James Bridle on Their Book “Ways of Being”

re:publica / Gregor Fischer

The artist and writer is thinking about multiple intelligences, life at the end of the future, and new ways of being.

They say space is the final frontier, but they may be in a hurry. There’s another great frontier yet to be fully explored that lies just behind your eyes. Intelligence, this ungraspable, manifold, highbrow, and as-yet-unconquered mental capacity that we so readily associate only with our species has no single and standard definition, despite a long history of research and debate behind it. As a matter of fact, intelligence has at least 71 documented definitions

In their latest book, Ways of Being, artist, technologist, and writer James Bridle argues intelligence is relational and ecological, and thereby attempts to somewhat release the elusive concept from its anthropocentric cage. To do so, they draw on a quite impressive array of science and art, and to which they are entitled by background. Bridle, 41, who is British but lives in Greece and uses they pronouns, has a body of work that includes installations, software, videos, and still images—and not always still (their website has a wonderful animation that shows the Earth being cut up into a kaleidoscope). They have built self-driving cars, databases, websites, windmills, and robots while writing and giving lectures. But a common theme pervades all of Bridle’s creations: What are the effects of new technologies on our society, politics, and everyday life, and what is our relationship to the other beings we share the planet with?

In 2018, Bridle published a book called New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, which is every bit as stirringly dystopian as it sounds. The author calls for a new partnership between us and machines moving forward. In a sense, Ways of Being is a continuation of the last book. As artificial intelligence (AI) and technology more widely are taking over the world, Bridle invites us to open our eyes to the ever-existent intelligence of the natural systems that noiselessly surround us—and which may hold the secrets to our reconsidering ways of being that led us to where we are. At times, reading the book feels like an encyclopedia of human knowledge unfolding right before you (which can be equally thrilling and overwhelming at times). 

Author’s note: The interview with the writer has been edited for brevity and clarity.

proto.life: You invite us to form new relationships with non-human intelligences in your new book. To make your point, you marvelously leapfrog between disciplines and chronological dates, discussing the tree of evolution, quantum physics, feminist theory, the beginning of the internet and Californian ideology, and Aristotle’s view of the soul. You also pay homage to nature’s great teachers: the watercress plant that responds to the sound of approaching caterpillars by loading its leaves with chemical defenses, the microbe that is well-versed in symbiosis, or the spinach that is a survivor of a changing environment. How long did it take you to research all these subjects? Or is it knowledge you already had?

James Bridle: This book obviously took a particular kind of research and reading, but it’s also about knitting together things I’ve known for a long time, or I’m seeing in a new light. It’s really important to not regard this as simply an encyclopedia or a download of information. In my own life and work, I have tried to be as practical as possible. If there were good ideas out there, then I wanted to find out about them. But also, it takes a while for them to become embodied. As we know from decades of attempts at communication about ecological disaster, it’s not enough just to transmit knowledge or to state facts. We have to feel and understand these things on a much deeper kind of organismic level, because it’s our bodies, our living that is entangled with the world. 

Since the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment, a particular way of thinking that separates humanity from the rest of the planet and with a huge number of really horrific effects has prevailed. That’s the situation we find ourselves in now. We’re facing once again the hottest summer on record pretty much everywhere. Everyone is aware that something is deeply wrong with the environmental system that we’re living in, and it’s the result of our own behavior. The problem is most of us don’t really know what to do about that. This requires a radical rethinking and that’s what I’m thinking about in the book.

“AI is a tool not for asserting the dominance of one kind of intelligence over all other kinds, but for forcing us to recognize the multiplicity of intelligences that flourish in the natural world.”

What do you think AI can teach us about the natural world and our role in it?

It strikes me that the kind of AI we are constructing and discovering is less human than we have always expected it to be. In fact, it represents a wholly different way of “doing” intelligence—and if there is more than one way of doing intelligence, then there are potentially infinite ways. And of course, these are to be found all around us, when we start to recognize and respect the intelligence of the plants, animals, fungi, and other beings, and the intelligence of ecosystems themselves. Moreover, we are learning that this intelligence, this ability to get along, learn, and develop together is a process of collaboration, rather than competition. So for me, AI is a tool not for asserting the dominance of one kind of intelligence—machine, corporate, capitalist intelligence—over all other kinds, but for forcing us to recognize the multiplicity of intelligences that flourish in the natural world, and our dependence upon them for co-creating a more just and equitable system for living together.

For Indigenous peoples, whom you talk about in the book, connecting with non-human intelligence is not a new model of grasping the world…

Absolutely not. This is complicated, because there isn’t one single group of Indigenous peoples, but their cosmologies do respect the natural world, particularly as having its own being and personhood that treats non-humans as having rights, needs, desires, intelligence, as being beings in their own right, rather than merely the subjects of human lives. They have, by and large, a better relationship with the Earth than most of us in the West do. The growing awareness of the difference between Western Enlightenment thinking and certain kinds of Indigenous thinking and traditional knowledge is a result of people becoming aware there’s something deeply out of whack with our own relationships.

Pando is a clonal quaking aspen in Fishlake National Forest, Utah, that shares an ancient and interconnected root system, and is one of the largest organisms on earth. U.S. Forest Service / John Zapell
Yet, Indigenous knowledge seems to be all the rage today. One Health, an interdisciplinary approach, according to which we can achieve primal health only if we join animals and the environment in a so-called One Health Triad, is also founded on pre-existent Indigenous knowledge. Why do you think we are increasingly looking at the worldviews of native people? Might there be some white or Western guilt behind all this?

In the book, I mostly stick to examples from broadly my own culture—traditional European ways of thinking in the world. But we have quite a lot to be guilty for… And there are many ways of knowing the world and each has their own values and importance. It’s important to learn from them and be respectful of them, particularly when so much of the damage has been done by ignoring them and suppressing them for so long.

You are an artist, a technologist, a philosopher, a thinker. Perhaps this is more of a generic question for the intellectual circles, but how can your ideas penetrate everyday life, particularly when the stakes are so high? For example, you cite Epirus in Northern Greece, the pristine mountainous area with the lush wildlife where a massive energy company has deployed an AI to sniff out yet more oil. Those residents of Epirus deserve to know what happens in their homeland. 

If I knew that I would be writing a new book? I don’t have the perfect answer to this. But the more of us that are thinking these things, talking about them, talking to the world about them, that’s the only way these things happen. It takes time. It takes political change, it takes a deep change in methods of education, and much of it takes a total change in the world. That’s what we’re working on. There’s no simple answer to that, unfortunately.

How have you mastered integrating all these different concepts across so many disciplines at the organism level? 

By paying attention to the world around myself. Is it important to go and sit beneath a tree and think about it and listen to it, or to read scientific reports about what that tree is doing? This is the distinction between the scientific method of knowing the world (a European tool) and one’s own kind of personal experience of it. Both are equally valid. The knowledge gained from scientific research only becomes meaningful when one holds it in one’s head and in one’s body though. And it’s only in time that that becomes part of one’s being. 

The legal battle over Happy the Elephant’s rights is one recent example of an ongoing shift to recognize some animals as intelligent beings. AP Photo / Beheto Matthews / File
If I asked what the main takeaway of Ways of Being in one sentence is, what would that be?

The central message is pretty simple: Everything is alive, everything is intelligent, and everything is there for us to learn from it if we choose to pay attention to it. 

“We live inside an ever-shifting field of relationships. And those relationships are ours to make.”

Even a chair is there for us to learn from it?

A chair also. I mean literally everything. Intelligence is not something that resides in bodies or minds. It arises when we relate to and have interest for the world around us. 

It’s almost like intelligence is some form of energy…

Possibly something more like the quantum field that underlies everything. We’re only just discovering some of the most basic facts about the universe around us, and they shatter every single preconceived notion. You know, we’ve been aware of some of the ramifications of quantum theory for over a century. And yet, most of us still think of ourselves as living in a Newtonian universe. It’s simply not the case. We live inside an ever-shifting field of relationships. And those relationships are ours to make. We can make the world around us in collaboration with all the other beings that we share it with. And the first stage to work toward that is to drop all of our preconceived notions around human superiority and the human desire to affect change on its own terms, and start to pay attention to the needs and desires of everything around us.

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