Yuval Harari : Dataism - Homo Deus
'Homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm': Yuval Noah Harari on how data could eat the world
His magisterial history of humankind, Sapiens, was an international best seller. Now Yuval Noah Harai is back with a big new idea: Dataism
1. Increasing the number of processors. A city of 100,000 people has more computing power than a village of 1,000 people.
2. Increasing the variety of processors. Different processors may use diverse ways to calculate and analyse data. Using several kinds of processors in a single system may therefore increase its dynamism and creativity. A conversation between a peasant, a priest and a physician may produce novel ideas that would never emerge from a conversation between three hunter-gatherers.
3. Increasing the number of connections between processors. There is little point in increasing the mere number and variety of processors if they are poorly connected. A trade network linking ten cities is likely to result in many more economic, technological and social innovations than ten isolated cities.
4. Increasing the freedom of movement along existing connections. Connecting processors is hardly useful if data cannot flow freely. Just building roads between ten cities won't be very useful if they are plagued by robbers, or if some autocratic despot doesn't allow merchants and travellers to move as they wish.
"Homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm. After all, what's the advantage of humans over chickens? " Yuval Harari
These four methods often contradict one another. The greater the number and variety of processors, the harder it is to freely connect them. The construction of the sapiens data-processing system accordingly passed through four main stages, each of which was characterised by an emphasis on different methods.
The first stage began with the cognitive revolution, which made it possible to connect unlimited sapiens into a single data-processing network. This gave sapiens an advantage over all other human and animal species. Although there is a limit to the number of Neanderthals, chimpanzees or elephants you can connect to the same net, there is no limit to the number of sapiens.
Sapiens used their advantage in data processing to overrun the entire world. However, as they spread into different lands and climates they lost touch with one another, and underwent diverse cultural transformations. The result was an immense variety of human cultures, each with its own lifestyle, behaviour patterns and world view. Hence the first phase of history involved an increase in the number and variety of human processors, at the expense of connectivity: 20,000 years ago there were many more sapiens than 70,000 years ago, and sapiens in Europe processed information differently from sapiens in China. However, there were no connections between people in Europe and China, and it would have seemed utterly impossible that all sapiens may one day be part of a single data-processing web.
The second stage began with agriculture and continued until the invention of writing and money. Agriculture accelerated demographic growth, so the number of human processors rose sharply, while simultaneously enabling many more people to live together in the same place, thereby generating dense local networks that contained an unprecedented number of processors. In addition, agriculture created new incentives and opportunities for different networks to trade and communicate.
Nevertheless, during the second phase, centrifugal forces remained predominant. In the absence of writing and money, humans could not establish cities, kingdoms or empires. Humankind was still divided into innumerable little tribes, each with its own lifestyle and world view. Uniting the whole of humankind was not even a fantasy.
The third stage kicked off with the appearance of writing and money about 5,000 years ago, and lasted until the beginning of the scientific revolution. Thanks to writing and money, the gravitational field of human co-operation finally overpowered the centrifugal forces. Human groups bonded and merged to form cities and kingdoms. Political and commercial links between different cities and kingdoms also tightened. At least since the first millennium BC - when coinage, empires, and universal religions appeared - humans began to consciously dream about forging a single network that would encompass the entire globe.
This dream became a reality during the fourth and last stage of history, which began around 1492. Early modern explorers, conquerors and traders wove the first thin threads that encompassed the whole world. In the late modern period, these threads were made stronger and denser, so that the spider's web of Columbus's days became the steel and asphalt grid of the 21st century. Even more importantly, information was allowed to flow increasingly freely along this global grid. When Columbus first hooked up the Eurasian net to the American net, only a few bits of data could cross the ocean each year, running the gauntlet of cultural prejudices, strict censorship and political repression.
But as the years went by, the free market, the scientific community, the rule of law and the spread of democracy all helped to lift the barriers. We often imagine that democracy and the free market won because they were "good". In truth, they won because they improved the global data-processing system.
So over the last 70,000 years humankind first spread out, then separated into distinct groups and finally merged again. Yet the process of unification did not take us back to the beginning. When the different human groups fused into the global village of today, each brought along its unique legacy of thoughts, tools and behaviours, which it collected and developed along the way. Our modern larders are now stuffed with Middle Eastern wheat, Andean potatoes, New Guinean sugar and Ethiopian coffee. Similarly, our language, religion, music and politics are replete with heirlooms from across the planet.
If humankind is indeed a single data-processing system, what is its output? Dataists would say that its output will be the creation of a new and even more efficient data-processing system, called the Internet-of-All-Things. Once this mission is accomplished, Homo sapiens will vanish.
Like capitalism, Dataism too began as a neutral scientific theory, but is now mutating into a religion that claims to determine right and wrong. The supreme value of this new religion is "information flow". If life is the movement of information, and if we think that life is good, it follows that we should extend, deepen and spread the flow of information in the universe. According to Dataism, human experiences are not sacred and Homo sapiens isn't the apex of creation or a precursor of some future Homo deus. Humans are merely tools for creating the Internet-of-All-Things, which may eventually spread out from planet Earth to cover the whole galaxy and even the whole universe. This cosmic data-processing system would be like God. It will be everywhere and will control everything, and humans are destined to merge into it.
This vision is reminiscent of some traditional religious visions. Thus Hindus believe that humans can and should merge into the universal soul of the cosmos - the atman. Christians believe that after death, saints are filled by the infinite grace of God, whereas sinners cut themselves off from His presence. Indeed, in Silicon Valley, the Dataist prophets consciously use traditional messianic language. For example, Ray Kurzweil's book of prophecies is called The Singularity is Near, echoing John the Baptist's cry: "the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matthew 3:2).
Dataists explain to those who still worship flesh-and-blood mortals that they are overly attached to outdated technology. Homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm. After all, what's the advantage of humans over chickens? Only that in humans information flows in much more complex patterns than in chickens. Humans absorb more data, and process it using better algorithms. (In day-to-day language, that means that humans allegedly have deeper emotions and superior intellectual abilities. But remember that, according to current biological dogma, emotions and intelligence are just algorithms.)
"Why are Americans healthier, wealthier and happier than Iranians or Nigerians? Thanks to the freedom of information." Yuval Harari
Well then, if we could create a data-processing system that absorbs even more data than a human being, and that processes it even more efficiently, wouldn't that system be superior to a human in exactly the same way that a human is superior to a chicken?
Dataism isn't limited to idle prophecies. Like every religion, it has its practical commandments. First and foremost, a Dataist ought to maximise data flow by connecting to more and more media, and producing and consuming more and more information. Like other successful religions, Dataism is also missionary. Its second commandment is to connect everything to the system, including heretics who don't want to be connected.
And "everything" means more than just humans. It means every thing. My body, of course, but also the cars on the street, the refrigerators in the kitchen, the chickens in their coop and the trees in the jungle - all should be connected to the Internet-of-All-Things. The refrigerator will monitor the number of eggs in the drawer, and inform the chicken coop when a new shipment is needed.
The cars will talk to one another, and the trees in the jungle will report on the weather and on CO2 levels. We mustn't leave any part of the Universe disconnected from the great web of life. Conversely, the greatest sin is to block the data flow. What is death, if not a situation when information doesn't flow? Hence Dataism upholds the freedom of information as the greatest good.
People rarely come up with a completely new value. The last time this happened was in the 18th century, when the humanist revolution preached the stirring ideals of human liberty, human equality and human fraternity. Since 1789, despite numerous wars, revolutions and upheavals, humans have not managed to come up with any new value. All subsequent conflicts and struggles have been conducted either in the name of the three humanist values, or in the name of even older values such as obeying God or serving the nation.
Dataism is the first movement since 1789 that created a really novel value: freedom of information. We mustn't confuse freedom of information with the old liberal ideal of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression was given to humans, and protected their right to think and say what they wished - including their right to keep their mouths shut and their thoughts to themselves.
Freedom of information, in contrast, is not given to humans. It is given to information. Moreover, this novel value may impinge on the traditional freedom of expression, by privileging the right of information to circulate freely over the right of humans to own data and to restrict its movement.
On January 11, 2013, Dataism got its first martyr when Aaron Swartz, a 26-year-old American hacker, committed suicide in his apartment. Swartz was a rare genius. At 14, 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: "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."
"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?" Yuval Harari
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 one 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 23 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 one 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.
But maybe you don't need convincing, especially if you are under 20. 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 thetop of a Science or Nature 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, 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 watching you and that they care about everything you do and feel. Most people like this. 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 experiences are valueless if they are not shared, and that we need not - indeed cannot - 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 for previous generations - sounds to many present-day youngsters as 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."
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. 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 them 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. It monitors the dog's brainwaves, 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.
The new motto says: "If you experience something - record it. If you record something - upload it. If you upload something - share it" Yuval Harari
Music, according to this, is mathematical patterns. 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. But we may soon reach a point when these algorithms will be superseded, and even become a burden.
Sapiens evolved in the savannah thousands of years ago, and their algorithms are not built to handle 21st-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 create such huge and rapid data flows that even upgraded human algorithms won't handle it. When cars replaced the horse-drawn carriage, we didn't upgrade horses - we retired them. Perhaps it is time to do the same with Homo sapiens.