Dataism is the word coined by Yuval Noah Harari in his essay for an optimistic, practical implementation of Scientism.
Just as divine authority was legitimised by religious mythologies, and human authority was legitimised by humanist ideologies, so high-tech gurus and Silicon Valley prophets are creating a new universal narrative that legitimises the authority of algorithms and Big Data. This novel creed may be called “Dataism”. In its extreme form, proponents of the Dataist worldview perceive the entire universe as a flow of data, see organisms as little more than biochemical algorithms and believe that humanity’s cosmic vocation is to create an all-encompassing data-processing system — and then merge into it.
As an example, he says, “Every day I absorb countless data bits through emails, phone calls and articles; process the data; and transmit back new bits through more emails, phone calls and articles. I don’t really know where I fit into the great scheme of things, and how my bits of data connect with the bits produced by billions of other humans and computers.”
The mistake here is to think “data” is some new thing. Before people were glued to their “devices”, they were present in the world and then as now inundated by stimuli that had to be “processed”. That last word is pure Dataism and a replacement for “thought about.” The only material difference between these periods is that we now have developed the conceit that if we store enough data understanding and immortality will be ours. (Maybe via the “singularity”.)
Dataists further believe that given enough biometric data and computing power, this all-encompassing system could understand humans much better than we understand ourselves. Once that happens, humans will lose their authority, and humanist practices such as democratic elections will become as obsolete as rain dances and flint knives.
Implicit in this religion are two ideas: that all things can be measured, and that an equation can be found for all measurements. The first tenet is false. Even if you don’t (yet) accept that our intellects are immaterial and therefore not subject to ordinary physical pressures and therefore strictly unmeasurable and therefore can never be more than crudely approximated by any physical systems such as a computer (normal or quantum) and therefore our intellects are forever out of bounds, there is physics itself. How can, if they exist, strings or branes be measured? Measurement will always be bounded.
The second tenet fails, also in the strict sense, because equations focus on the measurable, and can only approximate the unmeasurable. Our intellects are one example, but so are ordinary quantum-mechanical events, which can’t be predicted with certainty.
This point is harped on because if we can’t model the most important aspects of us and our world, then two maladies are ever ready to strike: Hubris and the Deadly Sin of Reification. These are usually mates. Let’s see Harai demonstrate that. After needlessly digressing on “religious fanatics” who disapprove of LGBT activities, and then reversing himself by saying it “doesn’t matter what you think about this particular conundrum”, he says:
Yet humanism is now facing an existential challenge and the idea of “free will” is under threat. Scientific insights into the way our brains and bodies work suggest that our feelings are not some uniquely human spiritual quality. Rather, they are biochemical mechanisms that all mammals and birds use in order to make decisions by quickly calculating probabilities of survival and reproduction…
Even though humanists were wrong to think that our feelings reflected some mysterious “free will”, up until now humanism still made very good practical sense.
It did? How did Harai know? There is no Harai: there is only, if Dataism holds, a mass of wet chemicals chugging along fixed nuclear and electric potentials. Harai’s mistake is the same all make when dismissing free will: you must use what you don’t have to eliminate what you do have and which can’t be eliminated. Once you freely choose to disbelieve in free will, the world will be a better place. (The objection to this obvious point is always “The argument Harai is making is subtler than that”, but how this subtlety overcomes the painful objection is never given.)
If you had to choose between listening to the Bible and listening to your feelings, it was much better to listen to your feelings. The Bible represented the opinions and biases of a few priests in ancient Jerusalem. Your feelings, in contrast, represented the accumulated wisdom of millions of years of evolution that have passed the most rigorous quality-control tests of natural selection.
Skip the historical inaccuracies. Is the fallacy not obvious? Did not evolution, if it directs all, also lead those priests in ancient Jerusalem to write what they did? Aye, it did: it must have. So then how can Dataism save us when Dataism is control of all and there is no free will? Answer: it cannot.
How many fallacies so far?
For we are now at the confluence of two scientific tidal waves. On the one hand, biologists are deciphering the mysteries of the human body and, in particular, of the brain and of human feelings. At the same time, computer scientists are giving us unprecedented data-processing power. When you put the two together, you get external systems that can monitor and understand my feelings much better than I can. Once Big Data systems know me better than I know myself, authority will shift from humans to algorithms. Big Data could then empower Big Brother.
People who have never programmed a computer, and I’m guessing Harai falls into this camp, have such a touchingly naïve faith about computational ability you always feel like a bully to point out how algorithmic sausage is really made. As an example of the childish mistakes this faith makes, this:
How do humanists choose a book? They go to a bookstore, wander between the aisles, flip through one book and read the first few sentences of another, until some gut feeling connects them to a particular tome. Dataists use Amazon. As I enter the Amazon virtual store, a message pops up and tells me: “I know which books you liked in the past. People with similar tastes also tend to love this or that new book.”
Raise your hands if you know why the humanists are using the better algorithm. I’ll leave identifying this book-liking fallacy as homework. Hint: what happens if every reader must use this system? That Harai can’t see what is obvious to any algorithm builder allows him to enthuse:
Take this [book-liking fallacy] to its logical conclusion, and eventually people may give algorithms the authority to make the most important decisions in their lives, such as who to marry. In medieval Europe, priests and parents had the authority to choose your mate for you. In humanist societies we give this authority to our feelings. In a Dataist society I will ask Google to choose…
And Google will answer: “Well, I know you from the day you were born. I have read all your emails, recorded all your phone calls, and know your favourite films, your DNA and the entire biometric history of your heart. I have exact data about each date you went on, and I can show you second-by-second graphs of your heart rate, blood pressure and sugar levels …”
Well, Dataists, i.e. materialists, i.e. scidolators, must say these things under pain of inconsistency, but it is obvious silliness.
For scholars and intellectuals, Dataism promises to provide the scientific Holy Grail that has eluded us for centuries: a single overarching theory that unifies all the scientific disciplines from musicology through economics, all the way to biology…
But even if Dataism is wrong about life, it may still conquer the world. Many previous creeds gained enormous popularity and power despite their factual mistakes.
It’s well to suggest Dataism could catch on in spite of it being fallacy-laden. With the disappearance of Christianity in the West, the spiritual vacuum left behind must needs be filled. There will always be fanatics like Harari volunteering replacement “systems”. Thus you will now not be surprised to learn that Harari is the author of the book Homo Deus, a title that explains all. (That book is due out soon: if somebody sends me a copy, I’ll review it.)
Incidentally, more about these kinds of fallacies in Uncertainty: The Soul of Modeling, Probability & Statistics.