Homo Deus: Dataism

This is the third of three posts featuring excerpts from the new book by Yuval Harari (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow). The first post dealt with traditional religions, creeds and ‘isms.’ The second post, free will and consciousness. The excerpts below are some of Dr. Harari’s thoughts on new religions that might replace the old.

The obvious problem with posting selected excerpts the the absence of contest which you can only get by reading the book. I encourage you to do so.

The new religions are unlikely to emerge from the caves of Afghanistan or from the madrasas of the Middle East. Rather, they will emerge from research laboratories. […] Despite all the talk of radical Islam and Christian fundamentalism, the most interesting place in the world from a religious perspective is not the Islamic State or the Bible Belt, but Silicon Valley. That’s where hi-tech gurus are brewing for us brave new religions that have little to do with God, and everything to do with technology.

These new techno-religions can be divided into two main types: techno-humanism and data religion. Data religion argues that humans have completed their cosmic task and should now pass the torch on to entirely new kinds of entities. Techno-humanism still sees humans as the apex of creation and clings to many traditional humanist values […] but concludes we should use technology to create Homo deus — a much superior model. Homo deus will retain some essential human features, but will also enjoy upgraded physical and mental abilities that will enable it to hold its own even against the most sophisticated non-conscious algorithms. (With the help of genetic engineering, nanotechnology and brain-computer interfaces.

What might replace desires and experiences as the source of all meaning and authority? Information. The most interesting emerging religion is Dataism.

Data (has been) seen as only the first step in a long chain of intellectual activity. Humans were supposed to distil data into information, information into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom. However, Dataists believe that humans can no longer cope with the immense flows of data.

Dataism is most firmly entrenched in its two mother disciplines: computer science and biology.

As data-processing conditions change again in the twenty-first century, democracy might decline and even disappear. As both volume and speed of data increase, venerable institutions like elections, political parties and parliaments might become obsolete — not because they are unethical, but because the can’t process data efficiently enough.

In the early twenty-first century politics is bereft of grand visions. Government has become mere administration. It manages the country, but no longer leads it. Government ensures that teachers are paid on time and sewage systems don’t overflow, but it has no idea where the country will be in twenty years.

We often imagine that democracy and the free market won because they were ‘good’. In truth, they won because they improved the global data-processing system.

Dataism is the first movement since 1789 that created a genuinely novel value: freedom of information.

Homo Deus: Free Will and Consciousness

This is the second of three posts featuring excerpts from the new book by Yuval Harari (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow). The first post dealt with traditional religions, creeds and ‘isms.’ The excerpts below are some of Dr. Harari’s thoughts on the concepts of free will and consciousness.

The obvious problem with posting selected excerpts the the absence of contest which you can only get by reading the book. I encourage you to do so.

Free will exists only in the imaginary stores we humans have invented. […] (The question is not whether humans) can act upon their inner desires — the question is whether they can choose their desires in the first place.

I feel a particular wish welling up within me because this is the feeling created by the biochemical processes in my brain. […] I don’t choose my desires. I only feel them, and act accordingly.

Once we accept that there is no soul and that humans have no inner essence called ‘the self’, it no longer makes sense to ask, ‘How does the self choose its desires?’ […] There is only a stream of consciousness, and desires arise and pass away within this stream, but there is no permanent self that owns the desires.

If I am indeed the master of my thoughts and decisions, can I decide not to think about anything at all for the next sixty seconds?

(There are) at least two different selves within us: the experiencing self and the narrating self. The experiencing self is our moment-to-moment consciousness. The narrating self is forever busy spinning yarns about the past and making plans for the future. […] It doesn’t narrate everything, and usually weaves the story using only peak moments and end results. […] Most of us identify with our narrating self. When we say ‘I’, we mean the story in our head not the onrushing stream of experiences we undergo. […] We always retain the feeling that we have a single unchanging identity from birth to death (and perhaps even beyond).

If you want to make people believe in imaginary entities such as gods and nations, you should make them sacrifice something valuable.

Each of us has a sophisticated system that throws away most of our experiences, keeps only a few choice samples, mixes them up with sbits from movies we’ve seen, novels we’ve read, speeches we’ve heard, and daydreams we’ve savoured, and out of all that jumble it weaves a seemingly coherent story about who I am, where I came from and where I am going. This story tells me what to love, whom to hate and what to do with myself. This story may even cause me to sacrifice my life, if that’s what the plot requires. […] But in the end, they are all just stories.

Every moment the biochemical mechanisms of the brain create a flash of experience, which immediately disappears. Then more flashes appear and fade, appear and fade, in quick succession. These momentary experiences do not add up to any enduring essence.

CSPAN meets YouTube

(Business Insider) “A new site called Digital Democracy aims to help voters hold their elected officials accountable by making local government hearings searchable by speaker and subject. You can think of the platform like CSPAN meets YouTube. […] A bot makes daily transcripts of state senate and assembly hearings. It uses facial recognition to monitor who’s talking. Users can see legislators’ financial ties on the platform, and easily share video clips on social media. […] Users can look up hearings by date, topic, speaker, or committee. Or if you want to hear a specific speaker, the video will automatically jump to the point when that person starts talking.”

“Digital Democracy only posts footage from hearings in New York and California right now (the nonprofit launched the platform in California in 2015, and it became available in New York in February). But Blakeslee says that his team hopes to eventually expand the platform nationwide.”

Will we see a day when I can tell my personal AI to find everything my state rep says on topic XYZ? (Sound of thousand of tiny cockroach feet scurrying from kitchen light)

Memory creates the illusion of continuity

Daniel Kahneman said, “There are the experiences in our lives… and our memories of those experiences. And they are not the same.”

Memory seems to be the secret sauce to that feeling of a continuous, unchanging ME. But I’m finding it increasingly difficult to think of my memories as “mine.” It was easier when I thought of them as photographs in a shoebox on a shelf in my mind.

“Memories are not etched permanently in the brain. Instead, every time a memory is retrieved, it is destroyed and then re-created, and it becomes a memory of a memory. Any current memories we have are copies of copies of copies… many times over depending on how many times we have recalled that particular experience. Because of this process of creating, destroying, and re-creating memories, our recollections are unstable and subject to alteration. Each time we recall an event from our lives, the memory of that event can change. […] We never have a full recollection of anything that’s happened to us, and our memories are constructed from hints, scraps and traces found within the mind.” — Living As A River

I have a memory of a four-year-old Steve jumping up and down on the bed and then crashing through the bedroom window. Obviously that didn’t happen and I have no idea when or how the memory was formed. How many other of my memories are “constructed?”

Thirty years ago Barb and I went to New York with another couple. It was miserably cold and I remember almost nothing of that weekend. I have a photo of me with a parrot sitting on my shoulder. That must have happened but I’m not sure if I have a memory of the experience or if the photo somehow created that memory.

So what remains when the person, that oh-so-strong sense of a permanent self, is gone?

“A vague memory remains, like the memory of a dream, or early childhood. After all, what is there to remember? A flow of events, mostly accidental and meaningless. A sequence of desires and fears and inane blunders. Is there anything worth remembering? Realize that your present existence is like a shower of sparks, each spark lasting a second and the shower itself — a minute or two.” — Nisargadatta Maharaj

My memories seem so important. Would there be a “me” without them? And, yet, when I examine them, one at a time, they are indeed “mostly accidental and meaningless.”

James Gleick says “We experience childhood one way when we’re living it and another way when we relive it in memory.” Good. That means it was more fun than I recall.

Again, James Gleick: “But if memory is the action of recollection, the act of remembrance, then it implies an ability to hold in the mind two constructs, one representing the present and another representing the past, and to compare them, one against the other. How did we learn to distinguish memory from experience?”

Might that be why memories are mostly fuzzy and vague, “…constructed from hints, scraps and traces found within the mind.” We seldom confuse experience with memory.

I’m spending a lot of time thinking about the question who or what am I? And the answer I keep coming up with is: I am this immediate experience. And nothing more. As Alan Watts said, “This is it.” But it’s impossible for me to think of an experience as a discrete ‘thing.” Each is gone before I can bring it into consciousness. I can only think about the experience that just slipped away. It easier to think in terms of process, a flow of experiences. Ever changing. Never the same. That means keeping all the inputs wide open. Turn down the noise, turn up the signal. Be here, now.

Everything is exactly the same

“Everything is made of some other thing. And those things in turn are made of other things. Over the next hundred years, scientists will uncover layer after layer of building blocks, each smaller than the last. At each layer the differences between types of matter will be fewer. At the lowest layer everything is exactly the same. Matter is uniform. Those are the bits of God.”

— God’s Debris by Scott Adams

“Matter is incredibly, mind-bogglingly empty. An atom is like a miniature Solar System, with a tight nucleus playing the role of a Sun orbited by electrons like planets. But the nucleus is incredibly tiny compared with the orbits of the electrons. Tom Stoppard, the playwright, had the best image. He said, if the nucleus is like the altar of St Paul’s cathedral, an electron is like a moth in the cathedral, one moment by the altar, the next by the dome. Imagine squeezing all the space out of an atom. Well, if you did that to all the atoms in all the people in the world, you could indeed fit the entire human race in the volume of a sugar cube.” — Physics.org

A few months ago I read James Gleick’s biography of Richard Feynman (Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman). Lots of math and physics (all way over my head, but fascinating nonetheless) and a deep-dive into particle physics, at least for me. My simplistic take-away: 1) Matter and energy are the same thing. Sometimes. 2) Everything is made of this energy/matter. Everything. My hat. My body. Donald Trump. All made of the same stuff.

It would be difficult to get through the day if we experienced reality at this sub-atomic level so our brains (consciousness?) process it in a way that won’t make our heads explode. Nevertheless, I find it comforting to think of it in this way. Little bits of god or the Universe or whatever… winking in and out of existence.

The Fear Basket

I’ve struggled with worry and anxiety my entire life. Tried a little counseling. A mild anti-anxiety drug for a while. Lots of reading on the subject. And, in recent years, meditation. I suspect a professional would put me on the low end of the anxiety spectrum, if there is such a thing. At this point in my life, I don’t expect to ever be completely worry-free. I’ve learned to live with it.

The subject comes up in just about every book and article I’ve read on Taoism and Buddhism. The term most often used is good old “fear.” And it seems we fear the one thing that is inevitable: change. And, of course, we fear that biggest change of all, death.

I think most adults know that fearing what might happen at some future time is pointless. And, yes, we know that most of the things we fear never happen. There’s a part of me that will always believe that worry/anxiety/fear is either hardwired into our brains and/or learned behavior at a very early age. These days I’ve been dealing with worry (anxiety sounds too clinical and fear a bit extreme) from a Buddhist/Taoist perspective. Here’s how it plays out in my head.

Anxious thoughts pop into our mental stream with some regularity. We don’t choose our thoughts. At least, that’s my understanding. Thoughts bubble up from somewhere in our subconscious and quickly (usually) get pushed out by the next thought. If you’re really busy and involved with something, most thoughts don’t stick around long.

Now Buddhists and Taoist are quick to point out that we don’t really have permanent self. The “me/I” that we all feel is inside somewhere, watching things and calling the shots, isn’t really there. I know, I know. But it’s damned easy to imagine there’s a me, myself and I. And that’s who reaches out and grabs that fear thought when it floats into consciousness.

“Whoa! What’s this on my leg? Is that a stage four melanoma?” The passing thought doesn’t pass. It goes into what I’ve been calling the Fear Basket. The Fear Basket is what the self lugs around to hold all the thoughts I’m worried about. Think of them as stones of varying size. There’s no limit to how many stones your basket will hold so it can get damned heavy. Occasionally, we can toss one of theses stones. The lab report said benign pigmentation. Nothing to worry about. Yeah, okay, if that was the only stone in your Fear Basket. You get the idea.

But if our Buddhist/Taoist friends are right and there really is no self… who’s holding the basket? I’ll admit the “no self” thing is a tough one. I’ve been wrestling it for years. But here’s something of which we can be certain: those rocks might be heavy but they’re not real. Not yet. So when I feel that basket getting heavy, I’m going to focus on a rock and see if I can make it fade like Jim Kirk getting beamed up by the Enterprise transporter.

I tell you what else might work but I’m not there. Yet. A real basket you carry with you everywhere you go. Worried about the stock market? Find a rock of the appropriate size and put it in your basket. Concerned that bald spot is getting bigger? Look for a fist sized stone and put it in the basket. When someone asks you why you’re carrying around a basket of rocks, explain that each rock represents something you’re worried about. After telling that story half a dozen times you might decide to just put the damned thing down. Or at least dump the rocks.

UPDATE: The Fear Basket can only contain rocks when someone is holding or carrying it. The longer they hold/carry the basket, the heavier the rocks become. And, paradoxically, the more difficult to set the basket down.

Scraping by on $160K

“A Twitter employee speaking on the condition of anonymity told The Guardian he’s scraping by on a base salary of $160,000. The employee is in his early 40s, lives in San Francisco, and has had to borrow money in the past to “make it through the month,” The Guardian reports. […] His biggest expense is the $3,000 he drops on rent for a two-bedroom house in San Francisco — which he described as “ultra cheap” for the area. He lives with his wife and two kids. […] People between the ages of 18 and 34 who work full-time in San Francisco earned a median salary of $59,000 in 2013, according to US Census data.”

Business Insider

Earning that Land Line Badge

My friend Jason shared this photo taken at a Cub Scout meeting where the scouts learned how to use a landline telephone. He insists some of them had never used one. What’s to learn, you ask? What’s a “dial tone” and why do you have to wait until you hear it before dialing the number.

What sort of doomsday scenario would find a youngster… and all of his/her friends… without a working mobile phone? It could happen, I guess, but good look finding a “pay phone.”

Will Eagle Scouts someday earn a badge for learning how to drive a non-autonomous vehicle? Many laugh at the idea, but it seems plausible to me that a child born today will never “drive” a vehicle except in some theme part or VR environment.