James Bridle’s “Ways of Being”
It’s hard to pin down the thesis of James Bridle’s Ways of Being, published today in the USA by Farrar, Strauss, Giroux — it’s a big, lyrical, strange and inspiring book about the “more than human world” — a world that encompasses the worldview of animals, ecosystems, and software.
Bridle, an English artist and technologist who lives in Greece, pulls on so many threads to tell this tale. Some will be familiar to people who encountered some of his viral work, like the homemade self-driving car he “trapped” in a salt-circle that simulated the unbroken lane-markings the car was trained to respect.
Or his investigation “Something is wrong on the internet,” which revealed a vast web of incredibly disturbing children’s animation and programming, much of it automatically produced, that had taken over kids’ Youtube and was absorbing billions of hours of viewing time worldwide:
These are two of the threads woven into Ways of Being: that two “inanimate” objects — a homebrew self-driving car and a recommendation algorithm — both have distinct worldviews (Bridle uses the cybernetician’s term umwelt) and these worldviews create desires, which impact us.
The impact is bidirectional. Our own umwelt and desires impact these inanimate objects, too; we are inextricably tangled up with them. Their actions result from our actions, and our actions result from theirs.
This dynamic doesn’t stop with recommendation systems or autonomous vehicles. The whole world — from microscopic organisms that are neither animals nor plants to birds to primates, to plants and the fungi that interpenetrate and coexist…