We were a web before there was a Web. Things didn’t begin going viral in the Digital Age, and human systems existed long before the Industrial Revolution or even agriculture. None of this is new. What’s different about the era of machines is the brute efficiency of data due to heightened computing power being applied to increasingly ubiquitous connectedness.
Some more dazzling thoughts by Yuval Noah Harari’s on “Dataism” can be read in Wired UK, which presents a passage from the historian’s forthcoming book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Just two examples: 1) “The entire human species is a single data-processing system,” and 2) “We often imagine that democracy and the free market won because they were ‘good.’ In truth, they won because they improved the global data-processing system.”
Harari writes that humans are viewed increasingly as an anachronism by Dataists, who prefer intelligence to the continuation of the species, an “outdated technology.” Like the Finnish philosopher Erkki Kurenniemi, they doubt the long-term preservation of “slime-based machines.” I don’t know how widespread this feeling really is, but I have read theorists in computing who feel it their duty to always opt for greater intelligence, even if it should come at the cost of humanity. I think the greater threat to our survival isn’t conscious decisions made at our expense but rather the natural progression of systems that don’t necessarily require us.
Like capitalism, Dataism too began as a neutral scientific theory, but is now mutating into a religion that claims to determine right and wrong. The supreme value of this new religion is “information flow”. If life is the movement of information, and if we think that life is good, it follows that we should extend, deepen and spread the flow of information in the universe. According to Dataism, human experiences are not sacred and Homo sapiens isn’t the apex of creation or a precursor of some future Homo deus. Humans are merely tools for creating the Internet-of-All-Things, which may eventually spread out from planet Earth to cover the whole galaxy and even the whole universe. This cosmic data-processing system would be like God. It will be everywhere and will control everything, and humans are destined to merge into it.
This vision is reminiscent of some traditional religious visions. Thus Hindus believe that humans can and should merge into the universal soul of the cosmos – the atman. Christians believe that after death, saints are filled by the infinite grace of God, whereas sinners cut themselves off from His presence. Indeed, in Silicon Valley, the Dataist prophets consciously use traditional messianic language. For example, Ray Kurzweil’s book of prophecies is called The Singularity is Near, echoing John the Baptist’s cry: “the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2).
Dataists explain to those who still worship flesh-and-blood mortals that they are overly attached to outdated technology. Homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm. After all, what’s the advantage of humans over chickens? Only that in humans information flows in much more complex patterns than in chickens. Humans absorb more data, and process it using better algorithms. (In day-to-day language, that means that humans allegedly have deeper emotions and superior intellectual abilities. But remember that, according to current biological dogma, emotions and intelligence are just algorithms.)
Well then, if we could create a data-processing system that absorbs even more data than a human being, and that processes it even more efficiently, wouldn’t that system be superior to a human in exactly the same way that a human is superior to a chicken?•
Tags: Yuval Noah Harari