A new dark age

James Bridle’s essay about those horrible YouTube videos went viral last year. It formed part of his new book, New Dark Age.

James Bridle on why technology is creating a new dark age
Bridle is already well-known for his creative critiques of modern technology, including the 2012 drone-tracking project Dronestagram, a salt circle that traps self-driving cars, and last year’s influential essay about creepy YouTube kids’ videos. New Dark Age integrates these critiques into a larger argument about the dangers of trusting computers to explain (and, increasingly, run) the world. As Bridle writes, “We know more and more about the world, while being less and less able to do anything about it.”

And, as he explains in this piece for The Observer, the problem with those YouTube videos has not gone away.

How Peppa Pig became a video nightmare for children
As a result, while many videos have since been removed from the website, uncountable numbers still remain. In March, Wired catalogued a slew of violent accounts and demonstrated that it was possible to go from a popular children’s alphabet video to a Minnie Mouse snuff film in 14 steps, just by following YouTube’s own recommendations. As of last week, Googling the title of one of the now-removed videos mentioned in the New York Times article (“PAW Patrol Babies Pretend to Die Suicide by Annabelle Hypnotized”) results in a link to a near-identical video still hosted on the site (“PAW PATROL Babies Pretend To Die MONSTER HANDS From MIRROR! Paw Patrol Animation Pups Save For Kids”), in which the adorable pups don a freakish clip-art monster mask to terrify one another before being lured off a rooftop by a haunted doll. Is “Save For Kids” supposed to read “Safe For Kids”? Either way, it is not, and it’s obvious that just playing whack-a-mole with search terms and banned accounts is never going to solve entangled problems of copyright infringement, algorithmic recommendation, and ad-driven monetary incentives on a billion-view platform with no meaningful human oversight.

[…]

The weirdness of YouTube videos, the extremism of Facebook and Twitter mobs, the latent biases of algorithmic systems: all of these have one thing in common with the internet itself, which is that – with a few dirty exceptions – nobody intentionally designed them this way. This is perhaps the strangest and most salutary lesson we can learn from these examples, if we choose to learn at all. The weirdness and violence they produce seems to be in direct correlation to how little we understand their workings – and how much is hidden from us, deliberately or otherwise, by the demands of efficiency and ease of use, corporate and national secrecy, and sheer, planet-spanning scale. We live in an age characterised by the violence and breakdown of such systems, from global capitalism to the balance of the climate. If there is any hope for those exposed to its excesses from the cradle, it might be that they will be the first generation capable of thinking about global complexity in ways that increase, rather than reduce, the agency of all of us.

YouTube has it quite wrong

From James Bridle, a very disturbing look at the absolute minefield that YouTube has become, thanks to a combination of trolls, automation and algorithms. I’m finding it hard choosing a paragraph to quote, here — you really need to read the whole thing.

Something is wrong on the internet
What we’re talking about is very young children, effectively from birth, being deliberately targeted with content which will traumatise and disturb them, via networks which are extremely vulnerable to exactly this form of abuse. It’s not about trolls, but about a kind of violence inherent in the combination of digital systems and capitalist incentives. It’s down to that level of the metal.

This, I think, is my point: The system is complicit in the abuse. …

What concerns me is that this is just one aspect of a kind of infrastructural violence being done to all of us, all of the time, and we’re still struggling to find a way to even talk about it, to describe its mechanisms and its actions and its effects.

Watching the watchers

How Britain exported next-generation surveillance
Britain is one of the most surveilled countries in the world. Studies put the number of operational CCTV cameras at between two and four million, for a population of 60 million people. The country’s national DNA database holds records on six million people. Telecoms companies are mandated to store logs of all mobile-phone calls and text messages for 12 months, and to make the data available to government at all levels. […]

In 2009, a House of Lords report described the explosion of surveillance technologies as one of the most significant changes to Britain since the Second World War. It noted:

“Mass surveillance has the potential to erode privacy. As privacy is an essential pre-requisite to the exercise of individual freedom, its erosion weakens the constitutional foundations on which democracy and good governance have traditionally been based in this country.”

This has been described as an acceptable price to pay for greater security, but studies of surveillance technology fail to support that argument. […]

Consent, the bedrock on which the agreement to be policed is based, is meaningless without comprehension, and comprehension is impossible without visibility. It is only when people are brought face-to-face with the reality of surveillance — as the Catts were, and as the people of Washwood Heath and Sparkbrook were — that they see how their privacy, and their right to be presumed innocent, have been affected.

I knew that we have more than our fair share of cameras, but I hadn’t really thought about just how widespread before. A vital read.