Beware the Data God (on Harari and History)

I haven’t read Sapiens, despite numerous strong recommendations by friends. I guess I simply thought that, having read quite a lot of global history grand narratives, I would not join the hype and happily go on reading more obscure global histories.

Yet, as Harari might say, some clever algorithm unconsciously conspired against my perceived free will, and had me purchase Homo Deus a few months ago. What follows is not a structural review but more a gut-feeling, top of my head collection of reflection, having just finished reading it, and indeed, having been completely blown away by it, several times.

First, I should say, that I had not been reading much about technological progress. And this book really brought me up to speed. I have however always been very curious about technology, and whenever I had the chance to engage in tech-talks with friends, I would, but only to the point where I realized I had no idea how something worked, and spun the conversation back to history, or to science-fiction.

Homo Deus is a long 400+ page argument which confronts the world (and history of ) of ideas (including all religions, ideologies, world-views, etc) with the world of matter, or rather science. Instead of deeply debating the nature of consciousness, or even souls, Harari does two things.

One is that he takes the reader in easy steps through convincing, somewhat anecdotal, reading of current scientific understanding of nature. Looking at the (mainly human) brain plays a very big part in helping to explain the interaction between neurons and evolution. In the end, all that is left for a human to be, is a set of algorithms. And guess what, everything else might also just be an algorithm.

Normally this would be a shocking thing to read, and very difficult to fully accept, but in addition to the scientific reasoning, but his discussion about religion prepared the reader very well for fully considering this view. It is namely his positioning of humanisms, which he explained has three essential strands being liberalism, socialism and evolutionary humanism, as something which developed alongside technological progress and did away with most theisms. Mainly all humanism is about putting the human in the centre, urging every one of us to dig deep, pursue our own individual happiness, gain control over our environment, find love, and so on.

So at this point. I have read about how brain scientist are able to control rats by manipulating their brain to want to go left or right. There is stuff about machine learning and the way in which we – not due to free will of course – engineer the Internet-of-All-Things. This big godlike super-algorithm will eventually know and control everything, and might at some point do away with it’s puny human designer.

New religions will come up to smoothen us all into this post-humanist age. One of them is about using technology not to fix problems in society, but upgrade individuals, live forever, have bigger brains, and so on. A dystopian world would lie ahead in which it is not enough that only a few have most of the worlds wealth, but that these people also evolve into a new species Homo Deus which would treat Homo Sapiens much like we treat animals.

But the ultimate religion, and this is also where the whole book comes together, would be Dataism. A kind of all-encompassing view that, as Harari says, life is data processing. In fact, all of history, he implies, has evolved along the path of having more processors, more data, more complex algorithms to crunch this data. The fact that human culture and science at this point in time has arrived at some kind of ultimate global connectivity in a way is just the revelation of the role of data processing and algorithms.

Soon enough, in a matter of decades, or centuries, our role on earth might very well be over, he proposes.

Well then. A very entertaining book tying into one the need to understand on which path we seem to be in the 21st century. Beware the data-god, but also somehow seek to accept the limitations of being human.

My two cents.