ProjectBlog: Understanding Dataism: Manipulation and Threat Behind AI

Blog: Understanding Dataism: Manipulation and Threat Behind AI

Photo by Mehmet Selim Aksan on gettyimages

“If you experience something — record it. If you record something — upload it. If you upload something — share it” — this phrase best explains dataism, the new 21st-century religion focused mainly on the rapid development of technology, Internet obsession, and general data-worship.

Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Data Science, Big Data.. these things and more are so powerful and new for the majority of us that we start to fear what kind of dangerous transformations it may bring. Science fiction, however, is quickly becoming science fact — the future is the machine. But, isn’t it too early for assuming something like that and declare technology will destroy humanity?

The truth is, right now Dataism is far away from being a pure religion in its meaning, or scientific concept grounding on true laws. It is rather a complex of fear and a vision that AI and other stuff are nothing more than just manipulation and threat. Weird comparison, but just like capitalism, Dataism too began as a neutral scientific theory but is now mutating into a religion that claims to determine right and wrong.

So, to believe in Dataism or not? Let’s make a little investigation on this.

Where Does the Word ‘Dataism’ Come From?

‘Dataism is ascending philosophy’ — those are words David Brooks, The New York Times writer, said and literally gave birth to this term in 2013.

Two years later, he published The Road to Character and described the ‘horrible’ way Big Data changed the world and lead society to so-called phenomenon dataism.

But frankly speaking, no one was paying significant attention to this until 2015, the year Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow arrived and made dataism to be truly viral. Undoubtedly, this book made a notable splash in the world, received colossal media attention and finally made people be afraid of technology. Author’s name is Yuval Noah Harari and probably you have already heard about him.

If you don’t read the book, here are the main points:

  • Technological developments have threatened the continued ability of humans to give meaning to their lives; Harari suggests the possibility of the replacement of humankind with the super-man, or “Homo Deus” (human god) endowed with abilities such as eternal life.
  • Another central though from Harari’s book is the separation of the mind from consciousness. Artificial intelligence, as he wrote, is a thing that has a mind, but no consciousness.
  • Dataism and dataists claim that the universe consists of data streams, and the cost of any phenomenon or object is determined by its contribution to data processing.
  • The last chapter suggests the high possibility the humans are algorithms, and as far as Homo sapiens may not be dominant in a universe, big data becomes a new paradigm.

What impressed me the most in this book is the way it closes. Here are those provocative lines addressed to the reader:

“What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?”

Quite a thought-provoking closing, but can we really agree with this? Let’s find it out.

From Darwinism to Dataism: Is Everything Made out of Algorithms?

The dataists believe the human body is an algorithm. Moreover, there are two kinds of algorithms: the electronic and the biochemical (the organism), and it is just a question of time, before the electronic outcompetes the latter, as the human brain has no capacity compared to the electronic one. Whether it is a giraffe, a tomato or a human it is just different ways of processing data, according to Homo Deus.

“Homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm. After all, what’s the advantage of humans over chickens?”

wow, this one is really interesting, I mean…chickens..really?

According to the book, humans have only one advantage over the chicken; we process more data. Hilarious, isn’t it? But what then if we can create a data processing system that is superior to a human in the same way as a human is superior to a chicken?

Well, we have always wondered ‘what is a human being?’ And literally, everyone has their own answer. For someone, a human is like a God, for others, a human is determined by the soul, and for someone, it is just a piece of meat with neurons. But we can not set up an experiment that will show this or that for sure.

Man is a more complex system than digital reality because man is not discrete.

Man is not an algorithm. Defining it as an algorithm, we miss one important thing: we deliberately believe that people are idiots whom we can control, and they are not able to reflex or resist. In fact, we see that human strategies are much more diverse than digital analysts or researchers might think about them. What do you think about this by the way?

But before you come to any conclusions…

try walking in AI and Big Data shoes.

What is AI?

And like multiple times in the past, we are worried that this new set of technologies will harm us: AI will lead to mass unemployment, or AI will gain an agency of its own, become superhuman, and choose to destroy us…what else?

Artificial intelligence can really perform many tasks for which a person was previously responsible: play chess, drive a car or compose music. But this does not guarantee that the technology will independently develop and acquire ambitions in order to enslave humanity. Machines are capable of performing tasks for which they were created. They cannot rebel against a person because there are no “they.” Automation has no consciousness, and researchers have no convincing evidence that in the near future, robots will acquire sensitivity.

For centuries, mankind has replaced skillful professionals with machines, but they don’t strive to improve working conditions, progress, and prosperity. Jacquard weaving machines replaced experienced needlewomen in the 19th century, but even these devices with special programs for many types of fabrics did not ruin the profession of tailors and cutters forever.

Until the middle of the 20th century, the best minds of mankind were engaged in arithmetic calculations that are currently performed by calculators. But this does not mean that people stopped learning mathematics — automating the simplest processes allowed a person to do more complex statistical analysis and other similar operations. Manufacturers promise that very soon the autopilot will become an integral part of any auto system. But this does not mean that while you were at the meeting, the car went to work independently through Uber unless you yourself programmed it for it.

Artificial intelligence is not yet as good at working with other technologies the way we want them too. Or as it is described in sci-fi movies and literature. First of all, AI-researchers undertook manipulations with symbols, signs, and numbers: they were engaged in proving mathematical theorems, solving problems or laying out integrated circuits. But there are functions with which artificial intelligence still copes a million times worse than humans.

But what if we’re worried about the wrong thing like we had almost every single time before? What if the real danger of AI was far remote from the “superintelligence” and “singularity” narratives that many are panicking about today?

Anyway, I do not deny that some companies really use these two letters (AI) as a tool to manipulate customers. Plus, nearly half of all ‘AI startups’ are cashing in on the hype. But, who is forcing you to be the doll in the hands of the manipulator?

What is Big Data?

The “Sonar” system from the film “The Dark Knight” uses every smartphone in the city as a data transmitter. This is a possible development of the ideas of Big Data.

Under the definition of Big Data lies a huge collection of information. Moreover, its volume is so large that the processing of such amount of data with standard software and hardware is extremely difficult.

The 3Vs that define Big Data:

  • Volume — the amount of data
  • Velocity — the need to process information at high speed
  • Variety — diversity and often insufficient data structure

For an example of an action in the context of Big Data, we can give operation to check the balance on a bank card. The time of such a process in milliseconds. And this is precisely a speed the modern information market requires the most.

Today’s advanced technologies, unknown to people earlier, allow users to store gigabytes of information in their pockets, and business structures to collect and analyze data on previously inconceivable scales.

If we abandon the theory and consider the concept of Big Data from the point of view of benefits for companies, it is like the absolute ring from Tolkien’s famous book. The information revolution makes data more suitable for centralized analysis and gives people more knowledge for greater economic freedom. We have the opportunity to compare prices online before purchasing, to purchase goods without leaving home, but in general to lead an active social life and work online. All this would have been impossible without Big Data.

Referring again to the article by Yuval Noah Harari, we find out: “dataists” believe that with enough biometric data and computing power, this highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves.

According to Yuval Noah Harari, as soon as this happens, people will lose their credibility, and humanistic methods, such as democratic elections, will become as outdated as rain dance or silicon knives. But does it really happen?

Would the real Big Data Lebowski please stand up?

In The Big Lebowski, Jeff Lebowski-Dude is, in a classic data quality blunder caused by matching on person name only, mistakenly identified as millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski in an eccentric plot expected from a Coen brothers film, which, since its release in the late 1990s, has become a cult classic and inspired a religious following known as Dudeism.

Historically, a big part of the problem has been the fact that the word “data” is prevalent in the names we have given industry disciplines: data architecture, data quality, data integration…

However, all this achieved was to perpetuate the mistaken identification of data management as an esoteric technical activity that played little more than a minor, supporting, and often uncredited, role within the business activities of our organizations.

But since the late 1990s, there has been a shift in the perception of data. The real data deluge has not been the rising volume, variety, and velocity of data, but instead the rising awareness of the big impact that data has on nearly every aspect of our professional and personal lives.

All of the hype about Big Data is missing the point. The reality is that Data is Big — meaning that data has now so thoroughly pervaded mainstream culture that data has gone beyond being just a cult classic for the data management profession, and is now inspiring an almost religious following that we could call Dataism.

Jim Harris, HoardaBytes and the Big Data Lebowski

Do You Believe in Dataism?

Image source:

It is unlikely that dataism can become a religion one day, as the concept of religion contains the idea of the supernatural. Data is a kind of commensurable entity. This is hardly a large-scale social phenomenon for all mankind. Among the narrow layer of specialists — probably, yes, we can talk about it.

Man as a fully described, formalized thing is the dream of many scientists who can be called positivists. Positivism had several strong arguments related to the fact that a person can be described, a person can be offered some description of how he acts, how he will act, certain predictions connected with a person. But in the case of dataism, they always proceeded from ideas that reduce a person: a person is reduced to a single interest, one motivation.

There is a well-known hypothesis about the Chinese room. The person sitting in the room knows the algorithm for answering questions in Chinese, but he does not know the language itself. He is given questions-hieroglyphs, he gives other hieroglyphs according to the algorithm, and they are the correct answer to the question. He does not know the language. This is a computer metaphor that gives the correct answer to a question, without understanding the question itself, that is, giving the correct answer is not understanding. Against this argument, nothing has yet been proposed in any of the sciences.

I like the definition of a person as a right for a mistake, for irrational behavior than algorithms and artificial intelligence do not possess. Of course, the programmer may make a mistake in programming, but this is an accident, they contradict the error. This is our difference. When we put algorithms in artificial intelligence, moderating our more complex living system, it turns out that the moderator, the manager, does not contain an error. We are trying to contain an error even in ourselves. Making a mistake, I begin to stand out from this system, becoming some kind of strange creature that just needs to be somehow controlled. It prevents us from making a mistake, dehumanizes us.

Wrapping it up…

A man plus smartphone plus Google plus “cloud” — is he a “homo sapiens”, or the next stage of evolution? Perhaps this is the first step towards transhumanism not in the sense of changing the body, but in the sense of changing the consciousness?

Well, yes, technologies may put a person in a dependent position. But whether AI will allow transforming a reasonable person into a “divine” person, and whether a person becomes an unnecessary link in the system because of the inability to process data as efficiently as a computer remains an unanswered question. It’s difficult to predict how AI will change our society.

However, I am no way strive to state Harari is wrong, or Harari is right. I can only assume one thing, Harari may reflect a certain position, which is important mainly to politicians and corporations who work with data. In other words, it is a position of power that legitimizes the status quo — we all send our data to enterprises.

Anyway, when we post photos and text on social media we do this not because we want to serve the data-God, but because we want to tell our friends about our daily life.


Don’t take this post at face value. To err is human.

Please feel free to leave comments with thoughts, questions or disagreement! Follow me on Medium and Instagram.


Source: Artificial Intelligence on Medium

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