In a recent talk he posted on line, James Bridle criticized the views of “techno-determinists.” (link) He clearly has an understanding of techno-determinism, enough to summarize its thesis, which is more than most people have. And I recommend listening to his whole talk (20 mins).
However, I think he’s missing the forest for the trees. He's so focused on the process of reading, that he's missing the unintended consequences. Take a look at what he’s saying. At first, he sounds perfectly convincing, but upon further review, he actually undermines his argument and proves techno-determinism’s case. I’ve highlighted how he does so.
(9:09) There’s a techno-determinist view that says that new technology makes people behave in new ways. People have always behaved differently than we’ve liked to believe. Because it’s always been anecdotal and people have always been proud of this. The network reveals these behaviors. It doesn’t necessarily produce them. But now we can act on them and change the way we do stuff.
(8:45) Amazon looked at statistics and the way people were reading and they saw they people weren’t finishing books. And so the obvious result [i.e., solution] is to make shorter books. It’s one definite approach to it. And it’s a way in which the velocity of the material allows us to react to people’s behavior in new ways. But it’s very key that it’s not a new behavior.
Let’s allow that Bridle is right on one level: The likelihood of your finishing a book doesn’t necessarily change if you have an ebook or a paper book.
But look at what is changing: Amazon is making shorter books. We’re changing books to fit people’s reading habits. We're making decisions based on information generated by technology. This is techno-determinism’s point: We are changing what we do.
These changes are not insignificant. No, perhaps reading habits don’t change, but the information we have changes the products we create. The actual products themselves may in turn reshape our reading habits, even if the text itself still requires us to read.
Bridle can call our attention to the trees of reading, but the forest is changing because of the new information generated by technology.
* * *
That said, I think Bridle has a very nuanced understanding of the digital revolution and what it means. He also has a humility about it. At the end he fields this question: “Do I feel that loss of connection to the physical?” Here’s what he says,
I don’t know how I feel about it. I’m trying to puzzle it out. All of these things are efforts to work out what is happening here. . . . I’m messing about on the boundaries between physical and digital in order to understand what is happening because most of the traffic is into the digital and we don’t know what that means yet. It’s producing strange cognitive effects and we have to try out lots of different approaches to see what happens there.
Bridle seems to be acting as a probe in order to understand the digital revolution. And that is something a techno-determinist like McLuhan would heartily applaud.