James Bridle’s book shines a light into the New Dark Age

Have you ever been to a movie that surprised you? Having seen the trailer and watched past movies from the same producer, you assumed that you knew what was going to happen. That is the experience I had with James Bridle’s new book New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future

When I read the title, I expected a book describing the coming collapse of Western civilisation. The problem is that this crash is already upon us. Whether it be the breakdown of infrastructure, Eroom’s Law, the unreliability of images and the rise of machine learning algorithms, the darkness is already here.

This book is less about the actual technologies at play and more about their impact on society. It is what Ursula Franklin describes as ‘technology as a system.’ Bridle’s focus is on new ways of thinking about, through and with technology.

In light of the recent revelations around Cambridge Analytica and GDPR, I recently reflected upon the importance of informed consent. I argued that we have a responsibility to:

  • Critically reflect and ask questions
  • Learn from and through others
  • Engage in new challenges

Bridle’s book starts this journey by actively informing us. He then puts forward the challenge of what next.

There is a kind of shame in speaking about the exigencies of the present, and a deep vulnerability, but it must not stop us thinking. We cannot fail each other now.

Although the book offers more questions than answers, it does it in a way that left me feeling somehow hopeful. Whether you are coming from the perspective of culture, education or politics, this book is a must read for anyone feeling at all dissatisfied with the current state of the world today.

For a different introduction, listen to an interview with Bridle on The Guardian:

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flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

With the recent birth of my second daughter, I was reminded of Craig Kemp’s claim that being a parent made him a better teacher. As I have stated before, I don’t think that being a parent makes anyone better, rather it provides for a different perspective. The adjustment of having two children has helped me realise many of the habits that I had come to take for granted. Just like losing a parent or moving to a different country, such experiences not only provide a different point of learning, but also highlights those habits that our attention has come to consider as normal.

This is the point that Cathy Davidson makes her book Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century. Going against the grain that technology is somehow hampering culture and society, Davidson asserts that the brain is constantly evolving and always has.

The brain is not static. It is built for learning and is changed by what it encounters and what operations it performs. Retooled by the tools we use, our brain adjusts and adapts.

The challenge, Davidson explains, is recognising the brain’s patterns and breaking with those that are no longer of use.

The problem with this is that we are often blind to world in which we exist, seeing it instead as a part of nature. For once you categorise things, it can be hard to see past this. One method of becoming aware of our attitudes and actions is to focus on that which distracts or disrupts our attention. As she points out:

Without distraction, without being forced into an awareness of disruption and difference, we might not ever realize that we are paying attention in a certain way.

In order to force this disruption, Davidson provides collaboration by difference as an antidote.

David Weinberger suggests that the smartest person in the room is the room and that our challenge is to create smarter rooms, similarly collaboration by difference treats difference as a point of distinction, rewarding the diversity of expertise, perspective, culture, age, ability, and insight. What is significant about this difference is not just what other people might bring to the group, but what they bring out in us. To embed this practise, Davidson focuses on three clear expectations:

  1. Air out differences democratically
  2. Let non-experts talk first
  3. Ask what you are missing

Interestingly, Alma Harris asserts that collaboration needs to be disciplined, so to can it be argued that collaboration also needs to intentionally incorporate difference to be meaningful. With an emphasis on new connections and perspectives, this helps further a cycle of learning, unlearning and relearning, where people are required to continually consider and compromise what they know and understand. As Davidson describes,

The whole point of collaboration by difference is that we cannot see our own gorillas. We need one another to help us, and we need a method that allows each of us to express our difference. If we don’t feel comfortable offering an alternative point of view, we don’t. And without such contribution, we continue to be limited or even endangered by our blind spots; we don’t heed the warning signals until it’s too late and an accident is inevitable.

In the end, collaboration by difference is best appreciated as a convergence of method, mindset and mission.

What stands out the most about Now You See It is that it is most definitely Davidson’s book. Although there are the usual accounts of people and organisations, such as Jimmy Wales, IBM and Quest2Learn, in her discussion of education, work and the brain, these are dispersed between more personal stories of dealing with dyslexia, having a brother suffering a brain injury and teaching Shane Battier. These personal differences help to break with the usual story about the 21st century to tell a more meaningful story.

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