With Dataism Humanism Faces An Existential Challenge

For thousands of years humans believed that authority came from the gods. Then, humanism gradually shifted authority to people. Now a shift is taking place in which high-tech gurus and Silicon Valley prophets are creating a new universal narrative that legitimises the authority of algorithms.  This novel creed may be called “Dataism”.

janne-iivonenIn 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.

A thought-provoking philosophical article in Financial Times about alogorithms and big data is really worth a read. It states: Humanism is now facing an existential challenge and the idea of “free will” is under threat. The Algorithmic God, one may call it.

And further: “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. For although there was nothing magical about our feelings, they were nevertheless the best method in the universe for making decisions — and no outside system could hope to understand my feelings better than me.2

“However, as the Church and the KGB give way to Google and Facebook, humanism loses its practical advantages. 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.”

“This has already happened in the field of medicine. The most important medical decisions in your life are increasingly based not on your feelings of illness or wellness, or even on the informed predictions of your doctor — but on the calculations of computers who know you better than you know yourself.”

What is already happening in medicine is likely to take place in more and more fields. It starts with simple things, like which book to buy and read. 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.”

This is just the beginning.

Take this 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.

Read the whole freely available story in the Financial Times here and enjoy the illustrations

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