Can We Still Think?

Often, an important new book is said to be “thought-provoking.” James Bridle’s New Dark Age aims to be literally thought-provoking—one of the book’s central contentions is that we have entered a new, dimly lit era, engendered by proliferating technology in every walk of life, which has clouded our ability to see and think clearly. Acknowledging this actual state of affairs, Bridle believes, is a necessary first step toward coming to grips with our current reality.

A thought-provoking look at our current predicament. Photo: Amazon.com.
A thought-provoking look at our current predicament. Photo: Amazon.com.

“We know more and more about the world,” Bridle writes, “while being less and less able to do anything about it.” New Dark Age traces this information overload (which produces confusion rather than knowledge) to computers and concomitant technology, and to our faith in and dependence upon technology in general. We have collectively bet that technology was our future, Bridle notes, and have thus effectively foreclosed that future (hence the book’s subtitle). Instead of a technology-driven golden age, we have today’s world of increasing environmental threat (to which server farms contribute significantly, BTW), political dysfunction and communications devolution, including the increasing inability to distinguish truth from falsehood. Trump and Brexit are but symptoms, and everyone is affected to a greater or lesser degree.

To some extent, the author believes, this new darkness can be a positive development, if we will only acknowledge it. We need to understand that we are unable to understand if we are to regain the agency we require to move forward. We need to stop believing in technology without question and start questioning it instead. We need to think about every aspect of what we are doing.

Bridle, who is a visual artist as well as a writer and technologist, provides numerous examples of technology gone wrong, from rogue algorithms that create pornographic cartoons aimed at children on YouTube to growing surveillance here and abroad to the increasing threat of widespread automation.

Facebook is a timely and accessible example. Apart from the role it played in helping to make Trump president (see: Cambridge Analytica), apart from the role it continues to play in fostering turmoil, apart from the self-contained, reinforcing bubbles of “likes” it places its users in, thereby underscoring social and political division, Facebook has an addictive quality for many of its users which may be even more insidious. And, by its very nature, it encourages the superficial while discouraging concentrated thought.

I still have a Facebook account, though I very seldom use it. Yet I have dear friends who practically live on the platform. My interactions with them on Facebook are akin to seeing them a block away in the city, headed in the other direction, and giving them a cursory wave. Facebook is distancing, despite its promise of making it easy to “keep in touch.” I will probably post a link to this review there, although it is essentially pointless, simply a habit because Medium makes it easy to do. Likewise with Twitter. If I take New Dark Age to heart, I’ll need to stop doing that.

(At least Medium attracts people interested in longer reads, though it’s not without its own issues.)

To sum up: if you’re feeling overwhelmed by life in general today, try to make time to read this book and, especially, to think about what you’ve read. It doesn’t provide many answers but it will help you view today’s problems from a different and more conscious perspective, which is certainly a step in the right direction.

Should Fiction Get Its Facts Straight?

This may be an aesthetic question, or perhaps it’s a question of craft. Maybe it’s both. Put simply, the question is: how important is it for a fiction writer to get the facts straight—particularly the technical facts?

As someone now writing fiction who has previously worked in technology, I probably have a special interest in the question. For me, flubbing a bit of technical description brings the narrative to a crashing halt. It also undermines the writer’s credibility to some degree, depending on the writer’s overall talent and the power of his or her narrative. (The same would be true, I believe, if a writer botched the terminology or tools of medicine or law.)

Granted, writers have a built-in license to modify anything in the interest of the story, so I should be clear: I’m speaking about inadvertent mistakes when describing technology in the course of the narrative.

Fortune Smiles—an exceptional collection with a few technical bobbles.
An exceptional collection with a few technical bobbles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I should also note that I’m not referring to the kind of genre fiction where facts already seem secondary. For example, I’m not speaking of a fantasy novel like The Book of Joan, where technology in general is lazily glossed over—the author doesn’t regard specifics or plausibility as important and her readers likely don’t, either.

The writer who raised this question of technical accuracy for me most recently is instead an extremely talented generalist, who has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. I’m speaking of Adam Johnson, and specifically of the story “Dark Meadow” from the National Book Award-winning collection Fortune Smiles.

“Dark Meadow” is a compelling and disturbing tale of a pedophile (“made,” not “born”; his own abuse as a child contributed to his sexual development) who is trying hard to purge his urges. The narrator (who was nicknamed “Dark Meadow” by his molester) works out of his home as a kind of jack-of-all-trades computer technician; people hire him to repair, troubleshoot and secure their systems. But in the meantime Dark Meadow himself has disconnected the internet in his own house, and is whittling down his collection of child pornography photos to almost nothing—he crops pictures so that only a pair of eyes, a hand, or some other non-sexual detail is all that remains. And before the story has finished he will dismantle his computer completely and destroy its hard drive.

The technical errors in Dark Meadow’s narrative could be viewed as minor—for one thing, a solid majority of readers probably won’t be aware of them at all. And even for those who are, the errors ultimately don’t wreck the story; Johnson’s work is too well-wrought in every other respect for that. Still, the errors are troubling.

Here’s an example: “I stopped using Tor, eDonkey and Fetch.” These are three different kinds of technology that don’t plausibly fit together for a child pornagraphy addict. Tor, which provides a degree of online anonymity, yes; though Tails would have been a more appropriate choice. eDonkey and Fetch, no. eDonkey is a file-sharing network but would have been risky to use; Fetch is an old Mac FTP client (though it’s since been updated) that dates all the way back to the 80s and would have been riskier still. Plus, the name itself seems dated. Several lines later, Dark Meadow references his “Fetch Dropbox,” conflating the FTP program with the popular online storage service. (You can set up Fetch to link to Dropbox, which I suppose is what Johnson means here. But Dropbox is not particularly secure either, unless you provide your own encryption.)

As I said, these are small errors. But, with a writer of Johnson’s stature, they bother me. “Dark Meadow” was published in Tin House in issue 60 (Summer 2014); apparently no one at the literary magazine had the technical chops to question these usages. And when the story was incorporated into the Fortune Smiles collection published the following year by Random House, no one there seemed to offer any suggestions, either. Did Johnson himself ask for technical guidance at any point? He’s based at Stanford, so nearby expertise is certainly plentiful.

To answer my own question, then: yes, writers should get their facts straight. And given the ubiquitous role technology plays in life today, that goes double for tech references.