20 September 2016

Financial Times Magazine: “Big data, Google and the end of free will”


Now, a fresh shift is taking place. Just as divine authority was legitimised by religious mythologies, and human authority was legitimised by humanist ideologies, so high-tech gurus and Silicon Valley prophets are creating a new universal narrative that legitimises the authority of algorithms and Big Data. This novel creed may be called “Dataism”. In its extreme form, proponents of the Dataist worldview perceive the entire universe as a flow of data, see organisms as little more than biochemical algorithms and believe that humanity’s cosmic vocation is to create an all-encompassing data-processing system — and then merge into it.

But no one needs to understand. All you need to do is answer your emails faster. Just as free-market capitalists believe in the invisible hand of the market, so Dataists believe in the invisible hand of the dataflow. As the global data-processing system becomes all-knowing and all-powerful, so connecting to the system becomes the source of all meaning. The new motto says: “If you experience something — record it. If you record something — upload it. If you upload something — share it.”

Yuval Noah Harari

I must admit I’m having a hard time deciding if the author actually believes his own statements or it’s just an elaborate mockery of Silicon Valley logic.

While there is some truth in trying to describe the world around us in terms of algorithms, the big problem with Big Data is simply than: data! If the data isn’t representative or skewed in significant ways, the results will be imperfect and fail to realize this bizarre ‘Dataist’ ideal. And in the real world there are some very real barriers to obtaining perfect data. The very fact that several tech giants are actively competing for this data is preventing them from gathering it: some pieces of information about someone are stored in his or hers Facebook profile (their social connections), others on Amazon (buying habits), others on Google, Apple or Uber (location history). As long as these companies aren’t cooperating, none of them will get a clear enough picture of people to start making the sort of life-changing decisions described in the article – like choosing the most appropriate mate.

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