Dataism is the new religion of the 21st century. The greatest good it upholds? Freedom of information.
“Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” continues the story that Yuval Noah Harari began with “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”. “Sapiens” was about where we came from, while “Homo Deus” is about where we are going. And “Homo Deus” is just as provocative as Harari’s first book, challenging our notions of what it means to be human.
In “Homo Deus”, Harari talked about the rise of Dataism. David Brooks was the first to coin the term Dataism in a 2013 New York Times column piece. While you might not agree with it, Dataism represents current scientific dogma. We may be familiar with the rise of Big Data, but may not sufficiently grasp its implications for society and humanity. Most firmly entrenched in its two mother disciplines of computer science and biology. Dataism sees organisms as algorithms. Everything is connected. Everything is data. And Homo sapiens will no longer exist.
The gospel according to algorithms
“By equating the human experience with data patterns, Dataism undermines our primary source of authority and meaning and heralds a tremendous religious revolution, the like of which has not been seen since the eighteenth century. In the days of Locke, Hume and Voltaire humanists argued that ‘God is a product of the human imagination’. Dataism now gives humanists a taste of their own medicine, and tells them: ‘Yes, God is a product of the human imagination, but human imagination in turn is just the product of biochemical algorithms.’ In the eighteenth century, humanism sidelined God by shifting from a deo-centric to a homo-centric world view. In the twenty-first century, Dataism may sideline humans by shifting from a homo-centric to a data-centric view.”
While it might sound like science fiction with a whiff of Borg-like assimilation, the future that Harari describes is already happening. We have come to the point where we can technologically enhance our bodies and become transhumans. Coexist with artificial intelligence and robots, and perhaps even fall in love with them. Conquer aging, or even death.
Or, yes, create a society where Big Data will continue improving our lives. If we allow the free flow of information. If we turn everything into data for an ever-expanding ecosystem.
How will this change us and human society? What will Homo sapiens evolve into?
Surviving in a posthuman world
One reader who found “Homo Deus” to be just as challenging and readable as “Sapiens” is none other than Bill Gates.
“Here is Harari’s most provocative idea: As good as it sounds, achieving the dream of bliss, immortality, and divinity could be bad news for the human race. He foresees a potential future where a small number of elites upgrade themselves through biotechnology and genetic engineering, leaving the masses behind and creating the godlike species of the book’s title; where artificial intelligence ‘knows us better than we know ourselves’; and where these godlike elites and super-intelligent robots consider the rest of humanity to be superfluous.
“Harari does a great job of showing how we might arrive at this grim future. But I am more optimistic than he is that this future is not pre-ordained.”
Beyond gods and humans
I have always been a techno-optimist. Like Gates, I’m convinced the future won’t be this grim, if we don’t allow it be. It’s true that the danger of inequality is always present. I have no doubt that the elites will always try to use their wealth to protect their interests and gain an advantage. That’s why the masses are becoming disenchanted with democracy.
The reality is that society is always playing catch up with science and technology. We have changed the world in unimaginable ways, and have turned science fiction into science fact. And yet human society is still based on old religions and ideologies. Ones that are becoming increasingly obsolete and irrelevant.
Perhaps new religions will appear that will be more relevant to our new reality. Perhaps we will learn to accept that Big Data and a connected world will require us to trade privacy for convenience.
A world where everything is connected
As Harari says in an interview with Wired, humanity stands to benefit a lot from Big Data. And we might not even be able to opt out.
“It will become extremely difficult to unplug, and it has to do with health care, which will increasingly rely on internet-connected sensors. People will be willing to give up privacy in exchange for medical services that tell you the first day cancer cells start spreading in your body. So we might reach a point when it will be impossible to disconnect.
“There’s a lot to be hopeful about. In 20 to 30 years the hundreds of millions of people who have no health care will have access to AI doctors on their mobile phones offering better care than anyone gets now. Driverless cars won’t eliminate accidents, but they will drastically reduce them.”
We like to think that privacy is a given. And yet this wasn’t the case for most of human history. As society becomes transformed, will we learn to give up more of our privacy? And other things we now consider our rights?
These are the questions we should be asking and answering now. The future won’t wait.