James Bridle’s Dream of a Cybernetic Forest

James Bridle’s Dream of a Cybernetic Forest

James Bridle’s Dream of a Cybernetic Forest

The British writer and artist explores the growing confluence of nature and technology, examining how each might be used to create a more equitable world. 


This is how Ursula K. Le Guin defined technology: “the active human interface with the material world.” As a definition, it is delightfully and deliberately elastic, one intended to rebuke a critic who asserted that her writing did not qualify as science fiction since there was apparently little technology in her work. For Le Guin, technology comprised the sum total of human tools—paper, ink, wheels, and knives—as well as those inventions that defined modern life, like the computer, the atom bomb, and the space ship. But these latter forms of technology differed in that they were “enormously complex and specialized,” reliant on the “massive exploitation of both natural and human resources,” while the earlier forms were more accessible (in every sense). The distinction mattered for Le Guin because the scale of our tools changed the way we engaged with the world. “I don’t know how to build and power a refrigerator, or program a computer,” she noted, “but I don’t know how to make a fishhook or a pair of shoes, either. I could learn. We all can learn. That’s the neat thing about technologies. They’re what we can learn to do.”

Yet, for most people, technology isn’t something that is learned so much as something that is wielded or submitted to. Algorithms like TikTok’s are closely guarded, inscrutable to the layperson but capable of delivering hit after hit of fleeting joy. We devoutly follow the directions of Google Maps, even though we’re unsure of how the most efficient route has been calculated. Meanwhile, the advanced AI of companies like IBM, Microsoft, and Amazon are complicit in both the surveillance of the general population and the extraction, production, and distribution of fossil fuels. Technology, far from illuminating, is often a trap, ensnaring not just us but the environment. Le Guin was right to cast such a wide net in her disquisition, but it is hard not to feel that it is becoming more and more difficult to learn from technology in our age.

The writer and artist James Bridle is a sifter, collator, and hacker of these increasingly opaque technologies. His projects, which include investigations into the disturbing world of algorithmically generated children’s television on YouTube, have been driven, to some extent, by the ways in which our technology increasingly feels “oppressive rather than liberatory.” Take, for example, his 2017 art piece, Autonomous Trap 001, which involved confining an automated car within a small circle of road markings (thus essentially trapping it) on the slopes of Greece’s Mount Parnassus. The purpose of the project was to show how AI might be misused by corporations to replace human workers, and in the process Bridle was able to better understand “how the dominant narratives of these technologies are produced” and, consequently, can be “changed.”

Bridle’s new book, Ways of Being: Beyond Human Intelligence, focuses on this latter point: how our existing ideas of technology might be entirely uprooted. His previous book, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, was an often pessimistic account of how all things contained under the Internet (cloud computing, social media, and more) were making it harder to navigate the world—indeed, even to stay connected with it—while also contributing to a “warming planet and crashing ecosystems.” Ways of Being opens with a similar thrust in the mountains of Epirus, Greece, a region filled with delicate meadows and the kind of large fauna (“bears, wolves, foxes, jackals”) that are now mostly extinct in Europe. Bridle wanders through an ancient forest until he comes across “wooden stakes” tagged with “thick, wet marker pen.” It turns out these are coordinates plotted by the AI of one of the largest oil companies in the world, Repsol. The environment has been rendered as a “virtual checkerboard for exploitation,” Bridle writes. “This is what happens—now—when artificial intelligence is applied to the earth itself.”

A decidedly big-picture thinker, Bridle then asks two related questions: “What future is being imagined here? And what intelligence is at work?” His answers are unsparing in their gloominess: “A future which is, in short, no future at all.”

Thereafter, Ways of Being marks an important turn in Bridle’s work: An optimistic look beyond our current crises by imagining a more holistic way to understand the planet and the technologies rewiring it. To achieve this, Bridle attempts something quite daring—the uniting of the natural and technological worlds. He seeks inspiration in nonhumans such as apes, cephalopods, and lichen, beings he says “Western science” and “popular imagination” are only now beginning to take seriously. He also looks to computation, cybernetics, and information networks. Like Le Guin, Bridle is capacious in his definitions, seeking entirely “new relationships with non-human intelligences.” The need for this even wider definition of technology’s relationship with the world, Bridle believes, is made necessary by our dire circumstances: “We must learn to live with the world rather than seek to dominate it.”

Across the following chapters, Bridle explores various instances of nonhuman or more-than-human intelligence: baboons in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park who have seemingly practiced spirituality in their quiet waterside contemplation; the mimosa plant, which learned that being dropped repeatedly posed no threat and so it was safe to keep its leaves open (demonstrating the capacity for memory). None of this information is new, but it is beautifully synthesized, challenging the notion that intelligence is “what humans do…what happens inside our head” and thus the greatest claim that we lay to the planet itself.

Along the way, Bridle explores ideas of entanglement. In a standout section, he recounts the emergence of Homo sapiens while other humanoid species such as Neanderthals still roamed the planet. These distinct beings had a lot of interspecies sex, so naturally there were children, from which many of us are descended. It’s a crucial piece of Bridle’s epoch-spanning puzzle, one that seeks to show that our place in the world has always been messy and overlapping and that any idea we may harbor of being separate—even definitively human—is a fiction.

Through the marshaling of such evidence and more, Bridle creates his own kind of conceptual ecosystem. He echoes the interconnected thinking of biologists such as Suzanne Simard (whose mycorrhizal network research has revolutionized the study of trees and fungi) and ecologically minded philosophers like Timothy Morton and Donna Harraway. Some may find Ways of Being mystical (which is how Morton has often been characterized), but Bridle adeptly eschews vagueness. Indeed, the deeper he gets into the more-than-human world, the more he finds that seemingly discrete things are tangled up with everything else around them. Modern biology might rely on taxonomic distinctions between species, but these, Bridle suggests, are not quite reflective of reality—the “walking assemblages” that we actually are.

These ideas build toward a demystifying of what Bridle calls the “one world fallacy”: the belief that the world has a single, coherent narrative and that there exists a one-size-fits-all framework for interpreting it. Among other things, his book advocates for doing away with a misplaced notion of objectivity in order to bring about a more moral way of seeing technology and its various damaging misuses.

In spite of the fantasy of objectivity that, Bridle believes, our current technology perpetuates, the writer and artist is no born-again “down to Earther.” Quickly enough, the technologist in him resurfaces, focusing, in part, on how the limitations of machines might be transcended with the introduction of organic components. We learn of a pioneering water computer built by Vladimir Lukyanov in the Soviet Union in 1936, used to precisely model the thermal mass of material. A few pages later, we’re introduced to the Mississippi River Basin Model, a vast 200-acre simulacrum of the actual Mississippi Basin made out of carved concrete slabs whose channels simulated the effects of spillways and drainage canals. Crucially, in the meeting of organic and systematic components, these machines are legible, far less obscure than the figurative (and often literal) black boxes that encase so much modern hardware. They are technologies, as per Le Guin’s definition, that can be comprehended by anyone and that help us to understand the world better rather than hide it from us.

But these kitsch artifacts of the 20th century are no match for what Bridle relays in the closing chapter of Ways of Being. Acknowledging that how we mitigate and defend against the worst effects of climate change is the “central question of our age,” the writer narrows his focus on what tools might practically aid in this effort. One such tool is, in fact, a group of technologies that coalesce under the banner of the “Internet of animals.” This involves fitting animals with digital collars and chips to map their movements using orbiting satellites. One early example, using the Argos satellite system, tracked a female wolf called Pluie in the 1990s. Her journey, covering more than 100,000 square kilometers through both the remotest wildernesses of North America and “highways, golf courses, and private land,” exploded previously held notions of how widely these animals roam.

The technology is now being implemented on a much larger scale using GPS. On Interstate 80, which runs from New York to San Francisco, passing south of Yellowstone, the system tracks elk, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, and other animals that maintain close contact with the road. In order to limit the loss of human and animal life, conservationists and planners have begun constructing more humane crossings. One is in Wyoming, a “green bridge” at Trappers Point. Its location was selected after reviewing the GPS data of hundreds of pronghorn that revealed the exact path of their trek. What’s beautiful about this seemingly straightforward action is that it is, in essence, a form of animal democracy: “These antelope, elk and other animals are voting with their feet,” Bridle writes. “We—augmented by technology—are finally listening to them, and adapting our behavior and construction to better account for them.”

While the Internet of animals may not be a tool for addressing the effects of fossil fuels or pollution, it is the sort of innovation that helps us reimagine our relationship with a natural world that humans have so permanently changed. Bridle’s book is an appeal not just to respect nonhuman life but also to devise methods to integrate it into the decisions we make—to offer solidarity to these other denizens of the planet. While there have been legal maneuvers to grant more rights to nonhumans, such as the river in New Zealand given legal personhood and the unsuccessful attempt to secure the same rights for an elephant residing in Bronx Zoo, what Bridle proposes is altogether more dynamic. The Internet of animals addresses the needs of nonhumans on their own terms rather than through a legal instrument designated from far away.

Unlike The New Dark Age, Bridle’s previous book, Ways of Being lacks skepticism, but his happier proposals do come with some vagaries. With the world’s sociopolitical and economic relations as they are, what are the ramifications, for instance, of embedding computer systems at every level of nature? Do we risk instrumentalizing the biological world even further, transforming it, in essence, into a technology itself? These questions and more, currently being investigated by the Planetary Praxis research group at the University of Cambridge, are vital to understanding, and indeed directing, the growing confluence of nature and technology. Even so, such omissions don’t undermine a book that reads, in its most compelling moments, like speculative science fiction, a blueprint for what could come next.

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