatial efficiency problems more handily than the most powerful computers; the many and mostly abandoned forms of “unconventional computing” whose incorporation of natural, nondigital elements (water, billiard balls, even tiny crabs) grant those machines access to forms of computation unavailable in the most sophisticated modern devices.
This wildly diverse world of intelligences, Bridle shows us, is the true ecological setting that humans, and our technologies, inhabit. But Bridle wants to do more than dazzle us with latent possibilities. Bridle seeks nothing less than the overturn of central values of the “so-called Enlightenment Culture,” built over generations of “domination and cultural imperialism,” a distinctly Western worldview that Bridle depicts as fundamentally “destructive and unequal” — and encoded in its technologies.
In this sense, “Ways of Being” echoes John Berger’s landmark work of art criticism, “Ways of Seeing” (Bridle was the host for “New Ways of Seeing,” a BBC mini-series that revisits Berger’s ideas through the lens of current technology). Just as, 50 years ago, Berger challenged consensus societal values by questioning the assumptions viewers bring to bear when they look at a piece of artwork, so does Bridle now hold forth recent scientific discoveries as ways of upending our limited, self-serving and toxic understanding of what intelligence can be. In Bridle’s framing, the fate of our species and our planet might depend on “reimagining.”
And yet, the Western, anthropocentric outlook that Bridle presents here, the one they seek to disrupt, seems in places both overly monolithic and outmoded. I wonder at Bridle’s claim, when writing of artificial intelligence, that “we seem incapable of imagining intelligence any other way” than as “profit-seeking, extractive”; surely, a lot of the public enthusiasm around A.I. has to do with a hope that it might help us find better ways to learn, interact and discover. Similarly, when writing about evolution, Bridle argues that we see the process as a vicious “red in tooth and claw” survival of the fittest, while “ignoring or downplaying other processes which work alongside” natural selection, such as “mutation, recombination and genetic drift” — but the fact that random mutation is central to evolution and biological diversity has long been the stuff of elementary science schoolbooks. Even Bridle’s central argument, that we need to live in more equitable, receptive and regenerative relation to the “more-than-human world,” feels widely agreed upon, even if we don’t know how to go about it or are unwilling to break our current patterns of consumption.
Still, when seen through the clouded, ominous light of “paranoia and social disintegration” Bridle conjures so vividly in “New Dark Age,” there is something hopeful and even heartening in their faith that our current disastrous course might be shifted not only by new policies and technologies but also — and more fundamentally — by the power of new ideas. Even if Bridle’s language occasionally overreaches or overgeneralizes, the urgency of the moment perhaps necessitates the hyperbole. After all, to ignore Bridle’s premonitions and revelations might be like ignoring those spooked goats on Mount Etna, frantic with the imminence of eruption under their hooves. Catastrophe is coming, and we might only save ourselves if we can find new ways to look and to listen.
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