Deus in Machina

Published On: August 27, 2021 11:30 AM NPT By: Bimal Pratap Shah

Silicon Valley has digitized everything but religion. Will that change in the future?

A close to 90 percent of the global population currently subscribe to one of the 11 classical religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Shinto, Sikkim, Taoism, and Zoroastrianism. Among the 11 prominent religions, Christianity will remain the largest religious group till 2050 after which Islam will most likely take the number one spot as it is currently growing the fastest. Scientists have predicted that Hindus will see a dramatic drop-off in births around the 2050s due to declining fertility in India. Religiosity as a whole, however, is already declining sharply around the world because the ranks of people who don’t adhere to any faith have grown rapidly. Now, futurist techno-utopians are saying the traditional notion of God will likely be replaced by a new creed called Dataism- an emerging philosophy with an ultimate goal to increase the amount of information flow through an algorithm.

Religious beliefs have existed since the dawn of humanity and even though the religious texts are too abstruse for the majority, all ancient religions have some basic beliefs and common religious tenets. They all promote the worship of some form of morality enforcing deities. Also, universal is the almighty punishing or rewarding devotees in accordance with the morality codes. The important functional aspect of religion, however, is not God, but the ethical behavior being encouraged. Unfortunately, these beautiful aspects of religion are getting lost due to hyper politicization of faith in the era of vote bank politics. In modern society where religion is reduced to rituals, dataism is increasingly being positioned as the effective alternative ethical system for the 21st Century.

Dataism states that “the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing.” The term Dataism was first used by David Brooks in the 2013 New York Times article titled “The Philosophy of Data,” where he discusses “the philosophy created by the emerging significance of big data. Simply put, Dataism is an obsession with data plus a belief that intelligent data analysis always produces valuable results.”

Dataism began as a neutral scientific theory and gained worldwide popularity after the world-renowned historian Yuval Noah Harari published his 2016 book- Homo Deus. For Harari, dataism is “a new form of religion that celebrates the growing importance of big data. A core belief that revolves around the idea that the universe gives greater value and support to systems, individuals, and societies that contribute most heavily and efficiently to data processing.” Therefore, Harari believes algorithms should be allowed to process as much information as possible to unlock innovation at a scale previously unheard of by humanity.

Dataism, however, is facing a backlash from the authorities. Amazon was recently fined USD 997 million by Luxembourg National Commission for Data Protection (CNPD) for breaking European Union General Data Protection Rules (GDPR). The fine was imposed by the lead privacy watchdog charging the e-commerce giant for using customer data for behavioral analysis and targeted ads without permission. This will likely change in the future. Harari believes people will willingly allow algorithms to make health-related decisions as people will be able to pre-empt potential health risks. Come to think of it - sapiens also used the advantage of the massive data processing power of the brain to overrun the entire world spreading themselves into different habitats.

The construction of the sapiens-processing system passed through four main stages. The first stage began with the cognitive revolution which connected unlimited Homo sapiens into a single data processing network. There is a limit to the number of non-human animals that can be connected to the same network. On the other hand, humans do not have such limitations. In the process, Sapiens did lose touch with each other but underwent diverse cultural transformations giving rise to an immense variety of cultures, lifestyles, behavior patterns, and world views.

The second stage began with the agricultural revolution which allowed people to live together in the same place as dense local networks creating new incentives and opportunities for different networks to trade and communicate. At this stage, humans were still divided into numerous tiny tribes with their lifestyles and perspectives.

Roughly 5,000 years ago, in the third stage, humans invented money and writing. This epochal shift allowed humans to cooperate efficiently and bond into groups and merge to form villages, cities, kingdoms, and empires and also established deep political and commercial links between them.

The fourth and last stage started around 1,000 BC. Early modern explorers, conquerors, and traders wove the first thin threads that encompassed the whole world. Columbus hooked up the Eurasian net to the American net. The British, French, Spanish, and the Dutch connected the European net with Asian, African, and South American nets. Before that, Chinese, Indians, Mongolians, and Mughals connected the Asian net to the European net. Information was allowed to flow freely along the global grid.

The fourth stage, however, had limitations as only a few bits of data could cross the ocean and the land each year, running the gauntlet of cultural prejudices, strict religious censorship, and political repression. However, as the years went by, the European continent saw the Age of Reason- an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. The enlightenment age gave rise to the free market, the scientific community, the rule of law, and the theories of justice and democracy that helped lift the traditional barriers that had stifled innovation, scientific progress, and women empowerment.

Looking into the future, Harari reasons, “If humankind is indeed a single data processing system, the output of this species is the creation of a new and even more efficient data-processing system called the Internet of All-Things. Human experiences are not sacred and Homo sapiens isn’t the apex of creation or a precursor of some future Homo Deus. Simply put, humans are merely the tools for creating the Internet-of-All-Things that will eventually spread out to the Universe.” Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk to name a few are already at it.

In traditional religions, words and actions were supposed to be part of some great cosmic plan, and the almighty is watching over us all the time. Similarly, Dataism Preaches that our every word and action is part of the great data flow and the algorithms are watching us all the time. Thus, the supreme value of this new ideology is “information flow.” More importantly, it is regarded as a practical ethical system to determine right and wrong for the 21st Century world.

For Harari “humans are special because they are the most sophisticated data processing system in the Universe'' and “as artificial intelligence advances, however, Dataism might someday make humanity obsolete as search engines and social media absorb our life histories.” Even more thought-provoking statement of Harari is that Homo sapiens will slowly vanish once this mission of creating efficient data processing systems like the Internet-of-All-Things and artificial intelligence (AI) is over.

(Shah is a Policy Wonk.)


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