The dark side of technology
We face a new dark age because we are losing control over technology, a new book argues
A romantic vision of technology is dangerous. The assumption that it’s an enabler, liberating knowledge and facilitating growth, is fallacious. James Bridle’s new book, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future (Verso), presents evidence of technology’s shadowing effect on the planet, our bodies, minds, morals — and our future.
Bridle, an artist and computer-and cognitive scientist, isn’t beguiled by algorithms. Probing the modern world’s machinery and data to decipher its impact, he discerns intriguing, troubling connections and uncovers much that is obscured: amorphous, hyper-connected digital networks, pervasive military-intelligence surveillance, and incognito applications of artificial intelligence. Global systems rely on a vast infrastructure of undersea cables, orbiting satellites, and underground fibre optics. Hidden from view, their mechanisms confound understanding.
Global warming is warning us: technology is playing brinkmanship with mother earth. We experience this in drastic weather patterns. We see it in the lake of plastic in the oceans, the mushrooming Hiroshima-like clouds incubated by industrial emissions, and the contrail streaks of air traffic which release toxic atmospheric pollution in their afterburner mix of nitrogen and sulphur oxides, lead and black carbon.
But we are inert, blinded by a storm of data and a refusal to acknowledge that technology reflects our real world, not an ideal one. At current rates, by 2050 aviation emissions alone will trigger the 2° Celsius crisis tipping point.
Carbon dioxide levels portend an even more sinister darkness. At 1,000 parts per million (ppm), carbon dioxide causes a 21% fall in cognitive abilities. Current average global levels are at record highs, touching 500ppm in industrial metropolises — but indoor readings at some US schools have measured 2,000 ppm. Literally, global warming is also a crisis for the human mind.
Cheap video technologies permit the industrialised targeting of children. YouTube channels such as Toy Freaks have looped mindless tropes with disturbing undercurrents. The mass reach boosts the creator’s receipts and YouTube’s ad revenues.
A schism in humanity looms in the CRISPR-Ca9 gene-editing medical technology. Soon, the elite may buy enhanced hereditary germlines to engineer healthier or more intelligent offspring. The rest will be biological lower castes. CRISPR-Ca9 could seed eugenics on digitised steroids, a Frankensteinian apartheid.
Therein lies Bridle’s dread: we face a new dark age because we are losing control over technology. Unaware, we have allowed a veil to descend over free will, sacrificing decision-making for the convenience of a new god, Google’s algorithms. Lulled into comfortable numbness, we fail to grasp that technology is not neutral.
In 2015 Volkswagen was revealed as having hidden software in its diesel engines, masking nitrogen oxide emissions 40 times the legal limit. This will cause 1,200 Europeans to die early, a damning insight as to how corporate greed can be shrouded in the heartless logic of the machine.
Workplace automation may imminently diminish people’s economic worth. A human skill may never again be safe from the threat of automation.
Power is increasingly concentrated among those possessing the data-stream codes and keys to the new machines. Impenetrable, technologically augmented intricacy and opacity goes to the very apex of democracy’s political structures. Cambridge Analytica (CA) — its board littered with former military and intelligence operatives — used psychological warfare to influence Britain’s EU referendum and the 2016 US election. Anonymously, stealthily, CA manipulated data and messaging to obfuscate and obscure, radicalising voters towards insular ignorance.
Social media now disseminates a shaded, fuzzy nuance — or a darkened cocoon — of newly styled propaganda.
New Dark Age is enlightening but frightening, a dystopian warning about the implications of the convergence of data and robotics, code and quantum computing, science and technology.
Unless we are careful to understand our technological creations and take back control, our future may not be bright.