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'New Dark Age' and the call for new digital literacy

Ivan Atmanagara
Ivan Atmanagara

Jakarta-based translator and public servant

Jakarta  /  Fri, May 10, 2019  /  03:02 pm
'New Dark Age' and the call for new digital literacy

Pilot models of the Uber self-driving car is displayed on Sept. 13, 2016 at the Uber Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (AFP/Angelo Merendino)

The drivers of black cabs in London are required to immediately decide any routes in response to requests by passengers or traffic conditions. The test to become the driver of a black cab is so notorious it’s dubbed “The Knowledge”. It’s assumed to be the hardest test in the world since the prospective drivers must be able to memorize all routes in London city without using maps, navigation systems, or communication among drivers. It takes about 34 months for the average drivers to mentally map about 25,000 streets and addresses, including landmarks and short-cuts. It has been that way since 1856.

Then all of a sudden, a new company called Uber launched a mobile application to disrupt public transportation services in major cities around the world. Uber provides an opportunity for anyone in possession of a car and a driver's license to be a “partner” and directly compete against taxis like the black cab without competitive regulations.

To make matters worse, Uber and other ride-sharing drivers depend on GPS navigation without having to memorize the streets. From one point to another, the drivers are bound to the crowd-sourced data and algorithms through their smartphone apps. They don’t have to take “The Knowledge” test.

We’ve seen this coming, though. In the digital era, almost all aspects of our lives are dominated by the algorithmic logic. Driving a car, reading news, listening to music, watching videos, working out and shopping are all regulated by a system of computation beyond the reach and understanding of most people.

While the roles of technology in our lives become more complex and indispensable, our understanding of it is getting more limited. Following Moore's Law, that the processing power of computers grows exponentially, we’re now facing new technologies such as artificial intelligence, the internet of things, robotics and machine learning. As users and consumers, we’re reduced to believing that complex technology will make our world a better place.

We’ve come a long way. Centuries ago, the Renaissance was marked by the free movement of information. Now, the volume of information has grown so ubiquitous that we no longer have the capability to digest it. Instead of enlightening our society, the abundance of information and comforts offered by technology have actually shrouded our perception and change our behaviors. And not for the better. Access to social media has become a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, post-truth politics and disinformation.

In his new book, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future (Verso, 2019), James Bridle, a visual artist and technology writer, calls this contradiction akin to entering a “new dark age”. He was inspired by an eerie passage from H. P. Lovecraft’s 1926 book, The Call of Cthulhu. “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents […] but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

In his new book, Bridle invites us to reflect on the complexity of technology and its effects on our survival. He carefully insists that the new dark age is not something to be afraid of. It can serve as a foundation for a new understanding. He suggests that we avoid “computational thinking”, a mindset that believes all problems in this world can be solved with the help of technology.

To illustrate his arguments, in a chapter entitled “Complexity” Bridle recounts his experience in a project to map the infrastructure landscape in southern England. He rode a bicycle and took photographs of fiber optic cables, cell towers, warehouses, data centers, traffic sensors and cameras and electromagnetic network installations. He traced back how these “steel and wires” became communications infrastructure. All of them, often attached to old buildings and constructed on neglected grounds, like those in Slough town, are interconnected through radio frequency wave transmission carrying massive amounts of information. such as e-commerce transactions and stock trading. 

Take the London Stock Exchange, for instance. It’s where financial transactions and stock trading are completed with the speed of light. Financial markets and brokers now rely on this high-frequency trading, where profits and losses are tracked down to the last cents in nanoseconds. It’s convenient, but at the same time it also proves problematic. Those who are familiar with the technology see the stock trading screens differently than those who aren’t. As a result, the advance of financial technology creates a new kind of divide.

The government and tech evangelists have tried to bridge the divide in technological understanding by encouraging young people, even as early as kindergarten, to learn coding and programming. This effort is laudable, but practical technology training like this is not enough. Bridle suggests the use of “real systemic literacy” by taking our understanding to a new level.

Digital literacy should no longer be defined as the ability to operate gadgets or even the ability to write lines of code. We need to think deeper, beyond the technical elements. We have to be able to process how and why new technologies emerge and function in an interwoven and largely invisible system. Without this kind of knowledge, the public would become powerless and have less agency in relation to new technologies, while certain elites take advantage.

Bridle emphasizes the urgency to think critically about every aspect of technology and act accordingly.

Ideally, people can educate themselves about how communications infrastructure works and how algorithmic logic influences users’ behaviors.

Read also: Digitalized economy: Embracing technology, reducing disruption

New Dark Age confronts our ignorance of the real threats of climate change and the roles of new technology: the fact that communications infrastructure emits the same amount of greenhouse gas as the global aviation industry. Will a more connected world become a sustainable one for humankind? The next challenge includes an understanding of how artificial intelligence works and interacts with humans, not only from technical and regulative perspectives, but also its moral and ethical implications.

Algorithms impact the way we think and behave and change the way we interact with other people. However, we’ll never know the logic behind the algorithms created by Facebook or Google, for example. They are preserved in their computing facilities and often untouched by regulation.

In social media, algorithms determine the kind of news we consume, videos we watch and people we follow. The more information generated on the web, the more it obfuscates our reality. We’re trapped in an echo chamber that validates our own biases. In the larger scheme, identity politics and disinformation undermine our democracy and degrade our interactions with our fellow members of community.

In New Dark Age, Bridle presents these issues from very skeptical perspectives. However, perhaps we need that tone if we want to avoid being kept in the dark. We can’t ignore the fact that only 45 percent of this planet’s population have access to the internet, that 1 billion humans are still literally living in darkness without electricity, or that about 700 million are struggling against extreme poverty. Without new digital literacy, the emergence of new technologies would only exacerbate these conditions.

The gig economy demands that the black cab and conventional taxi drivers improve their services. “The Knowledge” lost the battle against the GPS technology that’s getting more accurate and, in the near future, would also have to compete against autonomous cars. However, at the same time, corporate culture of the technology companies is often mired by scandals, such as an exploitative labor system, data abuse and sexual harassment. All of them should be taken into account. Without a comprehensive understanding of the processes and consequences, the ramifications can be disastrous.

New technologies, new perspectives: Digital literacy needs a new angle that’s richly and thoughtfully written in this crucial book. (mut)

Book details:

Title                 : New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future

Author             : James Bridle

Publisher          : Verso Books

ISBN-10          : 178663547X

ISBN-13          : 978-1786635471

Language         : English (UK)

Pages               : 304

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Ivan Atmanagara is a Jakarta-based translator and public servant in the communications and informatics sector. He graduated from the new media and society Master’s program at the University of Leicester, England. His field of interests include media culture, digital economy and telecommunications. He can be reached at Twitter (ivanatman) and Instagram (ivanatman).

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.