Dataism promises us eternal life: In the future we will be able to upload ourselves to the cloud to continue to exist, and even now we can already stay in contact with the deceased by using deepfakes. In this article we are researching the meaning of dataism and what these promises mean to our human existence. We reveal the underlying reasoning of dataism, and expose the illusions behind the promise of eternal life.
In the series Years & Years (BBC 2019 and HBO Nordic) that is set in the future, teenager Bethany wants to become ‘transhuman’. Bethany wants to go beyond the limitations of her physical shell. Gradually, we see how Bethany wants to upgrade herself by getting implants in her hands and eyes. She no longer needs to hold a phone, because her hands have become the phone. She no longer wants to take pictures using a device, but use her eyes instead. Encouraged and accompanied by a friend, she is blurring the boundaries between the physical and virtual existence. Her ultimate dream becomes uploading her brain to the cloud, so that her “mind lives on forever”. This will lift the biggest limitation of her physical existence, i.e. finiteness. If it is up to the futurists in Silicon Valley, this dream will soon be within reach.
The thought behind the promises of Silicon Valley is tech solutionism and how it is given shape, i.e. dataism. Tech solutionism is based on the assumption that technology provides the answer, the solution, to all problems that mankind is facing. Dataism colours this tech solutionism with data. In her book entitled ‘Friction’, Dutch philosopher Miriam Rasch describes dataism as the sacred belief in data as a way of influencing reality for the better. Modern-day technological developments, including the promises described above, entail large-scale data processing as described in this essay. Data enables the current technologies and therefore the solutions as well.
By now, dataism is starting to take on religious proportions. Just like many other religions, dataism promises us eternal life, albeit digitally. Anyone who wants to, only has to entrust their data to the Gods of Silicon Valley. The question is whether we should let ourselves be guided by dataism.
‘There’s an App for that’: The avoidance of Pain and the Increase of Happiness
In 2009 Apple launched the slogan: ‘There’s an app for that’. A slogan that expresses tech solutionism in optima forma. In the course of time, millions of apps have been developed that promise us an easier and more comfortable life, ranging from opening the curtains, finding the right partner to measuring your blood pressure. In order to realise this promise, developers collect an enormous amount of user data, enabling the constant improvement of apps and the solving of other problems. This way, technology is used to realise a more prosperous, healthy and happy society.
An example of how dataism tries to influence the way we deal with mortality is shown in the documentary entitled ‘Deepfake Therapy’ by filmmaker Roshan. This documentary shows in an intriguing manner how deepfake technology can be used in dealing with grief. A true to life virtual copy of the person is created using the deceased’s personal data. Surviving relatives only have to open their laptop to speak to a virtual version of their deceased loved one. This deepfake technology tries to solve the ‘problem’ of mourning, as this form of therapy tries to reduce the pain involved in the loss of a loved one.
The reduction of problems and the increase of happiness show that the tech solutionist foundation of dataism has a remarkable high number of similarities with the utilitarianism of the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). In his main work ‘An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’ from 1789, Bentham states that human behaviour is determined by avoiding pain and maximising happiness. Bentham’s philosophy is strongly influenced by hedonism, where happiness is the highest principle to be pursued. According to Bentham, happiness should serve not only private interest, but public interest as well. Bentham created his world-famous principle of the greatest happiness in order to create a utopian society. According to this principle, society must aim for the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.
The principle of the greatest happiness can also be found in dataism. After all, the data on which technology is based and by which technology is driven is considered to be the key to the utopian society where pain and suffering can be avoided, something that Bentham could only dream of in 1789. The question is whether the optimistic faith in technology actually creates a better society.
The Drawbacks of Dataism
Unlike any other, the British TV series ‘Black Mirror’ is able to show the drawback of technology in a sharp manner.
The episode ‘Be Right Back’ (S2E11), for example, ties in perfectly with the current developments with respect to deepfake technology. In this episode, the new mother Martha decides to bring back from the dead her husband who was killed in an accident. To achieve this, Martha engages a tech company that can reconstruct a virtual version of her husband on the basis of both her personal data and that of her husband (communication history, photographs, videos, etc.). Martha can then communicate with a virtual version of her husband via a computer screen. After many conversations with her husband behind the computer screen, Martha starts to miss the fact that she cannot hold her husband physically. She decides to take it one step further and give the company permission to make a true to life clone of her spouse. In order to do so, she will need to share even more of his personal data. Initially, Martha is overjoyed about the possibility of finally holding her husband in her arms again thanks to this technology. However, later on she discovers to her great frustration that the clone does not exhibit the exact same behaviour as her deceased husband. Martha starts to feel uncomfortable and that is why she tries to get rid of the clone. This episode of Black Mirror leaves us with the uncomfortable question as to whether this technology has contributed to the process of dealing with grief, has postponed the dealing with grief or has even hindered it.
As early as 2013, Internet critic and publicist Evgeny Morozov stated that technology would be able to solve social and individual problems, but that this solutionism comes at a price. After all, Martha has had to share all of her personal data and the personal data of her husband with the tech company in order to be able to use their services for dealing with grief. This example shows that, when it comes to technology, we often (unconsciously) choose convenience over fundamental rights. In this case, Martha waives her right to privacy.
Rasch and Morozov might say that it seems that we are aiming for a ‘frictionless’ existence where all of the ‘rough’ edges of life can be polished off by means of technology. We do not deny that technology can be a means to solve certain individual or social problems, but we do think that the faith in social engineering that dataism propagates is based on a few illusions.
The Illusions of Dataism
Dataism promises us eternal life in different ways. A radical promise for the future is that we will be able to continue to exist in the cloud. We are already seeing through technological possibilities that deepfakes allow us to interact with deceased loved ones, at least suggesting that these persons are being brought back to life. If you look at it from this perspective, dataism seems to have found a solution to finiteness. However, this is based on a few illusions.
First of all, as is shown in the example of Martha in Black Mirror, life is a lot less malleable than tech companies suggest. Even though dataism pretends that it will conquer human limitations such as illness and death in the near future, there will still always be problems that stand in the way of a comfortable life. The tragedy is that solutionist thinking holds out a malleable, controllable and extendable life, while this promise will never be redeemed.
A second illusion is that ‘a good life’ is a hedonistic and frictionless life. In the thought experiment ‘the pleasure machine’ of the American philosopher Robert Nozick, a participant’s brain is connected to a machine that simulates merely pleasant experiences for the person in the machine. According to Nozick, most people do not want to be ‘plugged into’ such a pleasure machine, because the happiness generated by the machine is based on an illusion. It is not truly experienced happiness. In the short term, the illusions of dataism seem to be attractive, but in the long term they disregard other values and fundamental rights, such as the right to privacy.
In short: if it would even be possible for us to upload our brain and live forever, which is what Bethany dreams of, in our opinion it is an illusion to think that eternal life will be a heavenly life. Finiteness, struggle, and vulnerability give life its stratification, depth and significance. It is not a problem that needs to be solved. A path with friction is not the easiest way, but discomfort is what gets us moving. If life is only about experiencing happiness, then this deprives us of living our life.
Ruwan van der Vaart, media designer, theologist and philosophy student
Piek Visser-Knijff, data ethicist at Filosofie in actie
This English version of the article was first published on Ifthenelse.eu.