There are now quite a few admonishers in the digital world who write warning books. Some are fallen angels from the Silicon Valley, others experience as professors a second spring of critical theory. The late thirties James Bridle, on the other hand, is a visual artist and author from London. His book "New Dark Age" published last year in English, which is now also available in a German translation, has made him a pop star of digitization criticism. The book is about the history of data thinking and the connection between technology and climate change, surveillance and conspiracy theories - ultimately the dark side of technology. Bridle also understands a lot of it himself, he can program. This talk about technology ran on a pretty bad Skype connection.
ZEIT ONLINE: Mr. Bridle, were you afraid of the dark as a child? Or did you enjoy not being seen?
James Bridle: I was more afraid of it.
TIME ONLINE: The advantage of the darkness is that you can do something forbidden in your protection.
Bridle: Yes, that probably played a role later.
ZEIT ONLINE: You borrowed the title of your book, New Dark Age , from the writer HP Lovecraft, who foresaw the danger of drowning in too much information at the beginning of the 20th century. More data is not always better data, write today. The currently most used type of artificial intelligence, machine learning, but needs tons of it in order to learn from data. What now?
Bridle: Past experience teaches that AI hides the issues to be solved in ever-new layers of complexity. An example, I was just in the north of Greece. It has been known for some time that there are larger oil deposits, but so far the promotion did not seem to be economical. Now there is artificial intelligence that is supposed to make that possible. We know that will only hurt: the beauty of nature being destroyed, and the climate in the world, which is further burdened by more combustion of fossil fuels. But artificial intelligence helps. Actually not surprising, because even artificial intelligence needs oil.
ZEIT ONLINE: We see, something happens, and see nothing: the transparent darkness. In the book, they narrate the story of an early IBM supercomputer built for publicity reasons in 1948 in a store in New York. What you did not see through the shop window: The computer calculated hydrogen bomb simulations for researchers in Los Alamos. Is the mere semblance of transparency a hallmark of the computer age? Or are the powerful people behind it simply not interested in whether their actions are legitimate?
Bridle: Well, that does not matter to the Force, it covers its purpose in this case. People saw the great large-scale computer, but not the simulation of the bomb. Such government malpractice is much easier to hide in the computer age. The advantage today is that the knowledge is much more accessible to be able to see behind these events. Everything concerning computers has to be written and stored as code. It also means that we can track down and reveal the code.
ZEIT ONLINE: Rich reveal? Surveillance proves the opposite: even after Edward Snowden's NSA revelations, nothing has really changed.
Bridle: Yes, we know relatively well how and how much mass surveillance happens in the dark. But that does not mean that we can really think the phenomenon. Because it is so terrible and hard to bear: that every step can be recorded. Do not think about it! That's why my book is rather gloomy because it's about things we'd rather not talk about. That makes it difficult to build political pressure. But it's possible. Also technologically, I find that interesting: Many have learned more about how computers work because they have resisted surveillance. They use VPNs, encrypted messenger apps, different operating systems. This can be an incentive to gain more agency. It's also very easy: you leave your smartphone at home and pay in cash. And you are already moving more or less invisibly for electronic surveillance. As if you were living in the 17th century.
TIME ONLINE: At the beginning of computational thinking , computerized thinking, weather forecast, write. Now, climate change is bringing new weather catastrophic phenomena, and predictions are becoming more difficult. Absurd, right?
Bridle: This is a vicious circle because the technology we need for forecasting is the main cause of climate change. Our desire for accurate forecasts thus produces the reaction that prevents this again.