Authors: Yuval Noah Harari
On 11 January 2013, Dataism got its first martyr when Aaron Swartz, a twenty-six-year-old American hacker, committed suicide
in his apartment. Swartz was a rare genius. At fourteen, he helped develop the crucial RSS protocol. Swartz was also a firm believer in the freedom of information. In 2008 he published the ‘Guerilla Open Access Manifesto’ that demanded a free and unlimited flow of information. Swartz said that ‘We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.’
Swartz was as good as his word. He became annoyed with the JSTOR digital library for charging its customers. JSTOR holds millions of scientific papers and studies, and believes in the freedom of expression of scientists and journal editors, which includes the freedom to charge a fee for reading their articles. According to JSTOR, if I want to get paid for the ideas I created, it’s my right to do so. Swartz thought otherwise. He believed that information wants to be free, that ideas don’t belong to the people who created them, and that it is wrong to lock data behind walls and charge money for entrance. He used the MIT computer network to access JSTOR, and downloaded hundreds of thousands of scientific papers, which he intended to release onto the Internet, so that everybody could read them freely.
Swartz was arrested and put on trial. When he realised he would probably be convicted and sent to jail, he hanged himself. Hackers reacted with petitions and attacks directed at the academic and governmental institutions that persecuted Swartz and that infringe on the freedom of information. Under pressure, JSTOR apologised for its part in the tragedy, and today allows free access to much of its data (though not to all of it).
To convince sceptics, Dataist missionaries repeatedly explain the immense benefits of the freedom of information. Just as capitalists believe that all good things depend on economic growth, so
Dataists believe all good things – including economic growth – depend on the freedom of information. Why did the USA grow faster than the USSR? Because information flowed more freely in the USA. Why are Americans healthier, wealthier and happier than Iranians or Nigerians? Thanks to the freedom of information. So if we want to create a better world, the key is to set the data free.
We have already seen that Google can detect new epidemics faster than traditional health organisations, but only if we allow it free access to the information we are producing. A free data flow can similarly reduce pollution and waste, for example by rationalising the transportation system. In 2010 the number of private cars in the world exceeded 1 billion, and it has since kept growing.
These cars pollute the planet and waste enormous resources, not least by necessitating ever wider roads and parking spaces. People have become so used to the convenience of private transport that they are unlikely to settle for buses and trains. However, Dataists point out that people really want mobility rather than a private car, and a good data-processing system can provide this mobility far more cheaply and efficiently.
I have a private car, but most of the time it sits idly in the car park. On a typical day, I enter my car at 8:04, and drive for half an hour to the university, where I park my car for the day. At 18:11 I come back to the car, drive half an hour back home, and that’s it. So I am using my car for just an hour a day. Why do I need to keep it for the other twenty-three hours? We can create a smart car-pool system, run by computer algorithms. The computer would know that I need to leave home at 8:04, and would route the nearest autonomous car to pick me up at that precise moment. After dropping me off at campus, it would be available for other uses instead of waiting in the car park. At 18:11 sharp, as I leave the university gate, another communal car would stop right in front of me, and take me home. In such a way, 50 million communal autonomous cars may replace 1 billion private cars,
and we would also need far fewer roads, bridges, tunnels and parking spaces. Provided, of course, I renounce my privacy and allow the algorithms to always know where I am and where I want to go.
Record, Upload, Share!
But maybe you don’t need convincing, especially if you are under twenty. People just want to be part of the data flow, even if that means giving up their privacy, their autonomy and their individuality. Humanist art sanctifies the individual genius, and a Picasso doodle on a napkin nets millions at Sotheby’s. Humanist science glorifies the individual researcher, and every scholar dreams of putting his or her name at the top of a
paper. But a growing number of artistic and scientific creations are nowadays produced by the ceaseless collaboration of ‘everyone’. Who writes Wikipedia? All of us.
The individual is becoming a tiny chip inside a giant system that nobody really understands. 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. I don’t have time to find out, because I am too busy answering all the emails. And as I process more data more efficiently – answering more emails, making more phone calls and writing more articles – so the people around me are flooded by even more data.
This relentless flow of data sparks new inventions and disruptions that nobody plans, controls or comprehends. No one understands how the global economy functions or where global politics is heading. But no one needs to understand. All you need to do is answer your emails faster – and allow the system to read them. Just as free-market capitalists believe in the invisible
hand of the market, so Dataists believe in the invisible hand of the data flow.
As the global data-processing system becomes all-knowing and all-powerful, so connecting to the system becomes the source of all meaning. Humans want to merge into the data flow because when you are part of the data flow you are part of something much bigger than yourself. Traditional religions told you that your every word and action was part of some great cosmic plan, and that God watched you every minute and cared about all your thoughts and feelings. Data religion now says that your every word and action is part of the great data flow, that the algorithms are constantly watching you and that they care about everything you do and feel. Most people like this very much. For true-believers, to be disconnected from the data flow risks losing the very meaning of life. What’s the point of doing or experiencing anything if nobody knows about it, and if it doesn’t contribute something to the global exchange of information?
Humanism thought that experiences occur inside us, and that we ought to find within ourselves the meaning of all that happens, thereby infusing the universe with meaning. Dataists believe that experiences are valueless if they are not shared, and that we need not – indeed
– find meaning within ourselves. We need only record and connect our experience to the great data flow, and the algorithms will discover its meaning and tell us what to do. Twenty years ago Japanese tourists were a universal laughing stock because they always carried cameras and took pictures of everything in sight. Now everyone is doing it. If you go to India and see an elephant, you don’t look at the elephant and ask yourself, ‘What do I feel?’ – you are too busy looking for your smartphone, taking a picture of the elephant, posting it on Facebook and then checking your account every two minutes to see how many Likes you got. Writing a private diary – a common humanist practice in previous generations – sounds to many present-day youngsters utterly pointless. Why write anything if nobody else can read it? The new motto says: ‘If you experience
something – record it. If you record something – upload it. If you upload something – share it.’
Throughout this book we have repeatedly asked what makes humans superior to other animals. Dataism has a new and simple answer. In themselves, human experiences are not superior at all to the experiences of wolves or elephants. One bit of data is as good as another. However, a human can write a poem about his experience and post it online, thereby enriching the global data-processing system. That makes his bits count. A wolf cannot do this. Hence all of the wolf’s experiences – as deep and complex as they may be – are worthless. No wonder we are so busy converting our experiences into data. It isn’t a question of trendiness. It is a question of survival. We must prove to ourselves and to the system that we still have value. And value lies not in having experiences, but in turning these experiences into free-flowing data.
(By the way, wolves – or at least their dog cousins – aren’t a hopeless case. A company called ‘No More Woof’ is developing a helmet for reading canine experiences. The helmet monitors the dog’s brain waves, and uses computer algorithms to translate simple messages such as ‘I am angry’ into human language.
Your dog may soon have a Facebook or Twitter account of his own – perhaps with more Likes and followers than you.)
Dataism is neither liberal nor humanist. It should be emphasised, however, that Dataism isn’t anti-humanist. It has nothing against human experiences. It just doesn’t think they are intrinsically valuable. When we surveyed the three main humanist sects, we asked which experience is the most valuable: listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, to Chuck Berry, to a pygmy initiation song or to the howl of a wolf in heat. A Dataist would argue that the entire exercise is misguided, because music should be evaluated according to the data it carries rather than according to the experience it creates. A Dataist may argue, for example, that the Fifth
Symphony carries far more data than the pygmy initiation song, because it uses more chords and scales, and creates dialogues with many more musical styles. Consequently, you need far more computational power to decipher the Fifth Symphony, and you gain far more knowledge from doing so.
Music, according to this view, is mathematical patterns. Mathematics can describe every musical piece, as well as the relations between any two pieces. Hence you can measure the precise data value of every symphony, song and howl, and determine which is the richest. The experiences they create in humans or wolves don’t really matter. True, for the last 70,000 years or so, human experiences have been the most efficient data-processing algorithms in the universe, hence there was good reason to sanctify them. However, we may soon reach a point when these algorithms will be superseded, and even become a burden.
Sapiens evolved in the African savannah tens of thousands of years ago, and their algorithms are just not built to handle twenty-first-century data flows. We might try to upgrade the human data-processing system, but this may not be enough. The Internet-of-All-Things may soon create such huge and rapid data flows that even upgraded human algorithms cannot handle it. When the car replaced the horse-drawn carriage, we didn’t upgrade the horses – we retired them. Perhaps it is time to do the same with
Dataism adopts a strictly functional approach to humanity, appraising the value of human experiences according to their function in data-processing mechanisms. If we develop an algorithm that fulfils the same function better, human experiences will lose their value. Thus if we can replace not just taxi drivers and doctors but also lawyers, poets and musicians with superior computer programs, why should we care if these programs have no consciousness and no subjective experiences? If some humanist starts adulating the sacredness of human experience, Dataists would dismiss such sentimental humbug. ‘The experience you praise is just an outdated biochemical algorithm. In the African
savannah 70,000 years ago, that algorithm was state-of-the-art. Even in the twentieth century it was vital for the army and for the economy. But soon we will have much better algorithms.’
In the climactic scene of many Hollywood science-fiction movies, humans face an alien invasion fleet, an army of rebellious robots or an all-knowing super-computer that wants to obliterate them. Humanity seems doomed. But at the very last moment, against all the odds, humanity triumphs thanks to something that the aliens, the robots and the super-computers didn’t suspect and cannot fathom: love. The hero, who up till now has been easily manipulated by the super-computer and has been riddled with bullets by the evil robots, is inspired by his sweetheart to make a completely unexpected move that turns the tables on the thunderstruck Matrix. Dataism finds such scenarios utterly ridiculous. ‘Come on,’ it admonishes the Hollywood screenwriters, ‘is that all you could come up with? Love? And not even some platonic cosmic love, but the carnal attraction between two mammals? Do you really think that an all-knowing super-computer or aliens who managed to conquer the entire galaxy would be dumbfounded by a hormonal rush?’
By equating the human experience with data patterns, Dataism undermines our main 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 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.
The Dataist revolution will probably take a few decades, if not a century or two. But then the humanist revolution too did not
happen overnight. At first, humans kept on believing in God, and argued that humans are sacred because they were created by God for some divine purpose. Only much later did some people dare say that humans are sacred in their own right, and that God doesn’t exist at all. Similarly, today most Dataists say that the Internet-of-All-Things is sacred because humans are creating it to serve human needs. But eventually, the Internet-of-All-Things may become sacred in its own right.