Dark Ages and Enlightenment
For students of history, the Dark Ages is a period within the Middle Ages, used to describe European society after the fall of the Roman Empire. From the premise that the Roman Empire represented a cultural and scientific high point in human development at that point in human history, the Dark Ages saw a reversal: demographic, cultural, and economic deterioration. Here religion and superstition were the common explanations for what was going on in the environment and helped structure societies. The Enlightenment, in contrast, represented an awakening and the political and cultural birth of the liberal tradition, having roots in various European intellectual and philosophical movements, skeptical of religion, monarchies and hereditary aristocracy.
Technology: Utopian and the apocalyptic
Birdle steels towards the Dark Age side of the argument, seeing modern societies slipping into an age of complex uncertainty, predictive algorithms, surveillance, and what he describes as “the hollowing out of empathy.” This is because, Birdle writes: “technological acceleration has transformed our planet, our societies, and ourselves, but it has failed to transform our understanding of these things.” He goes on to assert that we are so immersed in a world of technology that we can no longer stand back and view technology objectively and to see what kind of society it is that we want. In other words, technology has made gathering information far easier, but this mass of data has not led to a deeper understanding of our world, simply greater confusion about it. How we engage with this, or fail to, has polarized society.
He further sees technology as complicit with the growing divide between rich and poor, the rise of nationalism and right-wing popularist movements. This is, Birdle states, due to an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness and we no longer understand how our world is governed or presented to us. This arises, the author asserts, due to too many “computational decisions” (or blind faith in the problem-solving ability of computers. We are in danger of replacing philosophical reasoning with the computer saying yes or no to a question or problem. One example in the text is a description of Amazon warehouses arranged by computers into inhuman logics that its workers are forced to follow.
Bias of AI
Taking one example from the book, Birdle summarizes his argument in an accompanying short video. This is that artificial intelligence is not neutral. For instance, there are cases where software used in justice systems have been racially biased. In stead, Birdle argues, we need a massive democratization of technologies:
The bias in AI, as presented here, is more of a pressing problem than worrying about AI systems being built that will either “go rogue” and attack us in some type of Skynet scenario.
The future need no be bleak, according to Birdle, if we fight back against technology by improving education and understanding. That is teaching the purpose of technology at schools and colleges, not simply just how it works; and having politicians and policy makers look more deeply at what technology is used for and its wider societal impact. Birdle does not seek a reduction of technology but rather for a new coalition and more informed integration with the technologies we have created.
In terms of the overall assessment of the book, a reviewer for The Guardian sums up the likely responses as being dependent upon “whether you’re a glass half-empty, or a glass exactly-filled-to-the-halfway-mark-by-microprocessor-controlled-automatic-pumping-systems sort of a person.”
Whichever way the reader veers, the argument that we need better education about technology and more careful thought about what is it for and what is it here to do is a compelling one.
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