James Bridle, Beyond the Binary
James Bridle is a writer, artist and technologist from London currently living in Athens. In this video interview he discusses the internet as a unconsciously generated tool for unconscious generation, how the idea of transparency could become an obsession and moving beyond the opacity-transparency binary.
You have always been fascinated by exposing and making images of the system. However you feel more and more disillusioned about whether pure exposure of the invisible can have any political impact. We have this growth of transparency, open data, open knowledge, whistle-blowers but you put this whole spectrum of a dream of 'opening it all' into perspective. Having it there doesn't necessarily create a change. Could you go into this in more detail?
This idea of exposing the invisible or kind of making visible what is dark, or whatever, has a long long history that predates this kind of technical operation, predates journalism. This is inherent within art and within any number of other disciplines. And it has a very useful and very specific place. It's incredibly powerful journalistically and politically, this idea of shedding light upon the thing, bringing it into public consciousness and therefore enabling change in various forms. And that's not going to go away. That remains incredibly useful. But it shouldn't be our only technique. If we become obsessed with this idea of transparency, then that's really just the dark mirror, or the lighter mirror, of the kind of intelligence agency's desire for surveillance data. This idea that, if we could only capture more information, we'd build this kind of better model of the world.
It's useful for countering certain instances of state or corporate abuse, perhaps. Very useful in fact. But it doesn't necessarily move us forward, because it keeps us within that paradigm of this rule-based information-based structure that, for me, feels incredibly backward. That feels almost 19th century in its desire for rationality. This may be a wild artistic hope, but I think that it possibly exists beyond this opacity-transparency binary, something that is perhaps a little more interesting that, for me, the internet is trying to kind of show us by making this stuff visible but not necessarily capturable.
You once said ‘that most of the tools we are using are built out of smaller devices that are just made from measurement tools’. You went onto say that most of the internet is designed as measurement tools and you are fed up with this and you expect that this environment should be built out of something else as well. What do you have in mind?
It does feel today like a lot of the things that we're building or that we're putting on the internet, they're very raw and obvious products of the society that's creating them. By which I don't mean that they merely reflect us but actually represent a kind of pre-internet idea of what may be possible. They're designed to measure and explain the world, to turn it into data and to model it and therefore capture it, for political purposes, for commercial purposes, for social purposes, for purposes innocuous or otherwise. But that is essentially the lesson that we appear to have learned or that we've told ourselves that we've learned, from how we deal with this onslaught of available data. Because people have always been doing stuff, right? We've always been trading, we've always been doing this. But suddenly that data is available to us in such a vast form. There's a kind of egomania of, ‘Oh if we can collect it all, we can somehow rule the world, in whatever particular sphere that is. That if we can only get a better picture, if we can get more data, if we can build a better model of the world, we would magically make it understood and rational’.
That's a very old impulse. It's also I think quite a dangerous one. If it’s has taught me anything, it’s that things are not easily explained. That human behaviour is not put into easily categorise-able boxes. And again, that's always been the case, but for me the internet makes it visible. It makes visible a kind of glorious irrationality in the world. It brings out all these kind of differences. The impulse of building software to capture that is to homogenise it or make it more simple and understandable. But that seems to be in complete opposition to what's actually made visible by the internet. The internet for me is a way of proving that that desire for rationality and systematisation, and ultimately for control is ridiculous and pointless. And a sign that we should probably be doing something about that, is this overwhelming discourse around data and control that emerges from it. That says that we're learning the wrong lesson from this but also perhaps that's deliberate. That forces of commercialism or of governance are trying to capture that in some way, and that should be resisted.
Your work can be categorised as becoming more and more political. It focuses on unpacking the designs of power structures and systems. On one hand you would categorise yourself as an activist, on the other hand you are moving more towards the art practice. How do these different worlds fit together for you?
It's very interesting to me that this work gets characterised as activist or as artist or as anything else. It tells you a lot about the state of the world rather than the state of the work when this characterisation takes place. It's incredibly self-serving to say that this is just what I'm doing, but it essentially is just what I'm doing. The labels always come from elsewhere and they're fine. You take them. On the one hand, it's strange to me that within the art world, if you mention effectively anything that's actually happening outside the art world, that's perceived as some form of activism. As though just even mentioning kind of contemporary events means that there must be some kind of political slant to them, which is good because there probably is some political slant to them. But any kind of focus on what is just happening in the world, is automatically assumed to be political, I mean that's how little it's discussed in place, in society, most of the time.
On the other hand, within activism, as soon as you take roles of making images and explaining them in a way that doesn't root so directly and obviously into concrete political action, it moves itself into the domain of art and is perhaps seen as, not necessarily less effective, but within a different kind of sphere. For me, they are all ways of coming to understand and explain these things, and also to move them forward. I don't know how to be in the world without addressing the political issues around it, because those are the things that affect me and everyone around me and everyone that I know, all of the time. So what else is there to talk about that seems to be necessarily important? Equally, I don't want to live in a world in which we don't generate new and interesting and perhaps even beautiful ways of talking about them, which is also the domain of art.
But for a long time, art's role has been to kind of complicate those narratives. To take these easy ideas of simple political discourse from either side of the debate and to complicate them and to resist this kind of easy categorisation, these simple stories, and to make them, to some extent, mysterious and difficult. I feel it's perfectly possible to be, on the one hand, a complete rationalist and literalist about the internet and talk about it in terms of infrastructure and cables and data centres and nation states and legal jurisdictions. And at the same time to hope that it does have some kind of mystic effect on the personality of humanity as well and say look, ‘we've existed for how many millions of years and this is the latest cultural tool that we've built to explain ourselves to ourselves’. It's this kind of unconsciously generated tool for unconscious generation. We don't know what it's for. We don't really know what anything is for when we invent it, and it changes us all the time radically. I think it's perfectly possible to occupy both positions. In fact, entirely necessary to do so.
You coined the term 'New Aesthetic' which had a lot of impact, but your work is moving towards not necessarily 'New Aesthetic' but more towards 'New Politics'. Looking at what you're doing, one could say the “New Aesthetics of Politics”. If you were to describe "New Politics", what would you say?
The reason I've always been interested in technology and its various things and the internet being a very big part of that for the last 20 years and new technologies coming along, is because it's always interesting to see what the latest thing that's gonna kick up is. Because ultimately, it has to provide some kind of new experience or new opportunity simply because we haven't had these tools before. Whatever you want to do, whether you want revolutionary political change or you want to make more interesting better graphic video games or movies. The new tools that must, because they didn't exist before, allow you to do something in some sort of new way. It doesn't necessarily mean more successfully but there are new opportunities for exploring it. This project that I did for a long time, and am still doing some parts of, ‘The New Aesthetic’, was simply about pointing towards the things that I felt were genuinely new and exciting. That I didn't see being explored or brought together out in the world. These things that felt to me like a genuine kind of novelty, because it's amazing how bored we get quite quickly with new things as well. The things that I think are extraordinary like satellite imagery or 3D printing are terrible examples. But these new technologies which become normalised so quickly and are really quite exciting, I felt it necessary to bring those together and talk about them as a coherent thing. These products are something very interesting and very exciting and new in the world.
Screenshot from James Bridle's ongoing research project The New Aesthetic
As soon as you become familiar with that, as soon as you do that, you're not really interested in the surface appearance of those things anymore. You want to know how those things are generated. You want to know why some things occur and others don't. You can't be aware of the internet or computers in general without understanding the military technologies that went into forming it. You can't really think about the internet as an interesting place to be now without thinking about the commercial pressures that underlie some of the forms of surveillance, not just that it permits, that it actually requires in order to function. These things are always there. Now, they've always been there before in various forms in a way but my fascination with talking about this through the lens of technology is that, by its very nature, technology does make these things more accessible and potentially more visible and therefore more understandable and that gives us greater agency. Because previously, power was something perhaps that operated more remotely. That operated not even necessarily deliberately in secrecy but happened within smaller groups and was largely out of the public view.
Today, it's kind of incapable of doing that because it's embedded in these networks, and these networks both reproduce it and illustrate it. So technology becomes a way of making visible in itself the operations of politics in a number of ways, because it has to be written down. It has to be instantiated as a technology. It has to be written down in lines of code which can be analysed and explored if you have the tools to do so. So, the first stage towards a kind of political consciousness within that sphere is learning how this stuff works, essentially. Hence my interest in internet infrastructure, in the way in which networks function, because I believe if you understand those, you can understand other complex systems of politics. And the major problem with politics, whichever side or however you want to use that term, is simply that unequal relationships of people exist within it, that some people have far more agency than others. But on a kind of technological plain, we all have the ability to develop vastly increased agency. And if we're not, there's probably a political- or power-based reason that we're not.
How important is it for you to look at edges and borders where systems actually collide? What are you trying to get out of that?
Edges and borders are always where things become interesting, because they meet other kinds of systems of understanding or legal systems or whatever the nature of their border is, there’s some kind of transition. Therefore, something is enacted in that space which reveals something about the system itself. And that border can be at the border of technological systems, at the interface of things, it can be at the border of the nation states and it can also be in this continually contested thing, which is the border between us and our digital experiences.
You are enjoying the fact that you are an actor or a spectator sitting on the edge. You are not an expert in most issues you explore. You actually are as amateur as the rest of us, but you are able to turn this ‘disadvantage’ into a very powerful position that allows you to look from the edges into the centre much more clearly. How does this work for you?
One of the keys of the way that I work is that I don't come at these things necessarily as professional in any particular sphere. All the tools that I use, I've taught myself in various ways, and that does give me a certain way in. It can also simply be a form of dilettantism which is necessary to keep an eye out for and avoid as much as possible. But, sometimes it’s simply being interested in all of these things. The advantage of doing that for me is that it means that I have to keep myself honest in terms of the tools I use. If I want to use something, I end up having to understand it and having to build new systems for everything I want to investigate. Therefore, I learn new types of coding or whatever the kind of approach is that is going to be necessary at that point to explore the thing. It also means that you spend a lot of time making unexpected connections between things. If you operate purely, for example, as a computer programmer or something, you may not see the kind of inherent biases of that discipline or of the rest of the world, in terms of that discipline, which is a common problem for engineering and software development.
When you come at these things as an outsider to some extent, then you start to bring a different perspective to them. I've always been shocked to the extent that most of our discourses are divided into these discreet chunks, and that we have discussions about politics as though they're not co-produced with the technologies around us. We have discussions about art and literature without discussing the very concrete underpinnings of the structures of dissemination that those things now operate on. This divide between the arts and the sciences is essentially the same for me as these other kinds of divides between different subject areas, between everyday life and politics, or between the internet and what we perceive to be physical everyday life. Crossing those boundaries is incredibly important and in order to do so, you do need to be capable at some extent of moving between them and having, not necessarily an outsider's view but a kind of wonderer's view on them.