A piece by Yuval Noah Harari in the Financial Times this weekend delves into our fascination with Big Data. The tech industry has made so many billions of dollars being able to track, quantify and insert itself into our behavior that many have signed on as adherents to the Church of Big Data.
Just as divine authority was legitimised by religious mythologies, and human authority was legitimised by humanist ideologies, so high-tech gurus and Silicon Valley prophets are creating a new universal narrative that legitimises the authority of algorithms and Big Data.
Lately we’re seeing a steady stream of stories at ArtsJournal about attempts to algorithmatize creativity. But that’s merely the frontier of the data-driven gospel, the idea that algorithms and intelligent machines will more efficiently be able to create the things we want. The mainstream orthodoxy of Big Data, though, is the argument that data is better than we are at understanding who we are and what we like.
Just as free-market capitalists believe in the invisible hand of the market, so Dataists believe in the invisible hand of the dataflow. As the global data-processing system becomes all-knowing and all-powerful, so connecting to the system becomes the source of all meaning. The new motto says: “If you experience something — record it. If you record something — upload it. If you upload something — share it.”
In other words, we’re all contributors to a giant data organism that ultimately conveys back to us what our pieces of it mean. Hedge fund managers, baseball team owners and increasingly now, arts funders, are subscribing to the Big Data doctrine that measurable data is the foundation of success, trumping human intuition, experience and knowledge.
Scientific insights into the way our brains and bodies work suggest that our feelings are not some uniquely human spiritual quality. Rather, they are biochemical mechanisms that all mammals and birds use in order to make decisions by quickly calculating probabilities of survival and reproduction.
And who can argue with data? But here’s where it gets interesting. Harari argues that “contrary to popular opinion, feelings aren’t the opposite of rationality; they are evolutionary rationality made flesh.” And while machines loaded with massive amounts of data can project forward based on a complex past, the artistic mind still, for the moment, has an advantage.
Even though humanists were wrong to think that our feelings reflected some mysterious “free will”, up until now humanism still made very good practical sense. For although there was nothing magical about our feelings, they were nevertheless the best method in the universe for making decisions — and no outside system could hope to understand my feelings better than me.
We are now at the confluence of two scientific tidal waves. On the one hand, biologists are deciphering the mysteries of the human body and, in particular, of the brain and of human feelings. At the same time, computer scientists are giving us unprecedented data-processing power. When you put the two together, you get external systems that can monitor and understand my feelings much better than I can. Once Big Data systems know me better than I know myself, authority will shift from humans to algorithms. Big Data could then empower Big Brother.
So are we all doomed to play our roles as predicted and determined by data-crunching machines? Harari observes that in the mass media model of today we already live under, there’s already a crude version of this in place.
In the end, it’s a simple empirical question. As long as you have greater insight and self-knowledge than the algorithms, your choices will still be superior and you will keep at least some authority in your hands. If the algorithms nevertheless seem poised to take over, it is mainly because most human beings hardly know themselves at all.