NEW DARK AGE TECHNOLOGY AND THE END OF THE FUTURE
History – progress – does not always go up and to the right: it’s not all sunlit uplands. And this isn’t – cannot be – about nostalgia. Rather, it is about acknowledging a present that has come unhinged from linear temporality, that diverges in crucial yet confusing ways from the very idea of history itself. Nothing is clear anymore, nor can it be. What has changed is not the dimensionality of the future, but its predictability.
In a 2016 editorial for the New York Times, computational meteorologist and past president of the American Meteorological Society William B. Gail cited a number of patterns that humanity has studied for centuries, but that are disrupted by climate change: long-term weather trends, ish spawning and migration, plant pollination, monsoon and tide cycles, the occurrence of ‘extreme’ weather events. For most of recorded history, these cycles have been broadly predictable, and we have built up vast reserves of knowledge that we can tap into in order to better sustain our ever more entangled civilisation. Based on these studies, we have gradually extended our forecasting abilities, from knowing which crops to plant at which time of year, to predicting droughts and forest ires, predator/prey dynamics, and expected agricultural and isheries outputs.
Civilisation itself depends on such accurate forecasting, and yet our ability to maintain it is falling away as ecosystems begin to break down and hundred-year storms batter us repeatedly. Without accurate long-term forecasts, farmers cannot plant the right crops; ishermen cannot ind a catch; lood and ire defences cannot be planned; energy and food resources cannot be determined, nor demand met. Gail foresees a time in which our grandchildren might conceivably know less about the world in which they live than we do today, with correspondingly catastrophic events for complex societies. Perhaps, he wonders, we have already passed through Climate ‘peak knowledge’, just as we may have already passed peak oil. A new dark age looms.
The philosopher Timothy Morton calls global warming 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 inluence on other things – a melting ice sheet, a dying sea, the buffeting of a transatlantic light. Hyperobjects happen everywhere at once, but we can only experience them in the local environment. We may perceive hyperobjects as personal because they affect us directly, or imagine them as the products of scientiic theory; in fact, they stand outside both our perception and our measurement. They exist without us. 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. Scientiic record keeping thus becomes a form of extrasensory perception: a networked, communal, time-travelling knowledge making. This characteristic is precisely what makes it anathema to a certain kind of thinking – one that insists on being able to touch and feel things that are intangible and unsensible, and subsequently dismisses the things it cannot think. Arguments about the existence of climate change are really arguments about what we can think.
And we are not going to be able to think much longer. In preindustrial times, from 1000–1750 CE, atmospheric carbon dioxide varied between 275 and 285 parts per million – levels we know from studying ice cores, the same batteries of NEW DARK AGE knowledge that are melting away in the Arctic today. From the dawn of the industrial age they begin to rise, reaching 295 ppm at the start of the twentieth century, and 310 ppm by 1950. The trend – named the Keeling Curve, after the scientist who started modern measurements at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii in 1958 – is ever upward, and accelerating. 325 ppm in 1970, 350 in 1988, 375 in 2004.
In 2015, and for the irst time in at least 800,000 years, atmospheric carbon dioxide passed 400 ppm. At its current rate, which shows no sign of abating, and we show no sign of stopping, atmospheric CO2 will pass 1,000 ppm by the end of the century.
At 1,000 ppm, human cognitive ability drops by 21 per cent.33 At higher atmospheric concentrations, CO2 stops us from thinking clearly. Outdoor CO2 already reaches 500 ppm regularly in industrial cities: indoors, in poorly ventilated homes, schools, and workplaces, it can regularly exceed 1,000 ppm – substantial numbers of schools in California and Texas measured in 2012 breached 2,000 ppm. Carbon dioxide clouds the mind: it directly degrades our ability to think clearly, and we are walling it into our places of education and pumping it into the atmosphere. The crisis of global warming is a crisis of the mind, a crisis of thought, a crisis in our ability to think another way to be. Soon, we shall not be able to think at all.
The degradation of our cognitive abilities is mirrored at scale in the collapse of the transatlantic jet routes, the undermining of communication networks, the erasure of diversity, the melting away of historical knowledge reserves: these are signs and portents of a wider inability to think at the network level, to sustain civilisation-scale thought and action. The structures we have built to extend our own life systems, our cognitive and haptic interfaces with the world, are the only tools we have for sensing a world dominated by the emergence of hyperobjects. Just as we are beginning to perceive them, our ability to do so is slipping away.
Thinking about climate change is degraded by climate change itself, just as communications networks are undermined by the softening ground, just as our ability to debate and act on entangled environmental and technological change is diminished by our inability to conceptualise complex systems. And yet at the heart of our current crisis is the hyperobject of the network: the internet and the modes of life and ways of thinking it weaves together. Perhaps unique among hyperobjects, the network is an emergent cultural form, generated from our conscious and unconscious desires in dialogue with mathematics and electrons and silicon and glass ibre. That this network is currently being (mis)used to accelerate the crisis, as we will see in subsequent chapters, does not mean it does not retain the potential to illuminate.
The network is the best representation of reality we have built, precisely because it too is so dificult to think. We carry it around in our pockets and build pylons to transport it and palaces of data to process it, but it is not reducible to discrete units; it is nonlocal, and it is inherently contradictory – and this is the condition of the world itself. The network is continuously, deliberately and unknowingly created. Living in a new dark age requires acknowledging such contradictions and uncertainties, such states of practical unknowing. Thus the network, properly understood, can be a guide to thinking other uncertainties; making such uncertainties visible must be done precisely so that they can be thought. Dealing with hyperobjects requires a faith in the network, as mode of seeing, thinking, and acting. It denies the bonds of time, place, and individual experience that characterise our inability to think the challenges of a new dark age. It insists on an afinity with the noumenal and the uncertain. In the face of atomisation and alienation, the network continually asserts the impossibility of separation.
James Bridle (born 1980) is an artist, writer and publisher based in London. Bridle coined the New Aesthetic; their work “deals with the ways in which the digital, networked world reaches into the physical, offline one.” Their work has explored aspects of the western security apparatus including drones and asylum seeker deportation. Bridle has written for WIRED, Icon, Domus, Cabinet Magazine, The Atlantic and many other publications, and writes a regular column for The Guardian on publishing and technology.