your local little death row
darkness in the dark age
If you were walking down East Fifty-Seventh Street in New York City in 1948, you might amble past the window of a former ladies’ shoe shop and come across an unusual sight. Instead of displays of flats and pumps, of curious shoppers and salespeople, you’d instead see one of the world’s first supercomputers humming and blinking away, taking up the entire storefront. (Today, that same storefront, equidistant from an Apple store and Trump Tower, is the corporate headquarters of the LVMH luxury goods group, which owns product lines like Fendi and Christian Dior, Hennesy liquor and Bulgari watches.)
Back then, in the late ‘40s, those pressing noses to the glass were marveling at the IBM Selective Sequence Calculator, frequently being run by IBM’s chief operator, Betsy Stewart. The space was the first computer room to use a raised floor, now standard, to hide the nests of wires.
Though the initial task of the supercomputer was to “assist the scientist in institutions of learning, in government, and in industry, to explore the consequences of man’s thought to the outermost reaches of time, space, and physical conditions,” within a couple weeks, that mission was mothballed so the computer could focus on top secret calculations, specifically a program called Hippo.
Hippo simulated hydrogen bomb explosions. For months, the computer ran 24/7, 7 days a week, processing what a hydrogen bomb would wreak on the world. The first bomb based on Hippo calculations, codenamed “Mike,” was tested in 1952, when the US government vaporized an entire island, the Eniwetok Atoll, which was part of the Marshall Islands and about 3,000 miles west of Hawaii.
Within 90 seconds of the explosion of Mike, the mushroom cloud fast-billowing out was almost 11 miles high and eventually reached a radius of 100 miles. Physicist Herbert York, who worked on the test explosion, called the power of the hydrogen bomb “boundless.” Entire islands, in that first test, were effectively disappeared. The island-deleting boundlessness was what the giant computer just south of Central Park was calculating.
British author and artist James Bridle, in his 2018 book, New Dark Age, writes “It is almost impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when militarized computation, and the belief in prediction and control that it embodies and produces, slid out of view.” But the sleek public display of the Selective Sequence Calculator is a shining example of a cunning sort of camouflage common to our current era: simultaneously within view but beyond sight.
Bridle’s book, as the title suggests, is grim. But it also illuminates that grimness. Focusing on the promises and perils of technology, Bridle begs the question: what’s the inverse of “silver lining”? What unexpected darkness comes with the comforts and marvels of the Atomic or the Internet age? Obviously there’s the climate crisis, not to mention the masses’ glaze-eyed acquiescence to the blinking baubles of our phones, which also (or primarily?) function as penetrating surveillance machines.
The operation of surveillance, and our complicity in it, is one of the most fundamental characteristics of the new dark age, because it insists on a kind of blind vision: everything is illuminated, but nothing is seen. We have become convinced that throwing light upon the subject is the same thing as thinking it, and thus having agency over it.
He’s written a stunning book, and anybody who’s worried about being mentally and emotionally yanked around by technology will probably be even further unsettled by reading it. As Bridle writes, “We know more and more about the world, while being less and less able to do anything about it.”
His clarion call is to recognize that darkness for what it is, to embrace our age’s “contradictions and uncertainties, such states of practical unknowing.” Where will that get us? That’s characteristically unclear. The Anthropocene is spurred by arrogance, by a presumed mastery and all-knowingness, by specious attempts at control.
And look where it’s dragging us.
Pima County Death Row
Jails and prisons function as obliviators. I’m not writing about intention. Whatever societal “good” one may hope to come from jails is not the point. I’m thinking about how jails and prisons function. They close the door on people, cutting them off from both their community and their humanity.
For the past year I’ve been following, increasingly closely, the ongoing human rights disaster that is the local jail in Tucson, Arizona, where I live.
Since 2020, at least 28 people have died in the jail. In 2021, the same year that the new Sheriff took office, the mortality rate was over three times the national average. In the longest article I’ve ever written I detail not only the deaths themselves, but the anti-inmate culture among the guards, the racism, abuse, medical neglect, and proliferating drugs that have infected the place.
I spoke with multiple former employees, multiple former inmates, the Sheriff himself (who oversees the jail) and obtained hundreds and hundreds of pages of documents, including incident reports, autopsies, and jail policies that had never before been made public. Looking carefully at it all, I feel I can accurately and objectively call the jail a hellhole.
The Sheriff himself said nearly as much, describing to me the state of the jail: “It’s horrendous.”
But what does calling out these conditions do? The families of the people who have died in the jail want major reforms — to see the Sheriff fired, to radically change the abusive anti-inmate culture among the guards, to decarcerate and dramatically lower the population, to end cash bond, or even to close it down.
Will any of this happen? Probably not, or not soon. But without looking deeply into the jail and exposing its horrors, without cracking open its closed doors, there’s little hope of even mild reforms.
I frequently bike right by the jail, which is only a couple miles from where I live. I prop my toddler into his seat on the back of my bike and pedal placidly down the path following the Santa Cruz river. It’s one of my favorite things to do on a slow Saturday. We often see roadrunners, sometimes a coyote, hawks and hummingbirds. Such juxtaposition — the pleasant bike ride with the boy past a deadly jail, mid-century Manhattanites marveling at a supercomputer working out the details of a superbomb — is a defining feature of the new dark age.
But it’s only really dark for some of us. For the rest, for those of us lucky enough to remain on the lighter side of things, once you know where or how to look, the darkness begins creeping in.
If you want to read the investigation into the jail, here it is: “An Unconstitutional Hole”.
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