Given that our conversation with James Bridle was about enlightenment, let me begin by reiterating that it’s no substitute for his book THE NEW DARK AGE. If you really want to be enlightened, read it. You won’t be disappointed.
The point of the book and our conversation is that today’s digital revolution, with its cornucopia of information, was supposed to enlighten, but is actually become a vehicle for mass mystification. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Bridle lives in Greece. The ancient Athenian imagery is, of course, self-evident. In today’s so-called information society, Bridle says, we are back in Plato’s Cave. Staring at shadows. Transfixed by lies. Awash in ignorance.
How does democracy fit in here? There’s an intimate relationship, he says, between a successful democracy and the visibility of the technology maintaining it. He uses the example of a technology of ancient Athens to make his point here. It’s the KLE-RO-TER-ION - a randomized device designed to select citizens to state offices and juries. This slab of stone, which literally sat in the heart of the Polis, was the anti Facebook - technology that all Athenian citizens could see and thus understood – and it was the bedrock of their democracy. Transparency of technology, Bridle thus insists, is essential to democracy. Might Blockchain be the answer here?
In our age of digital obfuscation and confusion - it’s no surprise that authoritarianism is prospering around the world. The Putins, Erdogans, Trumps and other mountebanks of our digital age rely on ignorance. Authoritarianism is a consequence of the mystification of the world – to people not understanding it and thus grasping at the simplest solutions to blindingly complex problems. Ignorance empowers xenophobes, he says. Once again, Bridle borrows from ancient Athens. As Plato reminded us The Republic, ignorance is the best friend of autocrats.
But It’s not just ancient Greece that is relevant to Bridle’s argument. He uses contemporary Greece as an example for avoiding the descent into xenophobia and fascism. Yes, he acknowledges the existence of the Golden Dawn and other violently anti democratic fringe groups in Greece. And yet contemporary Greece – which is on the very front line of African and middle eastern immigration – hasn’t fallen under the spell of autocracy. Why? Historical memory – a kind of enligh
Rather than contemporary Greece, however, Bridle’s main fix for dysfunctionality of contemporary democracy lies in Ireland. He uses the examples of Ireland’s Citizens assemblies – randomized selection of citizens to solve complex problems – which successfully devised a political solution to the age-old issue of abortion. And he suggests that would certainly have been a better system in the UK than parliament for figuring out complexity of Brexit. Citizens Assemblies is definitely a theme we’ll come back to in this show. Perhaps even next week, when we talk about Brexit to the British political pundit Clare Fox.
James Bridle memorably described British parliamentary democracy as “a poor system led by donkies.” Next week, we talk to Clare Fox, the founder of the London based think tank The Institute of Ideas about Brexit and the crisis of British parliamentary democracy.
Hope you enjoyed this week’s episode with James Bridle, you can find out more about him here:
Find James’s Books here:
New Dark Age - Technology and the End of the Future by James Bridle
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Produced by Jason Sanderson -Podcast Tech
James Bridle the author of The New Dark Age.
James how did you come about to write the new dark age.
I've been thinking about all the stuff that's in the book for a pretty long time. I'm a writer of various things on the subject of technology. I'm a technologist by background. My training was in computer science. I'm also an artist visual artist and digital artist and I've just been thinking about a lot of this stuff for a long time. And I always wanted to write a book about the Internet. I was so surprised it was this one. This wasn't the book that I expected to write about the Internet but it's the one that seemed necessary to write in the present moment.
The New Yorker, in an amazing review of your books said it was the most terrifying book about reality that the reviewer ever read. What's so terrifying about your book.
Well I think what that review was talking about was the fact that you know a fairly insistent in the book on relating the condition of technology today to the conditions of everyday life to really emphasize the ways in which the forms of technology that we have at present both reflect and reproduce the conditions of the world itself. So what we talk about the Internet becoming highly commercialized that's because the world has become highly commercialized along those logics so it's really about the interweaving of technology with every aspect of our lives and some of the more frightening implications of that terrify me.
James in a couple of minutes what is so terrifying about the Internet.
I don't think it's about the Internet per say. It's about the way in which the Internet is used.
So one of the things that I kind of discovered actually really by chance while reading the book was the way in which some very weird combination of user generated content algorithmic recommendation and monetization to adverts has turned YouTube into this kind of hell scape for small children where vast vast numbers of children are exposed to really quite terrifyingly terrifying videos on a very regular basis. What's increasingly frightening about that is that once you start to understand the mechanisms by which that's occurring you start to understand about how it's being done. Kind of all the way up. So it's not just happening to small children with kind of nursery rhyme videos and the converse perversions of that is actually happening to all of us through newsfeeds and through auto play systems like YouTube. But then it's also happening to us through our kind of political systems and through our cultural systems as well. And it's a result of the technologically enabled technologically revealed complexity of the world that is starting to reach some kind of cognitive and social breaking point.
Is this driven though by the overt commercialization of everything on YouTube and Google and Twitter and of course Facebook.
Is it because companies like YouTube are designed to get five year olds to watch the most horrific videos they can in order to sell advertising. Well it wasn't designed for that purpose and so to talk about causation is difficult because I don't believe any individual at YouTube sat down to build the system this way but it's very definitely the result and I think it's really important that we understand.
Well as much as we can talk about the fact that as we build technologies we can shape them we can decide what they do. Big large complex things that we put out into the world take on a certain agency of their own. Now one of the things that's preventing us improving that or mitigating that situation is certainly the fact that it's run for profit so whether or not the profit motive created this situation in the first place is suddenly what's sustaining it in the present.
And so when you see for example Facebook and YouTube making a lot of noise about the kind of ethicist they're hiring or the ways in which they're attempting to mitigate that when you understand that to meaningfully mitigate it would be to go against their business plan would severely impact that their revenue streams you understand they really can't and won't do anything about it. So how this came about is really less clear than precisely why we often find it difficult to actually do anything about it in the moment.
When you came out with the title of the new dark age were you thinking that there was a light age that preceded it has this dark age destroyed things of value whether it's democracy press freedom individual rights economic democracy.
I think those things were not necessarily quite as stable as we like to think of them. Prior to the time the term New Dark Age refers to a number of things it is also it's a direct response certainly to the idea of the Enlightenment which has been our kind of shaping metaphor for at least Western civilization and the emphasis on the West is important there because the new dark age may feel differently in different places but it's a very direct response to that main conception of the Enlightenment.
That increased knowledge about the world leads directly to better outcomes. And that seems to be one of the many things that technology is in some sense trying to tell us that simply having access to more and more information does not help us solve problems. And in fact may actually be antithetical to our ability to do so.
It's become a cliché that the Enlightenment was essential for the creation of democracy. How do you see the relationship between in historical terms between the Enlightenment I guess essentially in a 18th century phenomenon and the development of representative democracy over the last couple of hundred years.
I certainly don't see democracy as a product of the Enlightenment. But then I live in Athens so I think the history goes back somewhat further and I think I have a better way of talking about technology and its role in this that I think might be kind of useful.
Technology has been present from the birth of democracy in ancient Athens in 400B.C. it was in fact highly technologies to the extent by which I mean they had a number of specialized machines set up to assist with the administration of democracy. My favorite one of which was.
The machine which is essentially a kind of lottery machine for choosing who would be one of those representatives to the various councils that run ancient Athens. This is not a golden age story because that was still the suffrage did not include non property only managed include women it didn't include slaves. But the original setup of democracy was not for example based on votes.
It was based on chance they had what was called election by lot and there was a machine to administer that. It was called the Cristina and it was Benchley. There's still a couple of examples of them in museums. A huge stone that stood in the middle of the Gore in ancient Athens into which people inserted that kind of I.D. tags bowls were poured into the top like a kind of Tom BOLO or lottery machine and the order in which those balls emerged at the bottom was a random process that decided who will be in charge and this to the ancient Athenians was regarded as the absolute cornerstone of democracy.
The idea of voting for people was ridiculous and clearly undemocratic as they understood it. And so they used a machine to inform a random selection of representatives. What I think is particularly key about that is this is an example of technology being there right at the beginning to assist with the democratic process but also crucially a visible technology.
This machine stood in the center of the marketplace and anyone could come and view it and inspect it and understand its function. And so the legitimacy of the democracy rested upon the transparency of the machinery that operated it and that you can clearly see that already sounds like kind of science fiction to us. But it was there right at the beginning in 400B.C.
So are you suggesting then that one of the reasons why the Internet may be undermining democracy is that the technology impacting on politics is invisible as opposed to visible.
Yeah. I mean I think there's problems around the term visible and invisibility is binaries because we are invisible to an invisible for who we don't quite know how it all works. But it's a question of like who really understands the functioning and who controls that machinery is absolutely the key because that's bound up with all kinds of questions of education and access and social mobility. It really kind of reflects those.
Again I always leery of explanations which seeks to say like technology created this situation but technology often in fact almost always augments it repeats it reproduces it and kind of strengthens it whether it's a good or bad thing. I'm always fascinated though that does have this kind of dual role and this is why I maintain a slightly hopeless optimism in the face of everything. Is the technology so often is used to disempower and is used to hide things away but the moment it becomes visible a whole bunch of stuff becomes accessible so previously.
To be clear like the rules of power were hidden in other ways. And they were kept secret among small groups of elites that no one else had access to. In order to technologies those rules of power they have to be written down written down as lines of code which are often opaque. But necessarily are readable if we have the means and the education and the access to do so. So it still contains this constant double possibility all the way through and it's not a matter of kind of resisting or removing the technology but changing our forms of access and understanding of it. Many people believe that the Internet would democratize from Occupy to the Arab Spring but it seems over the last five or 10 years that there's been.
Rather than the democratization of the world. The rise of new authoritarianism in Turkey in Hungary in Poland in the United States and Brazil. Do you think there's any connection between the rise of this new kind of authoritarianism and the digital revolution. I mean first of all I'd like to just dispense with the idea that like Occupy or the Arab Spring where internet revolutions in any way I think those were narratives imposed from the outside they were very much local embodied people assembling in space face to face with one another.
They may have used some technological tools to communicate can organize they would have used other tools if other tools had been available in history these were very much I think the opposite of that kind.
So you're suggesting that those movements occupy in the Arab Spring were misunderstood by a lot of pundits who saw it as Internet phenomena.
Yeah totally. They were responses to much broader social conditions than you know. The Internet was the tool they happened to use because it's the one we have available but they were not formed or dependent upon it in that way. It's true that in some cases it was used actively against them.
But I think that's a slightly different argument. I think the connection know that there is between current forms authoritarianism between current forms of kind of fundamentalism nationalism that essentially all forms of division essentially. And this I think is one way of thinking about that which returns me to this question of information when we are presented with vast vast amounts of information most of which challenges our understanding of the world in various ways because the world is complex and contains paradoxes and doesn't always fit into our neat presuppositions. The Enlightenment idea was that by this exposure to all of this information we'd make better decisions we change our minds.
Turns out that's really hard for people to do. And in fact when presented with contradictions though in prior assumptions people flee to the edges they flee to this solid ground of deeply rooted assumptions that unfortunately are fairly often nationalist fundamentalists in various ways whether that's race based whether that's religion based whether that's nationalist. So I absolutely see the rise of fundamentalist narratives as being a response to the increased apparent diversity and complexity of the world. But I say a parent because that divesting complexity has always been that is the internet.
This it kind of right up into our faces made it essentially undeniable. Isn't that not only ironic but also deeply depressing because isn't the world becoming ever more complex. As I say I don't think the world is becoming more complex. I think we're just perceiving that complexity because of this extraordinary tool we've built ourselves to kind of see over the entire planet at once. At the same time all the time that's a function of the media and digital networks that we built.
The condition of the world is now inescapable to us. But we're still living with these kind of like fairly old assumptions beliefs and social structures and political structures they're incapable of dealing with that information and cognitive structures like every function of our brains is like really struggles to deal with the apparent complexity of the world. And so most people's response is to become more conservative to become more afraid or worried because this is an overwhelming and difficult experience. But it's not insurmountable and it suddenly doesn't mean that we all have to become depressed or fundamentalist.
So how do we surmount it.
I think this is the question of the time and central focus and certainly of my work. I think it is possible it must be an existential it needs to be possible for us to exist meaningfully with justice in situations of complexity and uncertainty. The hack that's performed by fundamentalists by nationalist by fascists is always to provide us with simple narratives that are easier for us to live with exist that feel like they're empowering us in the face of complexity but they don't need to be the only stories that we tell. It's possible to talk about things that we don't fully understand in meaningful ways. Indeed for example I think this is what science broadly does. It's also why science is bad at talking about climate change and a useful and activist form because scientists always know that operating the limits of their knowledge and that there is a vast thing beyond that that exists unknown to them.
The difficulty of that is then you know scientists often won't take like strong activist positions because they will put boundaries around their own knowledge that they know are real. Others then demagogues and denier lists of all kinds step into that gap say oh no but I know better and I will make this claim to this thing on the unknown. But if like scientists and many other disciplines we can become comfortable with what we do not know and live meaningfully and with justice within that situation then that is the direction that we must hope that we are capable of going in.
Concrete ties that in terms of the public debate about climate change global warming as you say scientists have simplified the debate.
Most scientists have to suggest that the world's on the verge of some sort of catastrophe. And yet governments all over the world particularly in the United States still reject that idea and actually simplify it even more. When you have two competing simplistic narratives one which is based on science and which is probably accurate and one that isn't. How do you guarantee that the scientific one wins out.
I don't know how you guarantee it but I'd argue that the scientific narrative is anything but simplistic. It's often forced to be and this is frequently why it fails to win support because science is so often presented to the public and mediated as being a kind of declaration of a simple truth. Science doesn't develop truths. Science Marshall's evidence in its support and it frequently fails to communicate that when it is reduced to simple arguments. But science is constantly the production of narrative to the extent to which we are capable of doing it. It's an absolute example of the failure of simple narratives to really grasp the situation.
The really really interesting scientific work. Particularly climate related work is done when scientists are capable of explaining the way in which they have come to their conclusions by marshaling the evidence. The kind of vast sensor networks the huge amounts of research that's been done incredibly extraordinary kind of data gathering and encounters that have occurred as part of this process. These are huge complex stories that produce an understanding of the world that is not reducible to a simple simplistic narrative and yet is entirely actionable. We can take all of that complexity and still. Choose to work towards it.
If we don't fall into the trap of some simpler and ultimately incredibly destructive narrative that constantly demands some kind of certainty within that James you live in Greece a country with experienced dramatic economic turbulence over the last 10 15 perhaps even 20 years. But in contrast to Poland and Hungary and Turkey.
Even the Czech Republic there hasn't been it seems shift to authoritarianism should we look at Greece as a positive model it may be the birthplace of democracy but is it also potentially the future of healthy democracy.
I'd be very careful of doing again a simple narrative as much like Greece had a fascist government up until the 1970s.
It has a very strong and resurgent right wing. It has the Golden Dawn party which had previously had members of parliament elected. The reaction to the Macedonian name deal has been seriously virulent. I've had fascist gangs on my street in Athens firebombing. Usually it's the left wingers firebombing on my street. But you know we go back and forth. There's absolutely no guarantee that Greece will not take a turn to the right but it has been extraordinary to witness the resilience of Greek society even under the cosh of kind of incredible economic violence of the last ten years particularly because it's not the only crisis that the country has faced. It's also been the absolute frontline of the refugee movement. Which is in itself largely driven at the furthest end by climate change. Greece is in the front line of climate driven migration that's also moved through various wars that are also related to climate change.
The influx of that on a country that's already economically struggling has been huge the response to it has been amazing. Apart as I say from these manifestations of right wing groups most people have managed to hold separate economic crisis and the refugee crisis in a way that most European countries less affected by it have failed to do so. So most of Europe recession austerity has been conflated with the migration crisis.
Migrants are blamed for the economic crisis. That's not the case in Greece and never has been. The Greeks know very well where this economic crisis has come from. Also the Greeks have a huge history of migration themselves. The population exchanges of the 1920s most Greeks the vast majority the population has an experience in their family of traumatic migration and that direct experience which is not necessarily shared by the people who remain in countries of Eastern and Central Europe means that they have a very different take on it as well.
Your take on the health of democracy. Connecting it with the ability to tell a good story I don't mean a fiction but to make sense of the world in a coherent narrative is a really interesting idea.
Isn't the problem though that authoritarian leaders really skilful authoritarian leaders are very good at that. And democracies generally aren't. So for example in the Brexit debate in the UK the kind of the demagogues on the right told a very good story. And the Democrats who were in favour of Remain failed to do so. So my question is how do democracies learn how to tell stories about the world that are coherent not simplistic but at the same time capture its complexity. I think the question particularly when it's framed within the Brexit debate.
Is a larger question around the technologies of democracy and I again use that word technologies of democracy very directly because I think what the Brexit campaign and subsequent two year rolling disaster has revealed is the complete unfitness of the British form of representative democracy to deal with a situation of division as it exists. The system itself or the people representing.
Both frankly oppose system led by donkeys. To put it politely. But the alternatives exist. Once again. It's incredibly frustrating to me particularly watching the number of people who now come out and campaign for a second referendum which I would love to see but like why were those people when there's a referendum five years earlier about Proportional Representation. A really flawed proposal but a genuine attempt at reform to a former ABC slotting system. Also look at the really shining example for me that proposes an alternative to what we're currently going through is what's happened in Ireland in the last two years with the citizens assemblies.
This is a really fascinating form of democratic technology. Right that has actually radically moved Irish democracy forward in really interesting ways. It hasn't just allowed mostly representative system to address really contentious issues. The first thing the Irish citizens assembly has looked at was the abortion debate right. Seems like big big contentious issue in Ireland. They subsequently looked at the climate change issues and what how Ireland should be addressing it. In both cases the systems assemblies proposed ways to go forward that were more radical than any government had been able to propose prior to that. And they did that by starting with a random selection from the population just like the ancient Athenians did and those people did not come with like all the same idea.
They came with a full range of views and at the end of that system as assembly process they reached a consensus. They didn't necessarily agree but consensus was achieved. People were able to progress in their views to make decisions better. And there's a function of the way in which those processes is designed that are radically different the kind of oppositional forms of representational democracy. So as with everything else like we have the technology to do this differently if we choose to implement it.
And of course the the obvious question is how did the Irish manage to achieve this where many of the other political systems are in such crisis.
They did it. I mean it's been implemented elsewhere. The Scandinavians of various countries have implemented citizens assemblies in various forms. It's not a particularly new idea but it's one that's been continually tested in various places where they have not is the same reason we're stuck in the Brexit debate is lack of political leadership and it's the interest of a small group of people within the government who wish to prevent any form of reform because of their own frankly insane political beliefs and also the unwillingness to relinquish power.
And for this to really catch on does a large country Germany France need to take it.
It would be amazing to see that. But we have to start somewhere as has repeatedly happened or the United States.
Would be wonderful. I don't hold out any hopes for the president but I'm more interested in seeing what we can do wherever we are at the present time.