"What sort of intelligence actively participates in the drilling, draining and despoliation of the few remaining wildernesses on earth, in the name of an idea of progress we already know to be doomed? This is not an intelligence I recognize." James Bridle
"Ways of Being" (2022), by James Bridle, was the best non-fiction book I have read in recent times. It covers several of the subjects that interest me most, such as:
- What is consciousness?
- What is life?
- Developments in technology that border on science fiction.
- The irrepressible massive destructive energy of corporations, and the capitalist way of seeing the world that sustains it. Utopia.
"Frseeeeeeeefronnnng and we all go tumbling down the genetic line together. It’s a delirious image: an endlessly blossoming, weirding, straining desire for life and interconnection. The lichens farm algae and we farm bacteria and each feeds the other, the trees are talking and everyone’s singing. We’re descended from Typhus on our mother’s side, and methane-burping Archaea on the other.32 Every time we train our most sophisticated tools upon the central questions of our existence – Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? – the answer comes back clearer: Everyone and Everywhere."
Bridle is a visual artist and essayist, who often writes about technology for publications such as Wired, The Atlantic and The Guardian. The book demonstrates how blind we are to the most incredible and varied forms of intelligence in the animal and plant kingdoms, and how this rich dimension encompasses and intertwines everything, even broadly embracing the technological sphere of our existence.
It is not only a critique of dominant systems and thinking, as the author also presents his fascinating vision of how technologies - such as machine learning, or AI - could express a broader, interconnected and essentially life-enhancing concept of intelligence, rather than being mere tentacles of hyper-capitalist destruction.
The book manages to appeal to both tech and eco readers by delving deeply into these themes. There is no shortage of tasty anecdotes, technical trivia, thought-provoking reflections, history, etc.
I also especially liked the chapter on a kind of political renaissance, based on the model of direct democracy that uses the random logic of the lottery, something that I also believe is the best model of participatory decision-making.
A good summary of the book is in the final chapter:
"After all, if we can tune military radars to observe the migration of birds, or turn spy satellites around to learn about the origins of the universe, then we can put the tools of surveillance to work to build a more-than-human parliament. And perhaps that was never the real question. What I think I’ve come to understand, more deeply than ever before, is 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. But more importantly, you need all the actual intelligences – every person, animal, plant and bug; every critter, every stone and every natural and unnatural system. You need a crab computer the size of the world. The problem is never technology itself; after all, remember, the computer is like the world. I remain as excited as ever about the power and possibilities of computers and networks as I have ever been; I just abhor the structures of power, injustice, extractive industry and computational thinking in which they are currently embedded. But I hope I’ve shown, to some degree, that it doesn’t need to be this way. There are always other ways of doing technology, just as there are other ways of doing intelligence and politics. Technology, after all, is what we can learn to do."
(The title of this post is a reference to the book "Valis", by Phillip K. Dick)