Supposedly, the amount of data generated by humans in all of human history doubles every two years. In the next 24 months, we will generate as much data as humanity has since its inception. This can be dizzying, and is beyond our ability to truly comprehend. Data has become an important currency in the gears of our lives; without it, modern life would no longer be possible. No wonder that data – or more precisely, the “lult around data” – attracts the attention of poets and thinkers.
For example, “LOGOS – Belief and Doubt,” a broadcast format of the Austrian radio station Ö1, was devoted to the topic of artificial intelligence. The philosopher, theologian and publicist Christoph Quarch was invited to take part in the program How Artificial Intelligence Changes Our Thinking.
And because the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari had introduced the media-effective term Dataism in his bestseller Homo Deus, which – to put it simply – describes the way of thinking that pays homage to data, this topic was also discussed right away. Dataism is thus something like a new religion or idolatry, whose underlying element – data – is seen as the sole source of wisdom and salvation.
The fact that new technologies are readily ascribed religion-like characteristics is nothing new. Who doesn’t remember the talk of the “automobile as a modern idol” to which we subject everything? Our cities, our environment, our finances and even our lives by simply accepting accidents. New technologies take on a different quality when they are not easy to understand, even take on magical forms. Here is a paragraph from my book Future Angst, which will be published in August 2021:
The contradictory way in which technologies are received can be traced back to several characteristics of an invention. Until Galileo Galilei’s time, machines still had something magical about them. Machines could only be evaluated qualitatively; they lacked the basic physical and mechanical knowledge needed to cast them in numbers and thus capture them quantitatively. Only then was it possible to plan and develop efficiently. Until then, there was quite a bit of confusion as to what was mechanics and what was magic. The concept of using machine power to do simple operations was seen as something that ‘tricked’ nature. A machinist was thus a person who had magical powers. In the […] opera ‘The Tales of Hoffmann’, this cliché was played with by E.T.A. Hoffmann assigning this role to the inventor Spalanzani in reference to the Italian polymath Lazzaro Spallanzani.
Even the phenomenon of electricity, which was still poorly understood in the early 1800s, found a quasi-religious status through Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, in that it was assigned life-creating power. Something that is usually only attributed to gods. Two hundred years later, we have not discarded similar reactions to technologies and discoveries that we struggle to understand. And this time it is about artificial intelligence, and in approximation to it the data underlying it. There is talk of Superintelligences that will be more intelligent than we humans, and will or could try to subjugate or even eradicate us. And if not that, then it will not only change our thinking, but also take it away from us. At least that is the warning of Christoph Quarch, who slips into the role of the moral entrepreneur.
In the aforementioned 25-minute program, he not only worries about machines taking over thinking and our uncritical attitude toward it, he also warns that humans are thus giving data (and AI) a status that Yuval Harari and he, Christoph Quarch, see as usurping man’s divinity by creating a new religion – dataism.
Strong stuff in two respects that can and should scare. But is it true? Unfortunately, the radio producers had not invited any AI experts to the show who might have been able to bring a different perspective. The thought process was probably that a person who deals with the subject day in and day out would have nothing profound to say about it, but a historian and a philosopher would. Who would think of inviting a radio producer to a program about radio making? Only historians and philosophers have something profound to say about it. Not that I want to claim that historians and philosophers have nothing to say about various issues that concern and affect us, quite the contrary. Their unique perspective makes us think differently about them. But one should also involve someone from the respective field, who can also look at it again from their point of view.
But let’s take a look at the two premises that serve as the leitmotif of the program. “Are we leaving thinking to the machines?” and “Are we creating a pseudo-religion with them?”
Are we leaving thinking to the machines?
When we are dealing with such an assertion, a counterfactual approach or researching analogies can often help. In this case, we could look at technologies that seem self-evident to us today, and research how they were viewed by people back then.
Thus, a commentator in the Sunday Advertiser, a Hawaii newspaper, on January 18, 1908, asserts the following:
Don’t forget how to walk
The trolley car, the automobile and the train have made transportation so easy that people seldom walk any more. They ride to business, to the theater, the store, the resort, from the country into town, from one street to another, until walking has become almost a lost arts. In a generation or two more we will forget how to use our legs. Man is by nature a walking animal.
Modern means of transportation will take over walking and we will forget about using our legs. Sound familiar? But after all, this was not the first fear in the history of mankind that we will lose an important skill? Writing was considered in ancient Greece as something that threatens remembering and memorizing, that is, the use of our memory. Or in the Stone Age, and by that I mean the 1990s, the microwave oven was something that threatened danger. Here again is an excerpt from my book Future Angst:
A 1990 Los Angeles Daily News report tells of 13-year-old Brian explaining to the journalist how he sticks his hot dog in a loaf of bread, wraps it in a cloth, and then heats it in the microwave. The newspaper article then laments that today’s youth can’t imagine food preparation without a microwave, and thus important skills such as cooking a hot dog on a grill have been lost. Aside from the fact that you might not want to let a 13-year-old handle a grill unsupervised, the microwave does exactly the job it’s supposed to. The food was heated. What’s the problem?
But the complaints continue. Velcro would prevent learning to tie shoelaces. Handwriting would be lost because there would be no need to take phone notes anymore, since the answering machine would record the voice message. The list of complaints and warnings could be continued indefinitely.
We don’t lose skills. Our skills change with the technologies. We can also do more with less, so the accusation that new technologies make us lazier is invalidated. Because farmers now had a handle on their sickle, they could harvest a field twice as fast and save their backs. Did that make them lazier? Did it make them lose the ability to wield a sickle? Hardly. There are, however, some abilities that we have lost, but not so much because new technology replaced them, but because there had been political and social upheavals, so that the knowledge about them was lost. For example, we no longer know exactly how the famous Damascus steel, with its characteristic wavy pattern on a knife blade and its quality, which was known two thousand years ago, was made. No one had written down instructions, neither in cuneiform nor in Sütterlin. The only fear we should have is that we are not documenting skills and technologies sufficiently for posterity.
Does that mean we lose our ability to think? Hardly. Artificial intelligence relieves us of the thinking work that is boring and repetitive, and which the machine can also perform many times faster. In doing so, it frees up our time to do what the machine cannot do today: ask why, causality, context, and, if necessary, make changes to a framework and model of thinking. These will still and for a long time be given by us humans. But let us now devote ourselves to the second assertion.
Are we creating a pseudo-religion with it?
In a broadcast series that has faith and doubt as its leitmotif in the title, it is hardly surprising that theological questions are dealt with. Therefore, it seems logical to the protagonists to unceremoniously place technology on the level of a religion. Only they don’t quite want to allow it to do so; it is treated more as an idol and pseudo-religion. Doubts are raised about the correctness of the belief in data and algorithms and people’s trust in them. At the same time, the same doubt about a “real” religion like Christianity – and a God is not applied. Quite the opposite: the turning away from a “real” religion to a “false” religion such as dataism, which was artificially created as an enemy image, is eyed disapprovingly. The meaning of life would be lost if people only worshipped data and thus became “computers” themselves.
Only: which is actually more real? The invisible friend in heaven that Christians worship, or the data collected by scientists and others that we now have as a better basis for decision-making? Do I pray to the Lord God for deliverance from the COVID pandemic, or do I still trust the data sequencing by computers that will then let us create vaccines against the virus? Is the meaning of life to passively hope for a miracle by gods, or to actively take fate into one’s own hands and tackle the problem?
Quarch warns us of the danger that we would lose the meaning of life through dataism, and ascribes only genuine religions the competence to convey meaning. But that’s what I would like to know? What have the religions actually imparted to us in the thousands of years? If they arrogate to themselves the sole claim to it, then they have a quite bad record to show for the majority of the people.
The program answers the big leading question mainly one-sidedly, and thus inadequately. Despite 25 minutes of available time, you go round in circles, ruminate on your one-sided arguments and feel cheated as someone equipped with knowledge of technology, as should actually happen to philosophers and historians who take just a little trouble to study the philosophy and history of technology. I am not a historian, but I have found and cited here sufficient data from history to refute Yuval Harari’s arguments. Quarch’s warnings also sound stale and one-sided. One-sided because they are put forward with the hidden agenda that the “real” religions are created before pseudo-religions so artificially created by him (and Harari) as enemy images to feel morally superior to them.
Thus, the radio hosts and guests failed to answer the actual question satisfactorily, or to draw lessons from the past in general. Religion and philosophy are thus increasingly distancing themselves from making a constructive contribution to the big questions of humanity. This was already regretted in 2014 in a podcast by the well-known astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson:
My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. [But in fact they are nor] productive contributor[s] to our understanding of the natural world … So, I’m disappointed because there is a lot of brainpower there, that might have otherwise contributed mightily, but today simply does not. It’s not that there can’t be other philosophical subjects, there is religious philosophy, and ethical philosophy, and political philosophy, plenty of stuff for the philosophers to do, but the frontier of the physical sciences does not appear to be among them.
By the way, the LOGOS broadcast is only available until June 29, 2021.