Work in Progress: Techno-Religion

This past week I finished listening to Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. This is something of a sequel to his previous Sapiens, which I have, but which I haven’t yet read. There were many things I enjoyed about the book, and may things that irritated me. I was annoyed by a lot of overly simplistic and reductionist arguments. However, there were also moments of insight that made the book worth going through in its entirety.

After having just listened to Peter Godfrey-Smith’s naturalistic exposition of minds and consciousness in Metazoa, which is a philosophically sophisticated account, aware of the reductionism that has undone so many philosophical theories of consciousness, Harari’s account of many overlapping problems left much to be desired. However, it would be unfair to compare the two directly, since even through there is a generous overlap on the subject of consciousness, the two books are very different, and the intentions and goals of the two authors are very different.

Further, Harari frequently baits the reader with an overly simplistic idea, only to pull it away and present a more adequate idea, so that we see that the initial simplistic and reductionist account was only to start the reader down a particular path. This bait and switch strategy makes it difficult to come away from the book with a clear idea of what exactly Harari was arguing. Let me give a specific example.

The book finishes with an exposition of what Harari calls Dataism, which he characterizes as a new techno-religion that transcends the internal conflicts of humanism (Harari finds three different senses of humanism that have competed with each other in recent history), and so shows us a kind of “way out” from the humanistic dilemmas of contemporary history — but at a cost, of course. Harari seems sincere in his presentation of Dataism, and when I say he seems sincere, he presents the idea without either condemning it or praising it, only giving its anatomy, as a good analytical writer ought to do for us. This much is admirable.

But it has been said (by Robert Hughes, if memory serves) that nothing ages more rapidly (and, I might add, less gracefully) than our visions of the future. Harari’s exposition of Dataism is already quaintly dated. Of course when he presents individuals entirely handing their lives over to major technology companies and putting them in the driver’s seat, he is of course doing what I praised above — giving the anatomy of a new movement without praising or blaming it, and we know full well that a lot of people aren’t going to be so gullible. Nevertheless, there will be many who are, and who will be, this gullible, and more.

For the Dataist, information wants to be free, and we all remember this as a hacker slogan from the 90s, but we also all know that as the hackers became institutionalized, when they put on suits and ties and joined boards of directors, they became as bad as, or worse than, the old order that they sought to disrupt and displace. The censors of Silicon Valley today make the Holy Office of the Inquisition look like rubes and yokels when it comes to censorship, as they have set up the most elaborate system of censorship that has ever existed on the planet.

I have encountered a number of people who are utterly dismissive of the censorship and the role that it plays in the technological economy. The motives for dismissiveness vary with the individual. Some don’t believe it. Some believe it is all to the good (Google has internally called itself “The Good Censor”). Some think it won’t last. Some think that those at the top know what’s going on, and that’s all that really matters (like Mustapha Mond in Brave New World, or the fireman in Fahrenheit 451, both of whom can quote banned books from memory). I hate this attitude, but I have not yet changed the mind of even one individual with whom I have talked about this, despite my efforts.

The shutting down of all opposition within the technological economy is starving this economy of information; information is not free, and it is least free among those who once bandied about this slogan. With the opposition voices banished to outer darkness, a conversation does indeed go forward, and there is a back-and-forth among various positions that gives the illusion of real debate and disagreement, but it is only an illusion. Those within the bubble, however, have entirely given themselves over the illusion — they live in a simulation of their own making — and this means that their view of the world is warped by the absence of other views that would counter their own views and force them to take account of things they would rather avoid or silence.

A couple of weeks ago I had a long conversation with an acquaintance, in which I attempted to get him to see that the censorship of information about and around COVID has deprived both scientists and public policy makers of information, so that even if scientists do not themselves engage in the kind of absurd over-simplifications of the legacy media, they still are deprived of knowledge as colleagues who would otherwise dispute their findings are silenced, opposing views are neither aired nor funded, and major scientific journals retroactively rescind old papers in print for many years because they made assertions that now are unpalatable. However, he would go no further than to admit that the messaging has been terrible; he resolutely would not acknowledge that science itself is weakened when public debate is censored.

The techno-religion of Dataism is vulnerable to all this and more, so long as a handful of companies, who all more-or-less share a single ideological agenda, control the flow of information in the world. Westerners laugh at the heavy-handed internet censorship of China’s “Great Firewall” and make fun of the rump of an internet that is allowed to operate in North Korea, but we are no better. In some respects, there is greater freedom of information in China than in the west. It pains me to say so, but there it is.

Now, my purpose is giving this account of Harari’s account of Dataism is not to criticize the communicants of the new techno-religion, or the hypocrisy of the “freedom” in which they claim to believe (do not all true believers believe themselves to be the only ones who are truly free?), nor to deny that there will be individuals who are prepared to hand their lives over the Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple (there certainly are such persons), but rather to point out the problems with an ironic strategy for communicating ideas. Because Harari has, throughout the book, held out ideas, and in some cases has provided an exposition and examples of ideas that were rather more long-winded than was necessary, only to later acknowledge, if only implicitly, their weakness, and then to pass on to the next idea, Harari could, with all plausibility write another book in which Dataism is then shown to be an inadequate over-simplification and unnecessarily (or unhelpfully) reductionist, and then pass on to give a more adequate account of Dataism, taking accounts of its obvious flaws. So even after finishing the book, I don’t really know what Harari thinks of Dataism, even though he was the one who presented Dataism to me as a new techno-religion.

However, whatever Harari’s ultimate take a “dataism,” one of the themes that emerges from the book is the idea that there is an uncoupling of intelligence and consciousness that is unfolding, and in this I do agree with Harari, though, again, this uncoupling of consciousness and intelligence strikes me as an over-simplification. In some ways, over-simplification is justified in history, as any idea or process than becomes widespread, and therefore influential, must be pretty simple, or it would never gain traction. I could say a lot more about this, but I will leave it for another time.

I have been listening to a lot of books lately — just in the past couple of weeks I have mentioned Archaeology from Space, Metazoa, and Homo Deus, and I could have also mentioned Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution — because I finally got myself a tablet computer, and, once I did, I started to make use of the Multnomah County library’s online offerings of audio books that can be accessed electronically. There are several books that I have tried to find as audio CDs that are not available in this format but which I have found among the library’s electronic offerings. Thus I have a long list of books I hope to listen to by this means.

Previously I only listened to audio books in audio CD format, but I often find myself switching vehicles. Some days I drive my car, some days my truck, sometimes one of my sibling’s vehicles, and sometimes one of my parent’s vehicles. Since not all are equipped with the same audio systems, I can’t reliably keep listening to the same thing unless I stay in the same vehicle. Now with the tablet, I can recharge it and take it with me, regardless of whatever vehicle I am driving, and continuously listen to books until I finish them, and this is what I have been doing. I am now halfway through listening to Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Metazoa for the second time (I mentioned my first listen through this in a PS to newsletter 161).

All of this listening has not come without a cost. Because I am listening to books while driving and doing errands, I am not dictating in to the digital recorder that I carry with me wherever I go. Ultimately I will probably allow my personal pendulum to swing between periods of listening to books and periods of listening to and dictating notes. Time will tell.

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