Belatedly finished reading James Bridle’s book New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future (Verso, 2018). As the title suggests, the text is systemically pessimist about the effect of new technologies on the sustainability of human wellbeing. Although the overall structure of the argument is at times clouded over by sudden twists in narrative and the sheer variety of anecdotes, there are many hidden gems. I very much enjoyed the idea, borrowed from Timothy Morton, of a hyperobject:
a thing that surrounds us, envelops and entangles us, but that is literally too big to see in its entirety. Mostly, we perceive hyperobjects through their influence on other things […] Because they are so close and yet so hard to see, they defy our ability to describe them rationally, and to master or overcome them in any traditional sense. Climate change is a hyperobject, but so is nuclear radiation, evolution, and the internet.
One of the main characteristics of hyperobjects is that we only ever perceive their imprints on other things, and thus to model the hyperobject requires vast amounts of computation. It can only be appreciated at the network level, made sensible through vast distributed systems of sensors, exabytes of data and computation, performed in time as well as space. Scientific record keeping thus becomes a form of extrasensory perception: a networked, communal, time-travelling knowledge making. (73)
Bridle has some thought-provoking ideas about possible responses to the dehumanizing forces of automation and algorithmic sorting, as well. Particularly captivating was his description of Gary Kasparov’s reaction to defeat at the hands of AI Deep Blue in 1997: the grandmaster proposed ‘Advanced Chess’ tournaments, pitting pairs of human and computer players, since such a pairing is superior to both human and machine players on their own. This type of ‘centaur strategy’ is not simply a winning one: it may, Bridle suggests, hold ethical insights on patways of human adaptation to an era of ubiquitous computation.
I managed to catch a screening of the new Shalini Kantayya documentary, Coded Bias, through EDRi. It tells the story of Joy Bualomwini‘s discovery of systematic discrepancies in the performance of algorithms across races and genders. The tone was lively and accessible, with a good tempo, and the cast of characters presented did a good job showcasing a cross-section of female voices in the tech policy space. It was particularly good to see several authors that appear on my syllabus, such as Cathy O’Neil, Zeynep Tufekci, and Virginia Eubanks.
An op-ed by Joshua Benton on the first quarter-century of John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace on the Nieman Lab website.
Unpacking the different facets of Barlow’s personality and worldview goes a long way toward mapping out early internet ideology: most everyone finds parts to admire as well as intimations of disasters to come. The protean nature of the author of the Declaration helps in the process. Was Barlow Dick Cheney’s friend or Ed Snowden’s? Was he a scion of Wyoming cattle ranching royalty or a Grateful Dead lyricist? Was he part of the Davos digerati or a defender of civil rights and founder of the EFF? All of these, of course, and much besides. Undeniably, Barlow had a striking way with words, matched only by a consistent ability to show up “where it’s at” in the prevailing cultural winds of the time (including a penchant for association with the rich and famous).
Benton does a good job highlighting how far removed the techno-utopian promises of the Declaration sound from the current zeitgeist regarding the social effects of information technology. But ultimately we see in Barlow a reflection of our own hopes and fears about digital societies: as I previously argued, there is no rigid and inescapable cause-effect relationship between the ideas of the ’90s and the oligopolies of today. Similarly, a course for future action and engagement can be set without espousing or denouncing the Declaration in its entirety.
Just followed the Medium book launch event for the print edition of Cory Doctorow’s latest, How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism (free online version here). The pamphlet, from August 2020, was originally intended as a rebuttal of Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism [v. supra]. The main claim is that the political consequences of surveillance capitalism were not, as Zuboff maintains, unintended, but rather are central and systemic to the functioning of the whole. Hence, proposed solutions cannot be limited to the technological or economic sphere, but must be political as well. Specifically, Doctorow identifies in trust-busting the main policy tool for reining in Big Tech.
With hindsight of the 2020 election cycle and its aftermath, two points Doctorow made in the presentation stand out most vividly. The first is the link between market power and the devaluing of expert opinion that is a necessary forerunner of disinformation. The argument is that “monopolies turn truth-seeking operations [such as parliamentary committee hearings, expert testimony in court, and so forth] into auctions” (where the deepest pockets buy the most favorable advice), thereby completely discrediting their information content for the general public. The second point is that most all of the grievances currently voiced about Section 230 (the liability shield for online publishers of third-party materials) are at some level grievances about monopoly power.