Big Data and algorithms are gradually decimating the concepts of individualism and free will
For centuries, conventional wisdom suggested that humans were the ultimate source of truth. As individuals, we entrust ourselves to determine what is right and what is wrong. After all, many of the constructs of the world have been shaped around this idea. Elections rely on the votes of the people, and thus the mission of politicians during election campaigns is to appease to those individuals to gain the votes needed to obtain office. Equally, businesses attempt to produce goods and services that people will want to buy. If lots of people vote a party into office or buy a particular good or service, then the value identified within individualism and free will is transferred to those politicians and products; the will of the people and the customer is always right. Human experiences, feelings and desires thus are the ultimate authority that fuels our existence.
Not for much longer though, as technology now challenges this status quo, and in a way that perhaps not too many may realise. These seemingly unique experiences and feelings, in today’s world, are starting to lose the unquantifiable magic that we have long believed them to have. In his book titled Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari accurately depicts this reality. He describes a typical modern-day scenario of a tourist in India who sees an elephant. In yesteryears this tourist would have marvelled by the grand size of this animal as it stomps along, flopping its flabby ears and waving its long trunk. Instead, today’s tourist is more likely to pull out his or her smartphone, open up the camera app, take a quick snapshot, and rapidly post it on Facebook. The value of human life no longer found in what one feels in the moment. Rather, the value now lies in the likes and comments attached the photo one shares online.
The true essence of many human activities now focuses on contributing to the big flow of data that so many are becoming obsessed with. Mr Harari labels this phenomenon as the “Dataist revolution”, displacing the “homo-centric” vision that dominated the world for so long and gave power to the concepts of individualism and free will. Instead of relying on one’s inner feelings or inner voice to search for meaning and an answer to life’s complexities, humans are diverging their trust to data and algorithms.
The advances in technology have made these things far more reliable in determining what one really wants and what one really needs. If you cannot decide who to vote for, why struggle? Facebook will have enough information about you to identify your political tendencies and beliefs and will be able to tell you which political candidates best fit those preferences. During the day, your Fitbit, synchronising with your smartphone, will tell you how active you have been and how many more calories you need to burn to reach your daily goal. Your fridge will send a notification to your smartphone when you are running low on milk. Your Kindle will learn your reading speed and tell you how long it will take you to finish the book you are reading. A chatbot will inform you of your weekly expenditure and how much you have left to spend before reaching your monthly budget. And, of course, Facebook will notify you when your picture of that Indian elephant you saw last year has reached 100 likes.
For those who may identify some familiarity with these examples of the data revolution, of which are just a sample of the vast amount of ways technology is involved in our everyday lives, this trend may seem uncomfortable. Some may even go as far as to deny it is happening or discount such as an exaggeration. But evidence exists to support the contrary. Amazon’s flagship IOT product, the Echo, sold nine times more in December 2016 than it did the year before. The Financial Conduct Authority, a regulator in the UK, is concerned that big data may make insurance prices too expensive for clients, as insurers collect more data from social media and use better algorithms to analyse them and determine risk more accurately.
But just imagine disconnecting from this technology-dominated world? So many people would find this simply intolerable. Plenty of young teens online will agree that being disconnected from the internet for even ten minutes will infuse a mini-crises. Yet, so much of the world shares this potent dependence on big data, algorithms and the world wide web. Hardly any businesses, governments or any other institutions would be able to cope without such technologies, just as the industrial revolution would have screeched to a halt if steam had ceased to exist. Recognising how engrossed in technology the world is will convey how the prospects presented by the data revolution, of which Mr Harari advocates, is hardly outlandish.
Every day, more and more is contributed to this big data flow, and thus the implications which come along with this will become more significant. Privacy concerns, for example, will remain high as the risks to data security presented by hackers and cybercriminals continue to grow and intensify. Nevertheless, humanity is embracing this new evolution, and the threats to individualism and free will that come with it. As artificial intelligence, big data and algorithms march onwards, continuing to improve whilst entering and disrupting more industries and aspects of life, the future may bring drastic change. Just where will we go from here?
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari