Category Archives: Big Data

The Dataist Reformation is Nigh

Any good review you read, whether it’s books or films, gives you a sense of what the artist intended as well as the reviewer thinks of the content. I don’t normally write posts that comment on reviews of others, but this was brought to my attention and I think it’s worth a brief post because it’s timely and it’s another example of the way The Guardian uses a book review to advance its ideological agenda. 

In his review for the new book by Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus, David Runciman engages in some doom laden speculations over the humanity destroying influence of the Silicon Valley Technorati he has branded with the utterly idiotic term, “Dataists”. As usual, it’s a piece that ascribes dubious intent to those develop technology and a religious zealotry to those who allegedly seek better living through Big Data.

First off, I don’t think I’ve ever read a piece in The Guardian which praised the achievements of the market.  Predictably, Mr. Runciman doesn’t acknowledge the market as the engine of that achievement.

The evidence of our power is everywhere: we have not simply conquered nature but have also begun to defeat humanity’s own worst enemies. War is increasingly obsolete; famine is rare; disease is on the retreat around the world.

He acknowledges that humanity’s genius is most powerfully demonstrated when exercised in groups, but makes no meaningful distinction between religions, corporations or nation states. Both Harari and Runciman are presenting the individual as powerless independent of a collective and “waves of information” as some kind of sentient power to be resisted. 

Individual human beings are relatively powerless creatures, no match for lions or bears. It’s what they can do as groups that has enabled them to take over the planet. These groupings – corporations, religions, states – are now part of a vast network of interconnected information flows. Finding points of resistance, where smaller units can stand up to the waves of information washing around the globe, is becoming harder all the time.

Runciman goes on to explain that “we” are in danger of uncoupling intelligence and consciousness, and then in the very next paragraph, likens the State to an inhuman, unresponsive robot. 

Not all of this is new. The modern state, which has been around for about 400 years, is really just another data-processing machine. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes, writing in 1651, called it an “automaton” (or what we would call a robot). Its robotic quality is the source of its power and also its heartlessness: states don’t have a conscience, which is what allows them sometimes to do the most fearful things. What’s changed is that there are now processing machines that are far more efficient than states: as Harari points out, governments find it almost impossible to keep up with the pace of technological advance. It has also become much harder to sustain the belief – shared by Hobbes – that behind every state there are real flesh-and-blood human beings. The modern insistence on the autonomy of the individual goes along with a view that it should be possible to find the heart of this heartless world. Keep scratching at a faceless bureaucracy and you’ll eventually uncover a civil servant with real feelings.

He correctly asserts that the State cannot keep up with technological (market) change.  This has been the contention of free market thinkers for decades. The State is not subject to market forces. The nation state is little more than the machinery of warfare backed by a collection of bureaucrats who dictate how this fearsome power must be applied in the name of “The People.” This is precisely why it can do fearful things. It has no incentive to respond to supply, demand or to economize.  Mises argued that to destroy this capacity was to nullify humanity’s uniquely teleological contribution to the universe.

Technology companies are certainly innovating at warp speed, but the State is hastening the automation of the world through policy, too.  Every time the government mandates price controls (e.g. minimum wage) or imposes additional costs through regulation, business will seek a labor saving technological solution.

Runciman portrays this book as a sort of new Hegelianism for the Information Age. He presents this data driven technological dystopia as a historical inevitability, but tries to hedge his dire predictions by saying “the future is unknowable.” Like Hegel, ideas and individuals are absent from his analysis. The article only refers to a giant, amorphous “we”. Naturally, the belief in the individual’s power to shape his own fate is nothing more than a “leap of faith”. He posits that “Dataism” is the new religion because for progressives, the word “religion” is a dogwhistle that signals to the reader that there is mindless obedience and authoritarian rule to be resisted. After all, those who sign up for the Dataist project “will be the only ones with any real power left and it will be relatively unchallenged.” Conveniently, his analysis of what qualifies as “religion” excludes the inefficient, unresponsive, inhumane State. Because if you “keep scratching at a faceless bureaucracy and you’ll eventually uncover a civil servant with real feelings.”

True to progressive form, Harari is “insouciant” about humanity, but REALLY concerned about the fate of animals under humanity’s stewardship. Way to keep your priorities straight, guys. 

The development of AI, robotics and supercomputers is a topic that certainly warrants continued inquiry and discussion.  Perhaps this book is a meaningful step in that direction, but it comes across like another cynical, fatalistic bit of academic pomp that consigns humanity to an anonymous technologically driven hive mind that strips away individual agency. It’s amazing that such highly educated individuals warn of the imminent uncoupling of intelligence from consciousness, but are so cavalier about the true source of humanity itself: the individual. But The Guardian wouldn’t have published this review if it wasn’t the exact ideological agenda the review was meant to serve.