James Bridle posits that the natural world should play an essential part of our technological future, a role that is currently being overwhelmingly ignored.
‘We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals.
Ways of Being spends its time examining human and non-human technology, their inseparable codependence, and how “an ecology of technology” is essential to our long-term survival as a species. Below are my key learnings from the book:
A New Definition of Technology
Technology’, according to Ursula K. LeGuin, is defined as any ‘active human interface with the material world.’ By this definition, we are not limited to “high” technology, but even things as fire, wheels, and clocks. Thinking about the agency of technology is an opportunity to think seriously and concretely about how we might ensure greater justice and equality for all of the planet’s inhabitants. This is important, because all life on earth is part of an interrelated system. If any part of that system suffers, we all suffer.
Humans suffer for their desire to see things as true or false, as knowable, as fixed in time. American Feminist theorist Karen Barad points out that the entire universe is a continual process of emergence, in which nothing is certain or fixed, but is always becoming itself through its intra-action with everything else. The notion of ‘species’ as something easily delimited and described is baseless.
What we perceive as borders and conflicts – the things which separate us – often turn out not to be artefacts of the exterior world, but immeasurable gaps in our own conceptions, abilities and tools of discernment
Our own technological experimentation (DNA sampling, for example), coupled with our desire to see beyond human uniqueness “constructs new ways of seeing and appreciating the world.”
Infinite Complexity and Evolution
Meteorologist Lewis Fry Richardson, attempting to decipher weather patterns, found that that “the more accurately you try to measure something, the more complex it becomes.” This realization encapsulates what mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot would later term ‘fractals’: structures which repeat to infinite complexity. Instead of resolving into order and clarity, ever-closer examination reveals only more, and more splendid, detail and variation. The deeper we study an organism, the more we find even smaller dependent systems and ecosystems on which that organism depends.
We are walking assemblages: riotous communities of multi-species, multi-bodied beings, inside and outside of our very cells
[American Biologist ]“Lynn Margulis considered the human individual ‘a kind of baroque edifice’, reconstructed every couple of decades by fusing and mutating bacteria.
Bridle likens the cloud to such an ever-complex, evolving system. “The Cloud embodies and enacts all the conflicts of understanding we encounter in our attempts to understand the more-than-human world…No schema is ever complete, no taxonomy ever finished – and that’s fine, providing the systems we put in place for interpreting and applying those schemas are open, transparent, comprehensible and renegotiable.” He goes on to question survival of the fittest, and our perception of ourselves as the supreme species.
The world is not composed of harmonious or even equitable relationships, but it is composed of relationships, and more of those are mutually beneficial than they are antagonistic. ‘Life’, writes Margulis, ‘did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking.’
The Role of Time in Technology and Ecology
Our perception of time and its meaningful units is arbitrary, and not equivocal to other species. And, as Bridle argues, it matters greatly what timescale we live on. “When it is governed by machines, our attention is forcibly attuned to the scale of the nanosecond and the breadth of a beam of light, and this makes it harder for us to think of and with other beings and processes which exist at different scales of time and geography.
Today time is imagined by our machines – the ticking of the microprocessor and the oscillating signal of the GPS satellite, which maintains a universal, globalized time code accessible anywhere on Earth and accurate to ten billionths of a second.” We humans live in such a narrow slice of time and space that we are incapable of thinking of, or thinking at, the pace and scale of the world, the changes we have wrought in it, and the changes we will have to make to survive them.
Bridle goes on to describe Phenology, the study of things not in the visual, aesthetic sense, but in the temporal one: not how things appear, but when they do. He uses the example of Greenland caribou, whose migration is governed by the length of the day. As temperatures rise, the plants on which they graze bloom earlier, and thus they arrive to their pastures only to find things withered and gone. “This is an example of a phenological mismatch: the falling out of sync of once complementary reckonings of time, with devastating results.”
The global mean velocity of climate change is about 0.42 kilometres per year. A study found that from 1980 to 2015, three-quarters of species in the eastern US were shifting north- and west-wards, at an average rate of between 10 and 15 kilometres a decade. What we need, argues Bridle, is to “use technology to widen and extend our view across time and space, so that we may become more attuned to the broader scale of the world we are entangled with.”
Seeking to Connect versus Dissect
We are accustomed, largely by scientific practice, to taking things apart, separating them into their component attributes, fixing them for study, and piece by piece reducing their collective agency until they have none at all. But this is the opposite of ecology, which seeks to find connections between all things and resolve them into greater, interconnected systems.
We believe because of our ability to study and observe, that we understand, that we find truth. “We are not good at maintaining an ongoing, thoughtful awareness of our computational environment, because we are so habituated to thinking of it (like the natural environment) as something we control. “Transparency does not equate to understanding; seeing does not mean knowing or dominating.” We too often apply the lens of study to our own human concerns. Our language for the natural world is “infected with mastery.”
“What other worlds might we discover if more of our technologies were consciously, thoughtfully employed – pointed, not at one another, but at the more-than-human world?”
Our interaction with machines is not purely technological or intellectual, as we might think, but physical. “When we interact with [computers], our responses are physiological: from RSI to lower back pain, to ‘email apnea’: the tightening of the lungs and the holding of breath when confronted with a string of intimidating messages.
How We Might Shape Artificial Intelligence
“The way we are constructing artificial intelligence today opens up the very real possibility that future intelligences will be opaque to us, in much the same way that non-human minds are essentially and fundamentally different to our own…humans think they are speaking computer, computers think they are speaking human, and neither is very satisfied. We use our machines, often without really understanding what it is they’re doing, and uncritically accept the world.”
Ideas about how we should think come to define our reality and to erase the awareness that other realities even exist, a problem exacerbated by technology. “Once a way of seeing the world has been moulded into a tool it’s very hard to think otherwise.”
Alan Turing dubbed the Turing Machine (on which all modern computers are now based), an “a” machine - analytical, binary, 1s and 0s. But Turing noted that another kind of machine was possible – “a choice machine”, or “oracle”. “Unlike the a-machine, which steps through its instructions relentlessly until they are complete, this o-machine pauses at critical moments in its computation to ‘await the decision’ of ‘the oracle’. And while “we have been trying to entrap a brain within the machine, when the real brain – the oracle – is outside. The oracle is the world.”
“[Computers] have shaped our idea of truth and knowledge as being that which is calculable. Only that which is calculable is knowable. From this error flows all kinds of violence. We believe the machine will give us concrete answers about the world which we can act on, and confers upon those answers a logical irrefutability and a moral impunity. What I am interested in is undecidability.”
Neural vs. Technological Computation
“Neural computation – the brain’s processing of the world – is low-speed and low-precision compared to a computer, but it’s also massively parallel and real-time, operating more like the flow of a river than the ticking of a clock. In designing technological systems for ‘real world’ problems – route-finding, speech recognition, economics – we are better served by designing systems which are more like the world.
What if – rather than asset-stripping other organisms for their useful components, treating them as so many spare parts for our machines – we instead incorporated them wholesale and, beyond that, started to see the environment itself as part of our computational substrate?
If our internal model contains a vision of a shared world, we have the potential to make the world a more communal, more participatory, more just and equal, and more-than-human place.
Bridle uses the example of a ‘liquid state machine.’ “We can’t read water in the same way as we can read data, and this is a good thing. Working with it makes us more aware of the distance between ourselves and the matter under consideration: it reminds us that we share this world rather than own.” In the liquid state machine, water pre-processes complex information by turning it from one-dimensional binary information into more complex, but more expressive, higher-dimensional information. As Bridle points out, the world is non-binary. Our machines should be non-binary as well, decentralized and unknowing.
Technological Interdependence and Shared Power
“The power of communities and systems lies in their intra-action, their becoming-together to produce something greater than their parts.” This requires a degree of decentralization, the insistence that not just connectivity, but power, is shared. This “shared power” turns Bridle to politics.
Any technological question at sufficient scale becomes one of politics…Politics, when organized, is also a kind of technology: the framework of communication and processing which governs everyday interaction and possibility.
First, Bridle looks at historical systems of politics, in juxtaposition to our present one. “Unlike contemporary democracy, which mostly involves voting for someone, the Athenians preferred voting against.” If any one individual became too powerful, or was considered in a threat to the good running of the city, they were ousted.
In addition, politicians were elected by lottery or “sortition”, similar to our present system of jury selection, and enforced by the kleroterion, an analog computer of stone and brass. Here Bridle turns to the topic of randomness and the inability of binary-based computation to prouce it. “This is a major problem for all sorts of industries which rely on random numbers. There would always be some underlying structure to the randomness.”
Randomness has been consistently undervalued in studies of evolution since its establishment, while the role of natural selection – competition – has been consistently overvalued.
Our most powerful examples of randomness at work are perhaps the very epitomy of our existence: mutation, recombinatio, genetic drift…these are ’non-adaptive processes’, forces impacting evolutionary change which are not caused by pressure from the environment. “Natural selection is not the only force at work in shaping life, and evolution is far less deterministic than the simple combination of organism and habitat would imply.”
We have a few exceptions to our deterministic systems of governance. For example Ireland in 2016, which created a random CitizensAssembly. Where our current systems often attempt to ‘consider’ diverse perspectives, “a random assembly isn’t ‘interpreting’ the thinking of a mythical middle citizenry. It’s representing it, directly.” Sortition returns to the democratic process something which has been largely lost: the approval and consent of the population.”
Bridle argues that ‘cognitive diversity’ trumps ability.
We exist by virtue of our ties to one another and to the more-than-human world, and these ties are strengthened, not weakened, by the inclusion and equal participation of each and every member of that network.
Animal Politics and AI Personhood
Animals are not passive recipients of our decision making. “They strive to escape their predicament and, if possible, to obtain some influence over it. Theirs is a struggle against exploitation, and as such it constitutes a political activity.”
Where we opt for election of supreme leaders, heroes, and individuals, the answer for the animal world is rarely, if ever, the blind following of a dominant individual. Examples of collective decision making might include migration and selecting feeding sites. In fact, our own brain processes in some ways mimic collective animal intelligence. “The way in which the brain makes decisions, integrating input from multiple senses, closely mirrors the way in which a bee swarm integrates information from multiple individuals.”
Learning from these processes can benefit our own technological advancement greatly. Bridle takes an example from “BeeAdHoc” which uses ‘bee agents’ – small pieces of software modelled on scout bees – to gather information about local state of the a computer network and propagate that to all the nodes, a process both more efficient and less energy-intensive than any other known algorithm.
We are beginning to advocate for more than human rights and protection. In 2018, Colombia’s highest court declared that the Amazon rainforest was a legal person. And in 2017, the government of New Zealand granted personhood to a river system. These are acts of what some cultures refer to as buen vivir: a way of doing things which is rooted in communities, coexistence, cultural sensitivity and ecological balance.
Ecology teaches us that we exist by virtue of our ties to one another and to the more-than-human world. With the advancement of Artificial Intelligence, we will soon be forced to consider AI personhood. Meaningful legal consideration of AI, Bridle argues, would yield a concrete definition of what constitutes an autonomous system, which might be very useful in the case for animal rights. “To declare solidarity with the more-than-human world means to acknowledge the radical differences which exist between ourselves and other beings, while insisting on the possibility of mutual aid, care and growth.”
General artificial intelligence might be seen, not as something which overrides and supplants our own agency, but as something which might bring us to an accommodation with the intelligence and agency of other beings, non-human and more-than-human.
The role of history
The past is not really past; it is being made up all the time by our actions in the present, and it affects those that come after us, determining how they will view us and behave towards us.
Bridle argues that we are too focused on the present moment, and our immediate surroundings. “By focusing on only the final fork in the path (incentives of automation; the assumptions of actuaries, the legal processes which govern blame and recompense), we are led to ignore all the other decisions made along the path that led to this critical moment.”
The internet of animals
Bridle explores the networks of animals by introducing the concept of metapopulations, a single populace composed of shifting, smaller, but interconnected communities. “In nature, metapopulations ensure the survival of species over vast areas, because they allow for the occasional mixing of genes between isolated sub-populations and the possibility of renewal and recolonization when particular communities are wiped out.” The same principles of these decentralized metapopulations can be found in technological systems where similar resilience and decentralization is required, such as power generation, data storage, emergency response.
Technology, carefully and conscientiously employed, can bolster the natural world, Bridle argues. To make this case he references the technological advancements in tracking animal migration to help address species loss. Where before we knew nothing about the migration patterns of fully 75% of the animal kingdom, with such advancements such as miniscule and lightweight solar powered GPS trackers, we get a vivid picture of their habits. “As we know more about where animals are going in space and time, we can use that information to better protect them.”
The need for this protection is eminent:
When 90 per cent of wild habitat is gone, the number of species which can be supported is halved – and this is approximately the point we have reached, globally, in the present. But if we lose just 10 per cent of the remainder, most or all surviving species will disappear.
The answer, according to some experts such as the Half-Earth Project, is a radical expansion of protected areas. If we can protect half the Earth from human interference and alteration, we can hope to protect some 85 per cent of remaining species.
Some might say that technology is to blame, but Bridle argues that the enemy is not technology itself, but rather inequality and centralization of power and knowledge, and that “the answer to these threats are education, diversity and justice. You don’t need artificial intelligence to work that out. You need actual intelligence.”