Interview transcript - James Bridle (Open Update)

This is a transcript of the interview with James Bridle (Season 2, Episode 4). Listen to the podcast on Anchor. The transcript is slightly edited for readability and available under a CC0 Public Domain Dedication.


Chris Hartgerink: Welcome to the second season of the Open Update. For Liberate Science I'm your host, Chris Hartgerink. In this season we interviewed ten guests over the course of nine weeks, about the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science.

We talk about what it means to them, their work and the future of research so that we can also better understand what it means to us, our work and our future in research. What new ways of being lie in store for us.

I encourage you to find agreements and disagreements in this season and leave voice messages with your thoughts. And please don't be shy. Don't be a stranger. You might think your voice doesn't matter, but your voice matters too. We also will be giving something away at the end of the season with a lottery from all the incoming voice messages. Be sure to include something so we can reach you when you leave your message.

Today, we talked to James Bridle. James is an artist writer and technologist, and their work frequently features research from many domains. They've extensively written about how the information age influences our ways of life. From information being used to feed surveillance states and oil extraction, to information all around us overflowing potentially into a new dark age, where we ultimately know less because we have more information.

In their latest book, Ways of Being, James goes beyond just human intelligence and considers the ecology of information. Where knowing isn't dissected, atomic and singular, but contextual and plural. With more and more information all around us, we'll talk to James Bridle about whether more openness in research may lead to greater understanding. This is something especially relevant in light of the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science, which may open the flood gates of information even more.

So, James, welcome to the Open Update.

James Bridle: Thanks very much for having me.

Chris Hartgerink: So your work as an artist, a writer and technologist, often brings you into contact with research. Through reading your books, I've also seen a lot of parallels in that sense. I wanted to ask you, from your occupation, what does research mean to you and what are some of the peculiarities that you've noticed throughout your various engagements throughout the years?

James Bridle: There's kind of two parallel strands of research I engage in. One of which is that I'm quite engaged with the world of scientific research, both researchers kind of ongoing practices, their work and, the broader interests, and also with specific published, scientific research. So reading journal articles and engaging with that kind of structure, peer reviewed science and the published work.

And then, in the artistic sphere, research tends to be used a bit more broadly, really, to refer to any looking at the world that you're doing or finding other interesting artistic practices. Particularly building collaborations between the artistic and science world, which is quite a broad but always really interesting area that I spend a lot of time thinking about.

My own personal process of research really covers everything. Other artists' practices, to delving in quite deep into scientific topics and trying to find more about them. And that goes right from the public, people's books or newspaper articles, all the way down to sourcing original scientific papers and reading journals and so on and so forth, when I want to understand the subject to a deeper level.

And that also means that I engage quite a lot with all the different kind of levels of publishing that's involved in research. So whether stuff is published open access or pre-print, which I'm seeing a lot more of these days. Almost everything that I'm interested in at the moment, it seems to be available in pre-print form, which is wonderful.

But also I tend to go quite a long way back. I do a lot of historical research as well. And that means either sourcing quite older texts, older books, or it means going back into quite deep archives of journals to find, papers from a hundred years ago or more mid 20th century, which can be quite hard to track down.

Once you kind of understand the structure of scientific research in publishing, you can really delve into quite some extraordinary stuff. One thing that's worth mentioning as well that I think is very relevant to this conversation, we might go into a bit more, is that because I also write and publish myself, I also have to do a bit of rights work. Finding out what stuff I can use and republish, which opens up a whole new set of questions around the use of research.

My involvement in this and interest in it is pretty broad and they touch upon all areas really that I know about in various ways.

Chris Hartgerink: It isn't often, at least from my bubble, that we hear about how artists consume and traverse scientific research. It's interesting to hear that you have seen this change in the past few years, shifting to preprints, but also with your efforts to find more older texts. How do you end up circumventing it or getting access to research that you need for your work?

James Bridle: Well, there's a few ways. The first thing is that sometimes you just have to buy a paper. Sometimes that can cost an absolute fortune or sometimes it's something you can just write off as a small expense. This is a very specific thing that I'm interested in. But I use a lot of tools, things like Google Scholar and other search engines that allow you to find where papers might appear elsewhere. Or you can find snippets of them in certain places.

And then there's a bunch of tools, which I'm not sure I will name, but are familiar for anyone in the field for circumventing these things a little bit more directly, which are frankly indispensable if, like me, you are not part of an institution that can support this kind of research.

I think that there's a huge divide here – I'm not affiliated with any institution. I don't have any institutional support that's paying me to access this stuff. That's all on me, which is a huge barrier for anyone who's not institutionally affiliated.

But also crucially there's more recent stuff, those contacting scientists directly, which I do a lot quite often. If there's a piece of research that I'm interested in, I will contact the authors directly, both to see if they're willing to share their work, but also to see if there's more of a discussion possible.

Finding a piece of research is also quite often a starting point for a conversation.

Chris Hartgerink: We've covered here at the Open Update the court case against Sci-Hub over the past year. It's been very interesting, so I'm also intrigued to hear that you also have mechanisms very similar to to graduate students and undergraduate students from across the world about how to actually gain access to research they don't have access to.

This issue of licensing for books, I think that's also very interesting and we could dive into a bit more, but I would like to also shift a tiny bit, because we spoke a bit about how you engage with research from your work and move a bit towards the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science.

In another interview, Brian Nosek said this is an accomplishment of all the work to move towards a more open science and it should be seen as a celebration, but the work needs to continue. And I wanted to ask you a bit about what you consider a low hanging fruit from this recommendation and what you think is going to be more difficult to realize with respect to the different components contained within?

James Bridle: It's obviously a really exciting recommendation, that more and more stuff will become available. And the reason for that is not just entirely selfish, in that I will have access to more stuff, but also I really do believe in the value of making research as accessible to as wide a number of people as possible.

It's one of the really core themes of my new book. The real knowledge and the agency that's granted by that knowledge really achieves its greatest value when it's accessible to the broadest range of possible readers, people who might come to understand it, act upon it.

There's a principle that I talk about in the book quite a lot, which is referred to sometimes kind of in shorthand as "diversity trumps ability", which is this growing realization that the greatest value that can be brought out of new forms of knowledge, which is to generate new strategies and structures for building on that knowledge. This comes when you have the greatest diversity of experiences and points of view brought to bear up on that.

The whole structure of scientific research and knowledge thus far really has been about making that knowledge available to other people who already share a great understanding of the subject.

And so one result of this will hopefully be that knowledge, which was really only ever thought about being shared with people who already possess a huge knowledge of this area, will become available to a much wider group of people with results that we cannot really predict.

But I think the other thing you're also pointing out there is that this will potentially change the kind of knowledges that are recorded and shared in this way. Which means knowledges that are produced by different groups of people, perhaps also by non-humans. That's the big subject of my book, the ways in which we can actually start to credit the involvement of non-humans and even whole ecosystems within the structures of scientific research.

The fact that some of this research that falls under the umbrella of  peer reviewed, published knowledge, knowledge that has this kind of quite particular status might also become more easy to access in terms of the ways in which it's written and the audience that it intended to reach.

I think that might be quite powerful as well. With the intention of open science, you get perhaps a change in who's considered the audience for that science. I think where this really gets super interesting is there's a huge unbounding of huge amounts of historical knowledge that hasn't been very accessible.

I mean, it's really terrifying that if you look at the way most people access knowledge now through search engines, they're essentially accessing a tiny, tiny fragment of human knowledge and also a very contemporary fragment. That's prioritizing stuff that is recent and new, which completely devalues and hides huge volumes of information that've been accumulated over time that are currently locked away in journals or other kind of institutional forms. What I would really, really like to see is to what extent is this a part of the recommendation. How much historical deep, older buried knowledge is also going to be made accessible in these kind of forms.

But I think that's really important

Chris Hartgerink: As you talk about this, we've seen social media come up also within open science. It's a big thing; lots of debates happening. With more information, it's also important to have this education and have good ways to curate and go through that knowledge or that information to find some form of knowledge within it.

How do you feel about the potential risk if that work is not done?

James Bridle: The risk there is that we continue essentially on the same path that we're in now, because what's being debated around open science. It's really not the availability of information.

It's the availability and access to and use of power.

Because that's what is gained through the access to this information. That people have the ability to act on it, to understand it themselves and therefore to gain their own agency and power.

In response to that understanding and knowledge there also, I think, needs to be a more educated kind of middle layer of science communication, that really values both the integrity of research and a deep knowledge and understanding of it. With an ability to really communicate the value and importance and the content of that research to a much broader community.

Because it still feels like there is this huge divide between those. As an artist and writer who engages with both scientific research and the general public, for me, that's an incredibly wonderful role to be in, but I find myself running up against the age old science-culture divide, the science-humanities, divide all of the time.

It's still so ever-present and it's for me one of the deep wounds in our society, in our culture that there is this deep misunderstanding and therefore potential for real abuse. Abuses of power and abuse of knowledge as a result of this failure to communicate between the cultures. But also actually, as I say that I realized also between disciplines within science itself, which is something that I find all of the time.

And so the goals of open science, they can't just be the release of information. That's the foundational thing, that obviously has to happen. But in order for a much wider conversation to happen about the nature of knowledge and the nature of power, the dissemination of knowledge. That is the real work.

Chris Hartgerink: That is also a very good segue to this question. You have your book, New Dark Age, throwing us into the abyss of knowing less. And what you say just now is also about how do we know and how do we know differently? Which sort of segues nicely into Ways of Being from my understanding.

But I would be interested to hear from your perspective, what is the connection between these two books?

James Bridle: So one of the strongest connection between them, I think, I talk about quite a lot. I know I still struggle to talk about, I'm not going to give you a clear answer on this because it's something that I'm still thinking about very much all of the time, which is about the limit of knowledge and how much we can know. And also what I call in both books, the state of unknowing.

I'm particularly interested in the state of being comfortable in the situation of unknowing. And so unknowing is not for me, a lack of knowledge, not ignorance. It's not even saying that we can't know something, but it's about being very clear about what we can know in the present moment and in the situation that we're attempting to deal with.

Unknowing is a thing that you see at play in the world all the time, I think particularly the climate debate. And the way in which we've had 50, 70 years of research into the climate, which contains huge volumes of unknowns which scientists are very clear about stating in their research, but which have been weaponized by opponents to climate action.

The uncertainty and doubt is used as a way of discrediting research rather than as a sign that it is credible. In fact, that to me points again to one of these huge disjunctions between scientific knowledge and understanding, the practice of science itself and the public understanding of it in the way that it works within the public sphere within debate and policy and so on.

One of the ways to counter that is through an acknowledgement of unknowing, being comfortable with being in a space of uncertainty where very most of us are very bad at. But actually scientists are very good at that because they work so directly on the subject. They have a very developed sense of what is knowable and what is unknowable at any particular point in time.

Being able to be with that sense of uncertainty, which one can be with through extensive reading of scientific research, to understand the method of watching it unfold. It's for me the best tool for dealing with the problems that I describe in New Dark Age, but also with the approach that is necessary for the kind of experiences that I'm talking about in Ways of Being which are how we come to acknowledge and be aware of and then to work with, practically and politically, a non-human being. An ecosystem systems of beings that we do not and cannot have full knowledge of because they are so different to us that we must work with these senses of uncertainty and unknowableness, and yet are present, that do exist and that shape our world along side us.

There's a possibility for a different way of engaging with, that is not what is historically considered scientifically rigorous because it relies on not being able to know. But the space of uncertainty that actually for me, scientific knowing has opened up, allows me to do that.

One of the real hopes, I think when we have open science is this loosening of disciplinary boundary and disciplinary silos. Not just so the information can flow between those silos and lets those scientists who previously might not have come into contact with each other now have conversations about their research. But also that actually new forms of knowledge are produced because they no longer have to fit into these kind of existing, quite narrow and rigid categories.

Certain plants that are known as hyper-accumulators, these are plants that are capable of growing in very metal, rich soils that are toxic to many other kinds of plant life. The way they've evolved to survive in those places is that they draw up the metals from the soil and they store them in their stems and leaves.

And this means these plants can be used for remediation of toxic soil. You can basically use them to clean the soil by planting them. But you can also harvest them directly where they are growing in naturally metal, rich soil. For example, in Northern Greece, where I live, and Albania, there's a lot of naturally occurring nickel rich soil, where the plants have evolved to grow over millennia and these particular places to survive in them, but also to basically provide a source of nickel that we can harvest without contemporary style of destructive, extractive, and incredibly polluting mining practices.

And for me, that's a kind of embodied knowledge. These plants have developed a knowledge of how to live in these places, how to access these materials. And they have something to teach us about how to do that. If we choose to collaborate with them in meaningful ways, non-destructive ways and non dominating ways, then they will.

We also have something to gain. By working with them on this knowledge that they have gained.

Chris Hartgerink: In your book, Ways of Being, you also mentioned science is a process of becoming, and I think that in the UNESCO recommendation it's very nice to see, and it's very good to see, that indigenous knowledge is included.

I think this goes even a step further, because you mentioned earlier in the interview about how access and enacting knowledge and the agency to do that is also a form of power. It is a power dynamic.

A very broad question, but what is a way that you foresee power within science being distributed? One that is consistent with these ecologies of knowing and really promoting all kinds of processes of becoming. This pluralistic form of knowing.

James Bridle: To me. the importance of the availability of information in the way that we're talking about open access to science and technology, it is not entirely not even perhaps primarily in the specific value of each dot or data point of information contained within. It's primarily about giving people access to the narratives of process that allow that information to be assembled and to allow more and more people to participate in those kinds of programs, because the more one sees science being enacted, the more one builds a capacity, by doing that kind of thinking and doing oneself.

The most crucial point, what I talk about in a New Dark Age, is essentially just critical thinking. And then in Ways of Being, perhaps with something a bit more like experiential thinking or trusting in one's own experience and encounters with the world to come to new understandings of it.

But all of those, whether it's critical or experiential thinking and knowing, they're based very deeply on sets of examples of thinking and doing that one has also experienced and engaged with in the past. So it is only possible for us to think certain thoughts and think about the way of the world in certain ways, when we've been exposed to that thinking being done by others in the broadest way possible.

Where are they exposed to that?

When it is accessible, different people and different beings, think about the way of the world in radically different ways based on their own experiences and encounters with the world. And that includes both our own direct encounters with it, but also all the other, sum of experiences they've discussed or read about all of these various ways.

At a time when we are quite clearly facing politically, socially, ecologically, an incredibly diverse and intersecting number of new threats, the need for radical new thinking and new approaches and responses to those threats is ever greater. But the dissemination of experience and process, that allows everyone to build their own forms of agency around that.

Because really that's for me, why power emerged as having the capacity within ourselves to rethink and reimagine the world in new and different ways.


You just finished listening to our original interview with James Bridle here on the second season of the Open Update.

There was a lot in there. And I wonder, what do you think? What resonated? Was there something you disagreed with?

I would love to hear from you because as I've mentioned before, this isn't just a conversation on a podcast. It's a conversation for us all. So I would like for you to participate in that conversation and you can do so by leaving us a voice message through the link in the show notes. It doesn't need to be a perfect voice message and you don't need to have deep insights per se. They are allowed. And we appreciate it even if you just end up saying hi.

Plus you'll end up taking part in our lottery for a small token of appreciation. And this week I'm happy to share we'll be giving away a copy of the book, Ways of Being authored by our guest of today, James Bridle. I finished reading it a few weeks ago and if you like this episode, I'm sure you'd appreciate the book too.

For now, have a good rest of your day. Next week, we'll be back with our interview with Tamarinde Haven. We will talk about best practices for improving research cultures and what role we each have to play to achieve that.

Written by
Chris Hartgerink
Researcher and director at Liberate Science.
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