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16 Nov 2022

Bridle // Ways of Being

I first started following James Bridle when I came across his incredible essay Something is wrong on the internet – you should pause and read this right now if you haven’t already.

His recent book, Ways of Being, does something remarkable: it confronts the horrors of technology and humanity, gives you every reason you might want to rail against both, but then somehow presents compelling reasons to be hopeful about both.

In particular, I love the case study about sortition – selecting a random committee of citizens to legislate a policy. It seems to sidestep a lot of the pitfalls of democracy in a mass media / influence dominated world where elected officials with more money (more corporate donors) can buy more influence.

In a word, this is a a very “wholesome” book. I recommend it.

Here are some of my favorite bits…

A better understanding of digital intelligence and technology can give us a better understanding of ourselves and of the natural world:

1400 If language matters in our relationships to machines and the more-than-humans, then we can take concrete steps to address the nature of those relationships through our thoughtful use of language – and not merely by swapping offensive terms for more acceptable and precise ones. We can acknowledge the true meaning of the words we use, we can broaden the terms which we employ to talk to machines, and we can introduce new ones. Just as the exorcism of ‘master’ and ‘slave’ from the lexicon of computational systems might have very real effects on the lived experiences of actual humans, so the enchantment of daemons and wizards might bring us to a greater awareness of the agency and even personhood of our creations: not ‘artificial intelligences’ but non-human, digital beings. And, in turn, humility before the lively things we build ourselves might result in a greater humility towards the beings which already surround us.

Undecidability is a clue that something interesting is happening:

1578 So decidability has a very specific and technical definition in computer science, and Turing’s machine gave us a method for dealing with it. But what I am interested in is undecidability. Undecidability has a technical meaning too – but it also has a real meaning, a literal meaning, referring to that which we cannot know for certain. Concerned as we are with how to think and understand the life of beings which are radically different to our own, and how to rethink ourselves in the process, we might see undecidability not as a barrier to understanding, but as a sign, a hint, a truffle-scent, that something interesting, even useful, is nearby.

Sortition – selecting a random committee of citizens (rather than electing experts) – has been shown to be a surprisingly effective means for creating policy.

The function of the kleroterion – the ancient Athenians’ analogue computer for assigning positions in government at random – survives to this day in our processes for selecting juries. But this is not its only modern application. In recent years, a number of experiments have taken place, testing the effectiveness of sortition – selection by lottery – across a range of social and civic institutions. The results have been fascinating.

One such experiment took place in Ireland in 2016, when the government of the day created a Citizens’ Assembly to consider some of the thorniest issues faced by Irish society: abortion, fixed term parliaments, referendums, an ageing population and climate change. Ninety-nine people were brought together in a hotel outside Dublin, where over a succession of weekends they listened to expert presentations; took testimony from non-governmental organizations, think tanks and interested parties; held question-and-answer sessions; debated among themselves; and drew up a series of proposals for each of the topics under discussion, which the government had promised to review and act upon. The presentations and discussions were live-streamed on the internet to encourage public interest and awareness of the issues. The proceedings themselves were managed by a chairperson – the 100th participant – as well as a secretariat from the civil service, and drew upon procedural methods created by a handful of political theorists and other national governments and community groups over many years.

There are two points worth emphasizing about this Citizens’ Assembly. The first is that the ninety-nine participants were complete strangers to one another and were selected at random from the electoral roll, in a process akin to jury service. The results of the random selection were moderated to ensure a balance of certain criteria, such as gender, age, location and class. Beyond this, they were as random a collection of people as one could hope to find, with all the differences in experience, bias, background, education, points of view and personal philosophy that exist across any country.

The second point is that the proposals which emerged from the Assembly were more progressive, more radical and potentially more world-changing than the politicians who commissioned it expected, or even believed possible. The Assembly’s recommendation on abortion – which had been made illegal in Ireland in 1861 and remained so following a nationwide referendum in 1983 – was that it should be put to another referendum. Abortion is the most contentious issue in Irish public life, with politicians losing their posts for even suggesting that it should be debated, and this fear of open discussion had strangled the possibility of reform for decades. Indeed, the press openly chastised the Assembly for ‘an overly-liberal interpretation of the current thinking of middle Ireland on the issue’.18


What was the importance of randomness in all this? I think its effects are twofold. First of all, random selection – sortition – returns to the democratic process something which its supporters often claim for it, but which has been largely lost: the approval and consent of the population. Sortition is transparent and verifiable. It bypasses the widely distrusted political class, and it allows each of us to imagine ourselves – even if not one of the ninety-nine – in a position of power and agency. Its legitimacy is founded in equality, and it places power directly in the hands of the population – but not mindlessly. This is not mob rule, or the tyranny of a vocal minority. Randomness is tempered by deliberate process. In its insistence on testimony, debate and consensus-building, the assembly returns to the people not only power, but also trust, clear communication, vital information and education – but not domination – by experts.

I really like this idea that we can’t control everything with technology, so we should redouble cultural efforts:

2228 This is the real lesson of scenarios like the Trolley problem, the Basilisk and the paperclip machine: we cannot control every outcome, but we can work to change our culture. Technological processes like artificial intelligence won’t build a better world by themselves, just as they tell us nothing useful about general intelligence. What they can do is to lay bare the real workings of the moral and more-than-human landscape we find ourselves in, and to inspire us to create better worlds together.

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