Science fiction writers have long understood that when tyranny comes it often is introduced as some improvement, or as the correction of some perceived problem. C. S. Lewis, for example, warned of the therapeutic state that wants what is best for us, whether we ask for it or not. It starts as science, becomes scientism, then demands obedience.
Jeremy Rifkin is a philosopher of Big Data in our own time who has a Marxist view of human good, organized in the “Commons,” whose space, according to his book “The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism,” is “more basic than both business and the market.” He writes that “The very purpose of the new technological platform is to encourage a sharing culture, which is what the Commons is all about.” There is not much privacy or individualism left in this Commons, however. In the future, there may not be much left of old fashioned elites (or much need for politicians), but there definitely will be wise, all-knowing techno-elites. The old world will give way to a “stream of Big Data on the comings and goings of society that can be accessed and shared collaboratively … processed with advanced analytics, transformed into productive algorithms, and programmed into automated systems.”
A similar vision is offered by an Israeli advocate of artificial intelligence (AI), Yuval Noah Harari, who supposes that science is showing the uselessness of inherited biology and traditional human roles. His book, “Homo Deus,” is steeped in Darwinism and what he understands to be Alan Turning’s information theory. Like Marx announcing in the 19th century that the next phase of the industrial revolution would make capitalism obsolete, Hariri sees AI creating a new human being independent of our present economy. “Science is converging,” he proclaims, “on an all-encompassing dogma, which says that organisms are algorithms and life is data processing … Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness … Non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms may soon know us better that we know ourselves.” He candidly acknowledges that the system is a “techno-religion” he calls “Dataism.” It replaces religion and “venerates neither gods nor man—it worships data.” Says Hariri, “Political scientists increasingly interpret political structures as data processing systems.”
Yes, they do that, which is part of our problem. If an algorithm already knows what we think, want and need, why bother with politicians or representative government? Hariri seems to agree. “This implies that as data-processing conditions change again in the 21st century, democracy might decline and even disappear.”
And you’ll love it. “(P)eople want to be part of (this) data flow, even if that means giving up their privacy, their autonomy and their individuality.”
Maybe. Some people already seem eager to surrender to their smart phones. But Marxist ways of seeing technological change often fall apart with experience. So, let the utopias of Rifkin and Hariri—or the dystopias they would become—gestate as they will. Most of us will be turned off by the prospect.
I don’t think that people, upon reflection, will give their political power to an algorithm, even one disguised as progress. The Dataism future should be seen as cautionary, not predictive. The danger of losing representative democracy to techno-religion might be just the jolt needed to restore our defense of it. It should warn us to cast a sharp eye on short term, but unsavory trends now underway and leading our society in the wrong direction.
In a political order, affinity groups help the politician think through public issues. But we now have some anti-democratic groups whose interests were ignored in the bad old days of news dominance by newspapers and broadcasters who can find in the Internet useful ways to organize in relative secrecy. Real and fraudulent Internet outfits that traffic in sleazy speculation have found ways to get stories into the mainstream, partly by seducing hit-lusting advertisers. In the past, scrupulous editors screened out the smears, incendiary provocations and smut. Instead, political news now freely spirals downward. An imminent threat to civil politics could be the depersonalization of public meetings held over the Internet. Face to face encounters, where people use their own names, are generally polite. Knowing who is in a meeting—and knowing in return that one is known—conduces to mutual toleration and respect. But in a virtual community, a “believability meter” could easily be replicated, with “instant feedback” from Internet attendees, destroying a candidate before he had even finished his remarks, and encouraging other candidates to appeal to superficial and heated sentiments. In a blunt assessment from another context, Publius (Madison) warns us, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” Today it can be a cyber-mob. And history teaches that violence and anarchy—the mob—lead to crises of authority and, then, tyranny.
Most of our cherished democratic institutions, after all, assume personal encounters at some point, and our system seems to work best when those circumstances are maintained, such as the localities where parties still function and people turn out for a “candidate’s night.” Our traditional sense of community is rooted in geographical identities and the same kind of local loyalties that, for example, support a specific high school basketball team rather than some national association of basketball fans. Our representative democracy presupposes the shared and particular interests of specific places, not an attachment to uncommon and dispersed special interests or to abstract opinion—let alone to an algorithm.
The dangers of assigning superior moral worth to “Big Data” and AI should be obvious by now. Their connections to the ideologies of Darwinism and Marxism also should be manifest, even if much of the academic community conspires to hide them.
Bruce Chapman is founder and Chairman of Discovery Institute, and author of the new book “Politicians: The Worst Kind of People to Run the Government, Except for All the Others.”