Big Data, Google and the End of Free Will

  • 2016-08-29
  • FT Magazine

For thousands of years humans believed that authority came from the gods. Then, during the modern era, humanism gradually shifted authority from deities to people. Jean-Jacques Rousseau summed up this revolution in Emile, his 1762 treatise on education. When looking for the rules of conduct in life, Rousseau found them “in the depths of my heart, traced by nature in characters which nothing can efface. I need only consult myself with regard to what I wish to do; what I feel to be good is good, what I feel to be bad is bad.” Humanist thinkers such as Rousseau convinced us that our own feelings and desires were the ultimate source of meaning, and that our free will was, therefore, the highest authority of all.

Now, a fresh shift is taking place. 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. This novel creed may be called “Dataism”. In its extreme form, proponents of the Dataist worldview perceive the entire universe as a flow of data, see organisms as little more than biochemical algorithms and believe that humanity’s cosmic vocation is to create an all-encompassing data-processing system — and then merge into it.