These highlights were saved with the Kindle version of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari.
For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined.
For millennia, famine stalked every Chinese regime from the Yellow Emperor to the Red communists. A few decades ago China was a byword for food shortages. Tens of millions of Chinese starved to death during the disastrous Great Leap Forward, and experts routinely predicted that the problem would only get worse. In 1974 the first World Food Conference was convened in Rome, and delegates were treated to apocalyptic scenarios. They were told that there was no way for China to feed its billion people, and that the world’s most populous country was heading towards catastrophe. In fact, it was heading towards the greatest economic miracle in history. Since 1974 hundreds of millions of Chinese have been lifted out of poverty, and though hundreds of millions more still suffer greatly from privation and malnutrition, for the first time in its recorded history China is now free from famine.
In 2014 more than 2.1 billion people were overweight, compared to 850 million who suffered from malnutrition. Half of humankind is expected to be overweight by 2030.4 In 2010 famine and malnutrition combined killed about 1 million people, whereas obesity killed 3 million.
Until the modern era, humans blamed diseases on bad air, malicious demons and angry gods, and did not suspect the existence of bacteria and viruses. People readily believed in angels and fairies, but they could not imagine that a tiny flea or a single drop of water might contain an entire armada of deadly predators.
Unbeknown to the explorers and settlers, they brought with them new infectious diseases against which the natives had no immunity. Up to 90 per cent of the local populations died as a result.
On 18 January 1778, the British explorer Captain James Cook reached Hawaii. The Hawaiian islands were densely populated by half a million people, who lived in complete isolation from both Europe and America, and consequently had never been exposed to European and American diseases. Captain Cook and his men introduced the first flu, tuberculosis and syphilis pathogens to Hawaii. Subsequent European visitors added typhoid and smallpox. By 1853, only 70,000 survivors remained in Hawaii.
Until the early twentieth century, about a third of children died before reaching adulthood from a combination of malnutrition and disease.
Global child mortality is at an all-time low: less than 5 per cent of children die before reaching adulthood. In the developed world the rate is less than 1 per cent. This miracle is due to the unprecedented achievements of twentieth-century medicine, which has provided us with vaccinations, antibiotics, improved hygiene and a much better medical infrastructure.
In 2012 about 56 million people died throughout the world; 620,000 of them died due to human violence (war killed 120,000 people, and crime killed another 500,000). In contrast, 800,000 committed suicide, and 1.5 million died of diabetes. Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.
Today the main source of wealth is knowledge. And whereas you can conquer oil fields through war, you cannot acquire knowledge that way. Hence as knowledge became the most important economic resource, the profitability of war declined and wars became increasingly restricted to those parts of the world – such as the Middle East and Central Africa – where the economies are still old-fashioned material-based economies.
Maris said, ‘If you ask me today, is it possible to live to be 500, the answer is yes.’ Maris backs up his brave words with a lot of hard cash. Google Ventures is investing 36 per cent of its $2 billion portfolio in life sciences start-ups, including several ambitious life-extending projects. Using an American football analogy, Maris explained that in the fight against death, ‘We aren’t trying to gain a few yards. We are trying to win the game.’
So long as no bomb shreds them to pieces or no truck runs them over, they could go on living indefinitely. Which will probably make them the most anxious people in history. We mortals daily take chances with our lives, because we know they are going to end anyhow. So we go on treks in the Himalayas, swim in the sea, and do many other dangerous things like crossing the street or eating out. But if you believe you can live for ever, you would be crazy to gamble on infinity like that.
In 1900 global life expectancy was no higher than forty because many people died young from malnutrition, infectious diseases and violence. Yet those who escaped famine, plague and war could live well into their seventies and eighties, which is the natural life span of Homo sapiens. Contrary to common notions, seventy-year-olds weren’t considered rare freaks of nature in previous centuries. Galileo Galilei died at seventy-seven, Isaac Newton at eighty-four, and Michelangelo lived to the ripe age of eighty-eight, without any help from antibiotics, vaccinations or organ transplants.
In truth, so far modern medicine hasn’t extended our natural life span by a single year. Its great achievement has been to save us from premature death, and allow us to enjoy the full measure of our years. Even if we now overcome cancer, diabetes and the other major killers, it would mean only that almost everyone will get to live to ninety.
When Otto von Bismarck pioneered state pensions and social security in late nineteenth-century Germany, his chief aim was to ensure the loyalty of the citizens rather than to increase their well-being. You fought for your country when you were eighteen, and paid your taxes when you were forty, because you counted on the state to take care of you when you were seventy.
In Peru, Guatemala, the Philippines and Albania – developing countries suffering from poverty and political instability – about one person in 100,000 commits suicide each year. In rich and peaceful countries such as Switzerland, France, Japan and New Zealand, twenty-five people per 100,000 take their own lives annually.
It took just a piece of bread to make a starving medieval peasant joyful. How do you bring joy to a bored, overpaid and overweight engineer?
It appears that our happiness bangs against some mysterious glass ceiling that does not allow it to grow despite all our unprecedented accomplishments. Even if we provide free food for everybody, cure all diseases and ensure world peace, it won’t necessarily shatter that glass ceiling. Achieving real happiness is not going to be much easier than overcoming old age and death.
Alas, the exciting sensations of the race are as transient as the blissful sensations of victory. The Don Juan enjoying the thrill of a one-night stand, the businessman enjoying biting his fingernails watching the Dow Jones rise and fall, and the gamer enjoying killing monsters on the computer screen will find no satisfaction remembering yesterday’s adventures. Like the rats pressing the pedal again and again, the Don Juans, business tycoons and gamers need a new kick every day.
If science is right and our happiness is determined by our biochemical system, then the only way to ensure lasting contentment is by rigging this system. Forget economic growth, social reforms and political revolutions: in order to raise global happiness levels, we need to manipulate human biochemistry. And this is exactly what we have begun doing over the last few decades. Fifty years ago psychiatric drugs carried a severe stigma. Today, that stigma has been broken. For better or worse, a growing percentage of the population is taking psychiatric medicines on a regular basis, not only to cure debilitating mental illnesses, but also to face more mundane depressions and the occasional blues.
The state hopes to regulate the biochemical pursuit of happiness, separating ‘bad’ manipulations from ‘good’ ones. The principle is clear: biochemical manipulations that strengthen political stability, social order and economic growth are allowed and even encouraged (e.g. those that calm hyperactive kids in school, or drive anxious soldiers forward into battle). Manipulations that threaten stability and growth are banned. But each year new drugs are born in the research labs of universities, pharmaceutical companies and criminal organisations, and the needs of the state and the market also keep changing. As the biochemical pursuit of happiness accelerates, so it will reshape politics, society and economics, and it will become ever harder to bring it under control.
Some 2,300 years ago Epicurus warned his disciples that immoderate pursuit of pleasure is likely to make them miserable rather than happy. A couple of centuries earlier Buddha had made an even more radical claim, teaching that the pursuit of pleasant sensations is in fact the very root of suffering. Such sensations are just ephemeral and meaningless vibrations. Even when we experience them, we don’t react to them with contentment; rather, we just crave for more. Hence no matter how many blissful or exciting sensations I may experience, they will never satisfy me.
With each passing year our tolerance for unpleasant sensations decreases, and our craving for pleasant sensations increases. Both scientific research and economic activity are geared to that end, each year producing better painkillers, new ice-cream flavours, more comfortable mattresses, and more addictive games for our smartphones, so that we will not suffer a single boring moment while waiting for the bus.
Biological engineering starts with the insight that we are far from realising the full potential of organic bodies. For 4 billion years natural selection has been tweaking and tinkering with these bodies, so that we have gone from amoeba to reptiles to mammals to Sapiens. Yet there is no reason to think that Sapiens is the last station. Relatively small changes in genes, hormones and neurons were enough to transform Homo erectus – who could produce nothing more impressive than flint knives – into Homo sapiens, who produces spaceships and computers. Who knows what might be the outcome of a few more changes to our DNA, hormonal system or brain structure.
In the twenty-first century, the third big project of humankind will be to acquire for us divine powers of creation and destruction, and upgrade Homo sapiens into Homo deus. This third project obviously subsumes the first two projects, and is fuelled by them. We want the ability to re-engineer our bodies and minds in order, above all, to escape old age, death and misery, but once we have it, who knows what else we might do with such ability? So we may well think of the new human agenda as consisting really of only one project (with many branches): attaining divinity.
Throughout history most gods were believed to enjoy not omnipotence but rather specific super-abilities such as the ability to design and create living beings; to transform their own bodies; to control the environment and the weather; to read minds and to communicate at a distance; to travel at very high speeds; and of course to escape death and live indefinitely. Humans are in the business of acquiring all these abilities, and then some.
If and when we get there, however, divinity will become as mundane as cyberspace – a wonder of wonders that we just take for granted.
Once stem-cell research enables us to create an unlimited supply of human embryos on the cheap, you can select your optimal baby from among hundreds of candidates, all carrying your DNA, all perfectly natural, and none requiring any futuristic genetic engineering. Iterate this procedure for a few generations, and you could easily end up with superhumans (or a creepy dystopia).
Movements seeking to change the world often begin by rewriting history, thereby enabling people to reimagine the future. Whether you want workers to go on a general strike, women to take possession of their bodies, or oppressed minorities to demand political rights – the first step is to retell their history. The new history will explain that ‘our present situation is neither natural nor eternal. Things were different once. Only a string of chance events created the unjust world we know today. If we act wisely, we can change that world, and create a much better one.’ This is why Marxists recount the history of capitalism; why feminists study the formation of patriarchal societies; and why African Americans commemorate the horrors of the slave trade. They aim not to perpetuate the past, but rather to be liberated from it.
Whether you want workers to go on a general strike, women to take possession of their bodies, or oppressed minorities to demand political rights – the first step is to retell their history. The new history will explain that ‘our present situation is neither natural nor eternal.
Well-kept lawns demanded land and a lot of work, particularly in the days before lawnmowers and automatic water sprinklers. In exchange, they produce nothing of value. You can’t even graze animals on them, because they would eat and trample the grass. Poor peasants could not afford wasting precious land or time on lawns. The neat turf at the entrance to chateaux was accordingly a status symbol nobody could fake. It boldly proclaimed to every passerby: ‘I am so rich and powerful, and I have so many acres and serfs, that I can afford this green extravaganza.’ The bigger and neater the lawn, the more powerful the dynasty. If you came to visit a duke and saw that his lawn was in bad shape, you knew he was in trouble.
Humans thereby came to identify lawns with political power, social status and economic wealth.
The Bible, along with its belief in human distinctiveness, was one of the by-products of the Agricultural Revolution, which initiated a new phase in human–animal relations. The advent of farming produced new waves of mass extinctions, but more importantly, it created a completely new life form on earth: domesticated animals. Initially this development was of minor importance, since humans managed to domesticate fewer than twenty species of mammals and birds, compared to the countless thousands of species that remained ‘wild’. Yet with the passing of the centuries, this novel life form became dominant. Today more than 90 per cent of all large animals are domesticated.
Professor Stanley Curtis of the Pennsylvania State University trained two pigs – named Hamlet and Omelette – to control a special joystick with their snouts, and found that the pigs soon rivalled primates in learning and playing simple computer games. Today most sows in industrial farms don’t play computer games. They are locked by their human masters in tiny gestation crates, usually measuring two metres by sixty centimetres. The crates have a concrete floor and metal bars, and hardly allow the pregnant sows even to turn around or sleep on their side, never mind walk. After three and a half months in such conditions, the sows are moved to slightly wider crates, where they give birth and nurse their piglets. Whereas piglets would naturally suckle for ten to twenty weeks, in industrial farms they are forcibly weaned within two to four weeks, separated from their mother and shipped to be fattened and slaughtered. The mother is immediately impregnated again, and sent back to the gestation crate to start another cycle. The typical sow would go through five to ten such cycles before being slaughtered herself.
In recent decades life scientists have demonstrated that emotions are not some mysterious spiritual phenomenon that is useful just for writing poetry and composing symphonies. Rather, emotions are biochemical algorithms that are vital for the survival and reproduction of all mammals. What does this mean? Well, let’s begin by explaining what an algorithm is.
An algorithm is a methodical set of steps that can be used to make calculations, resolve problems and reach decisions. An algorithm isn’t a particular calculation, but the method followed when making the calculation.
The algorithms controlling vending machines work through mechanical gears and electric circuits. The algorithms controlling humans work through sensations, emotions and thoughts. And exactly the same kind of algorithms control pigs, baboons, otters and chickens.
Even Nobel laureates in economics make only a tiny fraction of their decisions using pen, paper and calculator; 99 per cent of our decisions – including the most important life choices concerning spouses, careers and habitats – are made by the highly refined algorithms we call sensations, emotions and desires.
Only in the 1950s and 1960s did a growing consensus of experts abandon these strict behaviourist theories and acknowledge the central importance of emotional needs.
In a series of famous (and shockingly cruel) experiments, the psychologist Harry Harlow separated infant monkeys from their mothers shortly after birth, and isolated them in small cages. When given a choice between a metal dummy-mother fitted with a milk bottle, and a soft cloth-covered dummy with no milk, the baby monkeys clung to the barren cloth mother for all they were worth.
Those baby monkeys knew something that John Watson and the experts of Infant Care failed to realise: mammals can’t live on food alone. They need emotional bonds too. Millions of years of evolution preprogrammed the monkeys with an overwhelming desire for emotional bonding. Evolution also imprinted them with the assumption that emotional bonds are more likely to be formed with soft furry things than with hard and metallic objects. (This is also why small human children are far more likely to become attached to dolls, blankets and smelly rags than to cutlery, stones or wooden blocks.) The need for emotional bonds is so strong that Harlow’s baby monkeys abandoned the nourishing metal dummy and turned their attention to the only object that seemed capable of answering that need. Alas, the cloth-mother never responded to their affection and the little monkeys consequently suffered from severe psychological and social problems, and grew up to be neurotic and asocial adults.
We normally think that theist religions sanctified the great gods. We tend to forget that they sanctified humans, too. Hitherto Homo sapiens had been just one actor in a cast of thousands. In the new theist drama, Sapiens became the central hero around whom the entire universe revolved. The gods, meanwhile, were given two related roles to play. Firstly, they explained what is so special about Sapiens and why humans should dominate and exploit all other organisms. Christianity, for example, maintained that humans hold sway over the rest of creation because the Creator charged them with that authority. Moreover, according to Christianity, God gave an eternal soul only to humans. Since the fate of this eternal soul is the point of the whole Christian cosmos, and since animals have no soul, they are mere extras.
Other religions, particularly Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism, have demonstrated even greater empathy to animals. They emphasise the connection between humans and the rest of the ecosystem, and their foremost ethical commandment has been to avoid killing any living being. Whereas the biblical ‘Thou shalt not kill’ covered only humans, the ancient Indian principle of ahimsa (non-violence) extends to every sentient being.
The rise of modern science and industry brought about the next revolution in human–animal relations. During the Agricultural Revolution humankind silenced animals and plants, and turned the animist grand opera into a dialogue between man and gods. During the Scientific Revolution humankind silenced the gods too. The world was now a one-man show. Humankind stood alone on an empty stage, talking to itself, negotiating with no one and acquiring enormous powers without any obligations. Having deciphered the mute laws of physics, chemistry and biology, humankind now does with them as it pleases.
In the Garden of Eden myth, humans are punished for their curiosity and for their wish to gain knowledge. God expels them from Paradise. In the Garden of Woolsthorpe myth, nobody punishes Newton – just the opposite. Thanks to his curiosity humankind gains a better understanding of the universe, becomes more powerful and takes another step towards the technological paradise. Untold numbers of teachers throughout the world recount the Newton myth to encourage curiosity, implying that if only we gain enough knowledge, we can create paradise here on earth.
Whereas theism justified traditional agriculture in the name of God, humanism has justified modern industrial farming in the name of Man. Industrial farming sanctifies human needs, whims and wishes, while disregarding everything else. Industrial farming has no real interest in animals, which don’t share the sanctity of human nature. And it has no use for gods, because modern science and technology give humans powers that far exceed those of the ancient gods. Science enables modern firms to subjugate cows, pigs and chickens to more extreme conditions than those prevailing in traditional agricultural societies.
Once modern science deciphered the secrets of epidemics, pathogens and antibiotics, industrial coops, pens and pigsties became feasible. With the help of vaccinations, medications, hormones, pesticides, central air-conditioning systems and automatic feeders, it is now possible to pack tens of thousands of pigs, cows or chickens into neat rows of cramped cages, and produce meat, milk and eggs with unprecedented efficiency.
If and when computer programs attain superhuman intelligence and unprecedented power, should we begin valuing these programs more than we value humans? Would it be okay, for example, for an artificial intelligence to exploit humans and even kill them to further its own needs and desires? If it should never be allowed to do that, despite its superior intelligence and power, why is it ethical for humans to exploit and kill pigs?
The belief that humans have eternal souls whereas animals are just evanescent bodies is a central pillar of our legal, political and economic system. It explains why, for example, it is perfectly okay for humans to kill animals for food, or even just for the fun of it.
Scientists have subjected Homo sapiens to tens of thousands of bizarre experiments, and looked into every nook in our hearts and every cranny in our brains. But they have so far discovered no magical spark. There is zero scientific evidence that in contrast to pigs, Sapiens have souls.
Darwin has deprived us of our souls. If you really understand the theory of evolution, you understand that there is no soul. This is a terrifying thought not only to devout Christians and Muslims, but also to many secular people who don’t hold any clear religious dogma, but nevertheless want to believe that each human possesses an eternal individual essence that remains unchanged throughout life, and can survive even death intact.
Evolution means change, and is incapable of producing everlasting entities. From an evolutionary perspective, the closest thing we have to a human essence is our DNA, and the DNA molecule is the vehicle of mutation rather than the seat of eternity. This terrifies large numbers of people, who prefer to reject the theory of evolution rather than give up their souls.
According to current biological theories, our memories, imaginations and thoughts don’t exist in some higher immaterial field. Rather, they too are avalanches of electric signals fired by billions of neurons. Hence even when we figure in memories, imaginations and thoughts, we are still left with a series of electrochemical reactions that pass through billions of neurons, ending with the activity of adrenal glands and leg muscles.
Despite the vast knowledge we have gained in the fields of mathematics and computer science, none of the data-processing systems we have created needs subjective experiences in order to function, and none feels pain, pleasure, anger or love.
Consciousness is the biologically useless by-product of certain brain processes. Jet engines roar loudly, but the noise doesn’t propel the aeroplane forward. Humans don’t need carbon dioxide, but each and every breath fills the air with more of the stuff. Similarly, consciousness may be a kind of mental pollution produced by the firing of complex neural networks. It doesn’t do anything. It is just there. If this is true, it implies that all the pain and pleasure experienced by billions of creatures for millions of years is just mental pollution. This is certainly a thought worth thinking, even if it isn’t true. But it is quite amazing to realise that as of 2016, this is the best theory of consciousness that contemporary science has to offer us.
Everything a human does – including reporting on allegedly conscious states – might in theory be the work of non-conscious algorithms.
Twenty thousand years ago, the average Sapiens probably had higher intelligence and better toolmaking skills than the average Sapiens of today. Modern schools and employers may test our aptitudes from time to time but, no matter how badly we do, the welfare state always guarantees our basic needs. In the Stone Age natural selection tested you every single moment of every single day, and if you flunked any of its numerous tests you were pushing up the daisies in no time.
In order to mount a revolution, numbers are never enough. Revolutions are usually made by small networks of agitators rather than by the masses. If you want to launch a revolution, don’t ask yourself, ‘How many people support my ideas?’ Instead, ask yourself, ‘How many of my supporters are capable of effective collaboration?’ The Russian Revolution finally erupted not when 180 million peasants rose against the tsar, but rather when a handful of communists placed themselves at the right place at the right time. In 1917, at a time when the Russian upper and middle classes numbered at least 3 million people, the Communist Party had just 23,000 members. The communists nevertheless gained control of the vast Russian Empire because they organised themselves well.
The Egyptian Revolution of 2011. What television did in 1989, Facebook and Twitter did in 2011. The new media helped the masses coordinate their activities, so that thousands of people flooded the streets and squares at the right moment and toppled the Mubarak regime. However, it is one thing to bring 100,000 people to Tahrir Square, and quite another to get a grip on the political machinery, shake the right hands in the right back rooms and run a country effectively. Consequently, when Mubarak stepped down the demonstrators could not fill the vacuum. Egypt had only two institutions sufficiently organised to rule the country: the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. Hence the revolution was hijacked first by the Brotherhood, and eventually by the army.
Sapiens don’t behave according to a cold mathematical logic, but rather according to a warm social logic. We are ruled by emotions. These emotions, as we saw earlier, are in fact sophisticated algorithms that reflect the social mechanisms of ancient hunter-gatherer bands.
As long as all Sapiens living in a particular locality believe in the same stories, they all follow the same rules, making it easy to predict the behaviour of strangers and to organise mass-cooperation networks. Sapiens often use visual marks such as a turban, a beard or a business suit to signal ‘you can trust me, I believe in the same story as you’. Our chimpanzee cousins cannot invent and spread such stories, which is why they cannot cooperate in large numbers.
People find it difficult to understand the idea of ‘imagined orders’ because they assume that there are only two types of realities: objective realities and subjective realities.
However, there is a third level of reality: the intersubjective level. Intersubjective entities depend on communication among many humans rather than on the beliefs and feelings of individual humans. Many of the most important agents in history are intersubjective. Money, for example, has no objective value. You cannot eat, drink or wear a dollar bill. Yet as long as billions of people believe in its value, you can use it to buy food, beverages and clothing.
The value of money is not the only thing that might evaporate once people stop believing in it. The same can happen to laws, gods and even entire empires. One moment they are busy shaping the world, and the next moment they no longer exist.
People weave a web of meaning, believe in it with all their heart, but sooner or later the web unravels, and when we look back we cannot understand how anybody could have taken it seriously. With hindsight, going on crusade in the hope of reaching Paradise sounds like utter madness.
Sapiens rule the world because only they can weave an intersubjective web of meaning: a web of laws, forces, entities and places that exist purely in their common imagination. This web allows humans alone to organise crusades, socialist revolutions and human rights movements.
In illiterate societies people make all calculations and decisions in their heads. In literate societies people are organised into networks, so that each person is only a small step in a huge algorithm, and it is the algorithm as a whole that makes the important decisions. This is the essence of bureaucracy.
Written language may have been conceived as a modest way of describing reality, but it gradually became a powerful way to reshape reality. When official reports collided with objective reality, it was often reality that had to give way. Anyone who has ever dealt with the tax authorities, the educational system or any other complex bureaucracy knows that the truth hardly matters. What’s written on your form is far more important.
The borders of many African countries disregard river lines, mountain ranges and trade routes, split historical and economic zones unnecessarily, and ignore local ethnic and religious identities. The same tribe may find itself riven between several countries, whereas one country may incorporate splinters of numerous rival clans. Such problems bedevil countries all over the world, but in Africa they are particularly acute because modern African borders don’t reflect the wishes and struggles of local nations. They were drawn by European bureaucrats who never set foot in Africa.
During the second half of the twentieth century, as the European empires disintegrated and the colonies gained their independence, the new countries accepted the colonial borders, fearing that the alternative would be endless wars and conflicts. Many of the difficulties faced by present-day African countries stem from the fact that their borders make little sense. When the written fantasies of European bureaucracies encountered the African reality, reality was forced to surrender.
Originally, schools were supposed to focus on enlightening and educating students, and marks were merely a means of measuring success. But naturally enough, schools soon began focusing on getting high marks. As every child, teacher and inspector knows, the skills required to get high marks in an exam are not the same as a true understanding of literature, biology or mathematics. Every child, teacher and inspector also knows that when forced to choose between the two, most schools will go for the marks.
Self-absorption characterises all humans in their childhood. Children of all religions and cultures think they are the centre of the world, and therefore show little genuine interest in the conditions and feelings of other people. That’s why divorce is so traumatic for children. A five-year-old cannot understand that something important is happening for reasons unrelated to him. No matter how many times you tell him that mummy and daddy are independent people with their own problems and wishes, and that they didn’t divorce because of him – the child cannot absorb that. He is convinced that everything happens because of him. Most people grow out of this infantile delusion. Monotheists hold on to it till the day they die. Like a child thinking that his parents are fighting because of him, the monotheist is convinced that the Persians are fighting the Babylonians because of him.
Fictions enable us to cooperate better. The price we pay is that the same fictions also determine the goals of our cooperation. So we may have very elaborate systems of cooperation, which are harnessed to serve fictional aims and interests. Consequently the system may seem to be working well, but only if we adopt the system’s own criteria. For example, a Muslim mullah would say: ‘Our system works. There are now 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide, and more people study the Qur’an and submit themselves to Allah’s will than ever before.’ The key question, though, is whether this is the right yardstick for measuring success. A school principal would say: ‘Our system works. During the last five years, exam results have risen by 7.3 per cent.’ Yet is that the best way to judge a school? An official in ancient Egypt would say: ‘Our system works. We collect more taxes, dig more canals and build bigger pyramids than anyone else in the world.’ True enough, pharaonic Egypt led the world in taxation, irrigation and pyramid construction. But is that what really counts?
Despite all the immense achievements of the Chinese dynasties, the Muslim empires and the European kingdoms, even in AD 1850 the life of the average person was not better – and might actually have been worse – than the lives of archaic hunter-gatherers. In 1850 a Chinese peasant or a Manchester factory hand worked longer hours than their hunter-gatherer ancestors; their jobs were physically harder and mentally less fulfilling; their diet was less balanced; hygiene conditions were incomparably worse; and infectious diseases were far more common.
It is often said that God helps those who help themselves. This is a roundabout way of saying that God doesn’t exist, but if our belief in Him inspires us to do something ourselves – it helps.
Liberals, communists and followers of other modern creeds dislike describing their own system as a ‘religion’, because they identify religion with superstitions and supernatural powers. If you tell communists or liberals that they are religious, they think you accuse them of blindly believing in groundless pipe dreams. In fact, it means only that they believe in some system of moral laws that wasn’t invented by humans, but which humans must nevertheless obey. As far as we know, all human societies believe in this. Every society tells its members that they must obey some superhuman moral law, and that breaking this law will result in catastrophe.
Science always needs religious assistance in order to create viable human institutions. Scientists study how the world functions, but there is no scientific method for determining how humans ought to behave. Science tells us that humans cannot survive without oxygen. However, is it okay to execute criminals by asphyxiation? Science doesn’t know how to answer such a question. Only religions provide us with the necessary guidance.
The Catholic religion markets itself as the religion of universal love and compassion. How wonderful! Who can object to that? Why, then, are not all humans Catholic? Because when you read the small print, you discover that Catholicism also demands blind obedience to a pope ‘who never makes mistakes’ even when he orders us to go on crusades and burn heretics at the stake.
Devout Jews and Christians say that at least the book of Leviticus was dictated by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, and from that moment onwards not a single letter was either added or deleted from it. ‘But,’ the scientist would insist, ‘how can we be sure of that?
Most peer-reviewed scientific studies agree that the Bible is a collection of numerous different texts composed by different people in different times, and that these texts were not assembled into a single holy book until long after biblical times. For example, whereas King David probably lived around 1000 BC, it is commonly accepted that the book of Deuteronomy was composed in the court of King Josiah of Judah, sometime around 620 BC, as part of a propaganda campaign aimed to strengthen Josiah’s authority. Leviticus was compiled at an even later date, no earlier than 500 BC.
Religion provides the ethical justification for scientific research, and in exchange gets to influence the scientific agenda and the uses of scientific discoveries. Hence you cannot understand the history of science without taking religious beliefs into account. Scientists seldom dwell on this fact, but the Scientific Revolution itself began in one of the most dogmatic, intolerant and religious societies in history.
Religion is interested above all in order. It aims to create and maintain the social structure. Science is interested above all in power. It aims to acquire the power to cure diseases, fight wars and produce food. As individuals, scientists and priests may give immense importance to the truth; but as collective institutions, science and religion prefer order and power over truth. They can therefore make good bedfellows. The uncompromising quest for truth is a spiritual journey, which can seldom remain within the confines of either religious or scientific establishments.
Modernity is a deal. All of us sign up to this deal on the day we are born, and it regulates our lives until the day we die.
Modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.
Up until modern times, most cultures believed that humans play a part in some great cosmic plan. The plan was devised by the omnipotent gods, or by the eternal laws of nature, and humankind could not change it.
Modern culture rejects this belief in a great cosmic plan. We are not actors in any larger-than-life drama. Life has no script, no playwright, no director, no producer – and no meaning. To the best of our scientific understanding, the universe is a blind and purposeless process, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.
The most famous lenders in nature are vampire bats. These vampires congregate in their thousands inside caves, and every night they fly out to look for prey. When they find a sleeping bird or a careless mammal, they make a small incision in its skin, and suck its blood. Not all bats find a victim every night. In order to cope with the uncertainty of their life, the vampires loan blood to each other.
In China the Communist Party still pays lip service to traditional Marxist–Leninist ideals, but in practice it is guided by Deng Xiaoping’s famous maxims that ‘development is the only hard truth’ and that ‘it doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice’. Which means, in plain language: do anything it takes to promote economic growth, even if Marx and Lenin wouldn’t have been happy with it.
We will never reach a moment when capitalism says: ‘That’s it. You have grown enough. You can now take it easy.’
The greatest scientific discovery was the discovery of ignorance. Once humans realised how little they knew about the world, they suddenly had a very good reason to seek new knowledge, which opened up the scientific road to progress.
There and only there will she find the answers. Whereas medieval priests had a hotline to God, and could distinguish for us between good and evil, modern therapists merely help us get in touch with our own inner feelings.
The scientific formula for knowledge led to astounding breakthroughs in astronomy, physics, medicine and countless other disciplines. But it had one huge drawback: it could not deal with questions of value and meaning. Medieval pundits could determine with absolute certainty that it is wrong to murder and steal, and that the purpose of human life is to do God’s bidding, because scriptures said so. Scientists could not come up with such ethical judgements. No amount of data and no mathematical wizardry can prove that it is wrong to murder. Yet human societies cannot survive without such value judgements.
Wilhelm von Humboldt – one of the chief architects of the modern education system – said that the aim of existence is ‘a distillation of the widest possible experience of life into wisdom’. He also wrote that ‘there is only one summit in life – to have taken the measure in feeling of everything human’.4 This could well be the humanist motto.
For thousands of years, when people looked at war, they saw gods, emperors, generals and great heroes. But over the last two centuries, the kings and generals have been increasingly pushed to the side, and the limelight shifted onto the common soldier and his experiences.
‘War is not what you see in the movies!’ warn Hollywood blockbusters such as Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and Blackhawk Down. Enshrined in celluloid, prose or poetry, the feelings of the ordinary grunt have become the ultimate authority on war, which everyone has learned to respect. As the joke goes, ‘How many Vietnam vets does it take to change a light bulb?’ ‘You wouldn’t know, you weren’t there.’
Humanism split into three main branches. The orthodox branch holds that each human being is a unique individual possessing a distinctive inner voice and a never-to-be-repeated string of experiences. Every human being is a singular ray of light, which illuminates the world from a different perspective, and which adds colour, depth and meaning to the universe.
On 17 July 2015 the German chancellor Angela Merkel was confronted by a teenage Palestinian refugee girl from Lebanon, whose family sought asylum in Germany but faced imminent deportation. The girl, Reem, told Merkel in fluent German that ‘It’s really very hard to watch how other people can enjoy life and you yourself can’t.
In the ensuing public storm, many accused Merkel of cold-hearted insensitivity. To assuage criticism, Merkel changed tack, and Reem and her family were given asylum. In the following months, Merkel opened the door even wider, welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees to Germany.
In 1956 the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, confidently told the liberal West that ‘Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!’
By 1970 the world contained 130 independent countries, but only thirty of these were liberal democracies, most of which were crammed into the north-western corner of Europe.
In 1975 the liberal camp suffered its most humiliating defeat of all: the Vietnam War ended with the North Vietnamese David overcoming the American Goliath. In quick succession communism took over South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. On 17 April 1975 the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, fell to the Khmer Rouge. Two weeks later, people all over the world watched as helicopters evacuated the last Yankees from the rooftop of the American Embassy in Saigon. Many were certain that the American Empire was falling. Before anyone could say ‘domino theory’, on 25 June Indira Gandhi proclaimed the Emergency in India, and it seemed that the world’s largest democracy was on its way to becoming yet another socialist dictatorship.
Liberal democracy was saved only by nuclear weapons. NATO adopted the doctrine of MAD (mutual assured destruction), according to which even conventional Soviet attacks would be answered by an all-out nuclear strike. ‘If you attack us,’ threatened the liberals, ‘we will make sure nobody comes out of it alive.’ Behind this monstrous shield, liberal democracy and the free market managed to hold out in their last bastions, and Westerners could enjoy sex, drugs and rock and roll, as well as washing machines, refrigerators and televisions. Without nukes, there would have been no Woodstock, no Beatles and no overflowing supermarkets.
Liberal democracy crawled out of history’s dustbin, cleaned itself up and conquered the world. The supermarket proved to be far stronger than the gulag. The blitzkrieg began in southern Europe, where the authoritarian regimes in Greece, Spain and Portugal collapsed, giving way to democratic governments. In 1977 Indira Gandhi ended the Emergency, re-establishing democracy in India. During the 1980s military dictatorships in East Asia and Latin America were replaced by democratic governments in countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Taiwan and South Korea. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the liberal wave turned into a veritable tsunami, sweeping away the mighty Soviet Empire, and raising expectations of the coming end of history. After decades of defeats and setbacks, liberalism won a decisive victory in the Cold War, emerging triumphant from the humanist wars of religion, albeit a bit worse for wear.
New technologies kill old gods and give birth to new gods.
Radical Islam may promise an anchor of certainty in a world of technological and economic storms – but in order to navigate a storm, you need a map and a rudder rather than just an anchor. Hence radical Islam may appeal to people born and raised in its fold, but it has precious little to offer unemployed Spanish youths or anxious Chinese billionaires.
When genetic engineering and artificial intelligence reveal their full potential, liberalism, democracy and free markets might become as obsolete as flint knives, tape cassettes, Islam and communism.
To the best of our scientific understanding, determinism and randomness have divided the entire cake between them, leaving not even a crumb for ‘freedom’. The sacred word ‘freedom’ turns out to be, just like ‘soul’, an empty term that carries no discernible meaning. Free will exists only in the imaginary stories we humans have invented.
Today we can use brain scanners to predict people’s desires and decisions well before they are aware of them. In one kind of experiment, people are placed within a huge brain scanner, holding a switch in each hand. They are asked to press one of the two switches whenever they feel like it. Scientists observing neural activity in the brain can predict which switch the person will press well before the person actually does so, and even before the person is aware of their own intention. Neural events in the brain indicating the person’s decision begin from a few hundred milliseconds to a few seconds before the person is aware of this choice.
I don’t choose my desires. I only feel them, and act accordingly.
If you look really deep within yourself, the seeming unity that we take for granted dissolves into a cacophony of conflicting voices, none of which is ‘my true self’.
If you look really deep within yourself, the seeming unity that we take for granted dissolves into a cacophony of conflicting voices, none of which is ‘my true self’. Humans aren’t individuals. They are ‘dividuals’.
The cold-water experiment is so simple, yet its implications shake the core of the liberal world view. It exposes the existence of at least two different selves within us: the experiencing self and the narrating self. The experiencing self is our moment-to-moment consciousness.
Like every journalist, poet and politician, the narrating self takes many short cuts. It doesn’t narrate everything, and usually weaves the story only from peak moments and end results. The value of the whole experience is determined by averaging peaks with ends.
Every time the narrating self evaluates our experiences, it discounts their duration, and adopts the ‘peak-end rule’ – it remembers only the peak moment and the end moment, and evaluates the whole experience according to their average. This has far-reaching impact on all our practical decisions.
A crippled soldier who lost his legs would rather tell himself, ‘I sacrificed myself for the glory of the eternal Italian nation!’ than ‘I lost my legs because I was stupid enough to believe self-serving politicians.’ It is much easier to live with the fantasy, because the fantasy gives meaning to the suffering.
Cyber-wars, however, may last just a few minutes. When a lieutenant on shift at cyber-command notices something odd is going on, she picks up the phone to call her superior, who immediately alerts the White House. Alas, by the time the president reaches for the red handset, the war has already been lost. Within seconds, a sufficiently sophisticated cyber strike might shut down the US power grid, wreck US flight control centres, cause numerous industrial accidents in nuclear plants and chemical installations, disrupt the police, army and intelligence communication networks – and wipe out financial records so that trillions of dollars simply vanish without trace and nobody knows who owns what. The only thing curbing public hysteria is that with the Internet, television and radio down, people will not be aware of the full magnitude of the disaster.
As far as we know, computers in 2016 are no more conscious than their prototypes in the 1950s. However, we are on the brink of a momentous revolution. Humans are in danger of losing their value, because intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.
Organisms are algorithms. Every animal – including Homo sapiens – is an assemblage of organic algorithms shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution.
In the twenty-first century we might witness the creation of a new massive class: people devoid of any economic, political or even artistic value, who contribute nothing to the prosperity, power and glory of society.
The crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms.
It would be extremely difficult for humans to control the motivation of a system smarter than themselves. Even preprogramming the system with seemingly benign goals might backfire horribly. One popular scenario imagines a corporation designing the first artificial super-intelligence, and giving it an innocent test such as calculating pi. Before anyone realises what is happening, the AI takes over the planet, eliminates the human race, launches a conquest campaign to the ends of the galaxy, and transforms the entire known universe into a giant super-computer that for billions upon billions of years calculates pi ever more accurately. After all, this is the divine mission its Creator gave it.
The Quantified Self movement argues that the self is nothing but mathematical patterns. These patterns are so complex that the human mind has no chance of understanding them. So if you wish to obey the old adage and know thyself, you should not waste your time on philosophy, meditation or psychoanalysis, but rather you should systematically collect biometric data and allow algorithms to analyse them for you and tell you who you are and what you should do. The movement’s motto is ‘Self-knowledge through numbers’.
A recent study commissioned by Google’s nemesis – Facebook – has indicated that already today the Facebook algorithm is a better judge of human personalities and dispositions even than people’s friends, parents and spouses. The study was conducted on 86,220 volunteers who have a Facebook account and who completed a hundred-item personality questionnaire. The Facebook algorithm predicted the volunteers’ answers based on monitoring their Facebook Likes – which webpages, images and clips they tagged with the Like button. The more Likes, the more accurate the predictions. The algorithm’s predictions were compared with those of work colleagues, friends, family members and spouses. Amazingly, the algorithm needed a set of only ten Likes in order to outperform the predictions of work colleagues. It needed seventy Likes to outperform friends, 150 Likes to outperform family members and 300 Likes to outperform spouses.
The individual will not be crushed by Big Brother; it will disintegrate from within. Today corporations and governments pay homage to my individuality, and promise to provide medicine, education and entertainment customised to my unique needs and wishes. But in order to so, corporations and governments first need to break me up into biochemical subsystems, monitor these subsystems with ubiquitous sensors and decipher their working with powerful algorithms. In the process, the individual will transpire to be nothing but a religious fantasy. Reality will be a mesh of biochemical and electronic algorithms, without clear borders, and without individual hubs.
As of early 2016, the sixty-two richest people in the world were worth as much as the poorest 3.6 billion people! Since the world’s population is about 7.2 billion, it means that these sixty-two billionaires together hold as much wealth as the entire bottom half of humankind.
New techno-religions can be divided into two main types: techno-humanism and data religion. Data religion argues that humans have completed their cosmic task, and they should now pass the torch on to entirely new kinds of entities. We will discuss the dreams and nightmares of data religion in the next chapter. This chapter is dedicated to the more conservative creed of techno-humanism, which still sees humans as the apex of creation and clings to many traditional humanist values. Techno-humanism agrees that Homo sapiens as we know it has run its historical course and will no longer be relevant in the future, but concludes that we should therefore use technology in order to create Homo deus – a much superior human model.
Seventy thousand years ago the Cognitive Revolution transformed the Sapiens mind, thereby turning an insignificant African ape into the ruler of the world. The improved Sapiens minds suddenly had access to the vast intersubjective realm, which enabled us to create gods and corporations, to build cities and empires, to invent writing and money, and eventually to split the atom and reach the moon. As far as we know, this earth-shattering revolution resulted from a few small changes in the Sapiens DNA, and a slight rewiring of the Sapiens brain. If so, says techno-humanism, maybe a few additional changes to our genome and another rewiring of our brain will suffice for launching a second cognitive revolution. The mental renovations of the first Cognitive Revolution gave Homo sapiens access to the intersubjective realm and turned us into the rulers of the planet; a second cognitive revolution might give Homo deus access to unimaginable new realms and turn us into the lords of the galaxy.
We are akin to the inhabitants of a small isolated island who have just invented the first boat, and are about to set sail without a map or even a destination.
A bat can tell the difference between a tasty moth species and a poisonous moth species by the different echoes returning from their slender wings. Some edible moth species try to protect themselves by evolving an echo-pattern similar to that of a poisonous species. Other moths have evolved an even more remarkable ability to deflect the waves of the bat radar, so that like stealth bombers they fly around without the bat knowing they are there. The world of echolocation is as complex and stormy as our familiar world of sound and sight, but we are completely oblivious to it.
Beyond the mental spectrum of humans, bats, whales and all other animals, even vaster and stranger continents may lie in wait. In all probability, there is an infinite variety of mental states that no Sapiens, bat or dinosaur ever experienced in 4 billion years of terrestrial evolution, because they did not have the necessary faculties. In the future, however, powerful drugs, genetic engineering, electronic helmets and direct brain–computer interfaces may open passages to these places. Just as Columbus and Magellan sailed beyond the horizon to explore new islands and unknown continents, so we may one day set sail towards the antipodes of the mind.
Sapiens originally evolved as members of small intimate communities, and their mental faculties were not adapted to living as cogs within a giant machine. However, with the rise of cities, kingdoms and empires, the system cultivated capacities required for large-scale cooperation, while disregarding other skills and talents.
In addition to smelling and paying attention, we have also been losing our ability to dream. Many cultures believed that what people see and do in their dreams is no less important than what they see and do while awake. Hence people actively developed their ability to dream, to remember dreams and even to control their actions in the dream world, which is known as ‘lucid dreaming’. Experts in lucid dreaming could move about the dream world at will, and claimed they could even travel to higher planes of existence or meet visitors from other worlds. The modern world, in contrast, dismisses dreams as subconscious messages at best, and mental garbage at worst. Consequently, dreams play a much smaller part in our lives, few people actively develop their dreaming skills, and many people claim that they don’t dream at all, or that they cannot remember any of their dreams.
As any farmer knows, it’s usually the brightest goat in the herd that stirs up the greatest trouble, which is why the Agricultural Revolution involved downgrading animal mental abilities. The second cognitive revolution dreamed up by techno-humanists might do the same to us.
In the 150 years since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the life sciences have come to see organisms as biochemical algorithms. Simultaneously, in the eight decades since Alan Turing formulated the idea of a Turing Machine, computer scientists have learned to engineer increasingly sophisticated electronic algorithms. Dataism puts the two together, pointing out that exactly the same mathematical laws apply to both biochemical and electronic algorithms.
You may not agree with the idea that organisms are algorithms, and that giraffes, tomatoes and human beings are just different methods for processing data. But you should know that this is current scientific dogma, and that it is changing our world beyond recognition.
According to this view, free-market capitalism and state-controlled communism aren’t competing ideologies, ethical creeds or political institutions. At bottom, they are competing data-processing systems. Capitalism uses distributed processing, whereas communism relies on centralised processing. Capitalism processes data by directly connecting all producers and consumers to one another, and allowing them to exchange information freely and make decisions independently. For example, how do you determine the price of bread in a free market? Well, every bakery may produce as much bread as it likes, and charge for it as much as it wants. The customers are equally free to buy as much bread as they can afford, or take their business to the competitor. It isn’t illegal to charge $1,000 for a baguette, but nobody is likely to buy it.
Data-processing considerations also explain why capitalists favour lower taxes. Heavy taxation means that a large part of all available capital accumulates in one place – the state coffers – and consequently more and more decisions have to be made by a single processor, namely the government. This creates an overly centralised data-processing system. In extreme cases, when taxes are exceedingly high, almost all capital ends up in the government’s hands, and so the government alone calls the shots. It dictates the price of bread, the location of bakeries, and the research-and-development budget. In a free market, if one processor makes a wrong decision, others will be quick to utilise its mistake. However, when a single processor makes almost all the decisions, mistakes can be catastrophic.
This extreme situation in which all data is processed and all decisions are made by a single central processor is called communism. In a communist economy, people allegedly work according to their abilities, and receive according to their needs. In other words, the government takes 100 per cent of your profits, decides what you need and then supplies these needs.
When all data is accumulated in one secret bunker, and all important decisions are taken by a group of elderly apparatchiks, you can produce nuclear bombs by the cartload, but you won’t get an Apple or a Wikipedia.
There is a story (probably apocryphal, like most good stories) that when Mikhail Gorbachev tried to resuscitate the moribund Soviet economy, he sent one of his chief aids to London to find out what Thatcherism was all about, and how a capitalist system actually functioned. The hosts took their Soviet visitor on a tour of the City, of the London stock exchange and of the London School of Economics, where he had lengthy talks with bank managers, entrepreneurs and professors. After a few hours, the Soviet expert burst out: ‘Just one moment, please. Forget about all these complicated economic theories. We have been going back and forth across London for a whole day now, and there’s one thing I cannot understand. Back in Moscow, our finest minds are working on the bread supply system, and yet there are such long queues in every bakery and grocery store. Here in London live millions of people, and we have passed today in front of many shops and supermarkets, yet I haven’t seen a single bread queue. Please take me to meet the person in charge of supplying bread to London. I must learn his secret.’ The hosts scratched their heads, thought for a moment, and said: ‘Nobody is in charge of supplying bread to London.’
As data-processing conditions change again in the twenty-first century, democracy might decline and even disappear. As both the volume and speed of data increase, venerable institutions like elections, parties and parliaments might become obsolete – not because they are unethical, but because they don’t process data efficiently enough.
In the twentieth century, dictators had grand visions for the future. Communists and fascists alike sought to completely destroy the old world and build a new world in its place. Whatever you think about Lenin, Hitler or Mao, you cannot accuse them of lacking vision. Today it seems that leaders have a chance to pursue even grander visions. While communists and Nazis tried to create a new society and a new human with the help of steam engines and typewriters, today’s prophets could rely on biotechnology and super-computers.
Precisely because technology is now moving so fast, and parliaments and dictators alike are overwhelmed by data they cannot process quickly enough, present-day politicians are thinking on a far smaller scale than their predecessors a century ago. In the early twenty-first century, politics is consequently bereft of grand visions. Government has become mere administration. It manages the country, but it no longer leads it. It makes sure teachers are paid on time and sewage systems don’t overflow, but it has no idea where the country will be in twenty years.
It is dangerous to trust our future to market forces, because these forces do what’s good for the market rather than what’s good for humankind or for the world. The hand of the market is blind as well as invisible, and left to its own devices it may fail to do anything about the threat of global warming or the dangerous potential of artificial intelligence.
By equating the human experience with data patterns, Dataism undermines our main source of authority and meaning, and heralds a tremendous religious revolution, the like of which has not been seen since the eighteenth century. In the days of Locke, Hume and Voltaire humanists argued that ‘God is a product of the human imagination’. Dataism now gives humanists a taste of their own medicine, and tells them: ‘Yes, God is a product of the human imagination, but human imagination in turn is the product of biochemical algorithms.’
When you read the Bible, you get advice from a few priests and rabbis who lived in ancient Jerusalem. In contrast, when you listen to your feelings, you follow an algorithm that evolution has developed for millions of years, and that withstood the harshest quality tests of natural selection. Your feelings are the voice of millions of ancestors, each of whom managed to survive and reproduce in an unforgiving environment. Your feelings are not infallible, of course, but they are better than most alternatives. For millions upon millions of years, feelings were the best algorithms in the world. Hence in the days of Confucius, of Muhammad or of Stalin, people should have listened to their feelings rather than to the teachings of Confucianism, Islam or communism.
Just as according to Christianity we humans cannot understand God and His plan, so Dataism says the human brain cannot embrace the new master algorithms. At present, of course, the algorithms are mostly written by human hackers. Yet the really important algorithms – such as the Google search algorithm – are developed by huge teams. Each member understands just one part of the puzzle, and nobody really understands the algorithm as a whole. Moreover, with the rise of machine learning and artificial neural networks, more and more algorithms evolve independently, improving themselves and learning from their own mistakes. They analyse astronomical amounts of data, which no human can possibly encompass, and learn to recognise patterns and adopt strategies that escape the human mind. The seed algorithm may initially be developed by humans, but as it grows, it follows its own path, going where no human has gone before – and where no human can follow.
Dataism thereby threatens to do to Homo sapiens what Homo sapiens has done to all other animals. In the course of history humans have created a global network, and evaluated everything according to its function within the network. For thousands of years, this boosted human pride and prejudices. Since humans fulfilled the most important functions in the network, it was easy for us to take credit for the network’s achievements, and to see ourselves as the apex of creation. The lives and experiences of all other animals were undervalued, because they fulfilled far less important functions, and whenever an animal ceased to fulfil any function at all, it went extinct. However, once humans lose their functional importance to the network, we will discover that we are not the apex of creation after all. The yardsticks that we ourselves have enshrined will condemn us to join the mammoths and the Chinese river dolphins in oblivion. Looking back, humanity will turn out to be just a ripple within the cosmic data flow.
In the past, censorship worked by blocking the flow of information. In the twenty-first century, censorship works by flooding people with irrelevant information. People just don’t know what to pay attention to, and they often spend their time investigating and debating side issues.
In ancient times having power meant having access to data. Today having power means knowing what to ignore.