Friday, December 8, 2017

Dataism: The Next Religion

My mother kept a diary when she was growing up in a Brooklyn orphanage. For three years, my wife recorded her thoughts in a journal when we lived in France and Algeria. Today, keeping a diary or a journal seems quaintly old-fashioned. What rules the world now is dataflow and exchange. For example, we take an uncensored, unedited notion, download it to Facebook, and then check every two minutes to determine how many “likes” we’ve received. For what good is a thought if it is not published, if it is not shared on the world-wide-web, over which all may fawn and marvel?
This is my point: We are all moving from humanism (which teaches us to look inward to discover truth) to dataism (which attributes meaning to the algorithms that manage data).

One day there will be no need for truck drivers or welders or even doctors and lawyers—all the data that is swirling around us will be captured, collated, and conceptualize more accurately than any human brain could ever imagine. You will not need a doctor for a diagnosis or a treatment plan. You will only need to consult with IBM’s Watson—or another database yet to be conceived.
The algorithms of data will know you better than you know yourself. For example, already Fred Meyer sends coupons to my wife for the items she most often buys. She no longer has to recall what she needs; the data programs from her favorite grocery store will do it for her.
Likewise, I have no need to remember my interests. The Google algorithms are configured to tell me what I desire. I don’t have to remember what I want. Google will happily remind me—not to suggest that Google is a person; it is not; it is an algorithm.
Some may be thinking, “Hold on there, Merry Sunshine. I still keep a diary, and I never buy anything online.”
Yes, everything conforms to a normal bell curve. There are always a few outliers at a minus three or plus three standard deviations from the mean. If that is you, congratulations, but you are in a meager minority. When you die, no one will replace you.
Moreover, it takes time for change of this magnitude—sometimes hundreds, even thousands of years. For example, it took a few millenniums for the polytheistic religions of Mesopotamia and Egypt to evolve into monotheistic religions as transcribe in scriptures. It took a few more millenniums for scripture-based religions to evolve into the independent will and self-consciousness of humanism. But today, the evolution to dataism is on a frenetically fast track. We are no longer talking a millennium. In some cases, we are talking a few decades, even a few years.
As we study human history, we see that our religious inspirations have evolved: from the sun to god to humanism to the sifted data ushered into the temples of Google, Amazon, and ChoicePoint. Evolution does not reverse course, and the current course is data on steroids.
Can we put the brakes on this transformation? In a word, no. But in our lifetime we can choose to be religious rebels. Just as there are still people who worship the sun, you may choose to cling to your faith in Christianity or Islam or Judaism or humanism, rather than be swept up by the tide of dataism. You may make that choice now, but be assured that the choice will be exceedingly less likely for your grandchildren.

But wait. There may be another alternative. Perhaps you can stand planted with your right foot in one world and your left foot in another. Perhaps you can hold to the antiquated custom of writing a journal and publishing your words in the realm of dataism—just as I have done today.   Consider this a thought for the day from one who is edging—kicking and screaming—into the murky and mysterious matrix of algorithms.

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