The New Dark Age

Nikita Dmitriev considers the concerns for the technological revolution set out in a new book by artist and writer James Bridle

The new book by British artist James Bridle, ‘New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future’, deals with some of the most vital questions for contemporary civilisation – is technological progress beneficial for humankind? What’s the relation between technological progress, on one hand, and economic prosperity and political liberty, on the other?

In the West, technological progress has been underway continuously since the Renaissance, and our welcoming attitude towards it defines much of Western culture since then. In turn, the idea that liberal democracy, economic well-being and technological progress are mutually beneficial and inseparable, constitutes the core element of the Western social contract and political philosophy since the French Revolution of 1789, and has dominated our thinking since the end of the Second World War.

All of this actually proves to be false: since the early 1970s in the West, economic inequality is widening, real wages (the one and only variable defying economic prosperity, GDP expresses nothing substantial) are stagnating, while labour productivity (the quantifiable measurement of technological progress) keeps on growing exponentially; since the early 1970s, technological progress, while continuing, as in the past, to destroy jobs, permanently ceased to offer people new employment that was better, or at least equivalent, to those destroyed in terms of salary, social prestige, work-time and required skills. 

Before the early 1970s, technological progress had been beneficial to the Western economy, but since then it has been devastating and can be linked to social atomisation, corrosion of interpersonal relationships and rise of physical and mental health problems in the new technologico-communicational environment; in the age of social media, people are ‘alone with the others’.

James Bridle

The positive link between technological and socio-cultural progresses – the idea that the use of new technologies would move archaic non-Western communities closer to the liberal democratic standard – also turns out to be untrue: terrorist organisations, gangs and oppressive political regimes do not only actively exploit new technologies, but even invest in them; social networks create new possibilities for mutual surveillance, coordination and information sharing, strengthening traditional clan ties; paradoxically, a better freedom of circulation and better professional opportunities that has recently emerged for women in the Global South, are completely undercut, in terms of their personal liberty, by the possibility to control them through WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook by their male siblings.

The main reason why the dark sides of technological progress are so largely neglected in the public square lies in a collective, subconscious fear and the sentiment of denial, generated by the enormity of the problem, identical to the first stage of adoption of the inevitable in psychology. Technological progress is Pandora’s box and, in all likelihood, it can’t be democratised, slowed down, reversed or stopped. Skepticism towards it in the Western history had been expressed not just by some uneducated luddites or maniac geniuses like Ted Kaczynski, but also by people like Socrates, Leo Tolstoy and Martin Heidegger. The glorification of technological progress is one of the cornerstones of the contemporary cultural and artistic mainstream, and Bridle justly stands up against it.

New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future is published by Verso Books

Nikita Dmitriev is the assistant curator at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris