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The Idolatry of Data, A New Totalitarianism

After Fascism and Communism, the 21st century features two new forms of evil ideology: Islamism and ... Dataism.

Amazon headquarters in Seattle
Amazon headquarters in Seattle
Chantal Delsol


PARIS — The 20th century was marked by battles against two forms of totalitarianism: Nazism and Communism. It now looks like the 21st century will have to suffer and combat two other nightmare ideologies: Islamism and Dataism. The latter, unlike the first, is brand new and still largely unknown.

An ideology, before it turns into a threat, is nothing more than the perversion of one of our beliefs or ways of being. These calamities don't appear out of nowhere. We are the ones who distill them in our witches' cauldrons. One can begin describing the diabolical preparation of Nazism, Communism and Islamism with a large number of poisonous events, damaging beliefs, or perverse indulgence.

Dataism can be defined as the ideological conceptualization of the prevailing materialism. Western humanity became materialistic as it abandoned its religions, but mostly as a way to stop wars. Because what divides us are ideas, beliefs, spiritual or symbolic attachments, whereas everything made of matter unites. People can easily agree on eating good cheese but they will argue over whether to adopt Socialism or Evangelism. For the past 50 years, materialism has been the structure of our societies. But until recently, it was nothing more than a form of vague nihilism, a deconstruction of the old world, or rather its fraying. Now it is becoming a construction, a concept.

The philosophy of Dataism is close to that of Buddhism. And it is no accident that the brilliant champion of this new gnosis, Yuval Noah Harari (whose hilarious and depressing book also contains a web of historical nonsense), is a Buddhist. Neither the person nor the individual exist: we are nothing but an aggregate of related atoms or genes — combined algorithms. We are chemistry and biochemistry. All the rest is literature, sublimation, myths.

In other words, the historical world as well as the present, the one we see with our own eyes, full of wars, of magnificent as well as frightening events, of solemn promises and quivering expectations, everything is nothing but an immense magic trick. Because conflicts, promises, events are solely the result of biochemical algorithms. Everything is fictional when the process of reducing everything to its material state has already done away with all symbols and all meaning. In that regard, stoics were already masters in their time. As Marcus Aurelius put it in his Meditations, this delicious dish you're enjoying is nothing but "the dead body of a fish" and sex is just "a spasm."

The goal of life, and also its highest meaning, lies in the procurement of good sensations. You can call it happiness. It consists of pushing away the fear of dying, physical and mental suffering, and taming the pleasures. This can be done with the help of medication: Since everything that is human is biochemistry, there is no difference, except in the fantasized and false idea we have of it, between obtaining a sensation of pleasure through shared friendship or by taking a pill.

The result is that we have no freedom. Freedom is just another one of these made-up fictions supposed to bring meaning to our lives, just like the rest. When we claim to be free, we are actually defined by our physical and biochemical matter.

A big humanistic narrative, as grandiloquent as it is false.

This evokes the school of suspicion philosophy at the turn of the 19th and 20th century, which cast doubt on established certainties by describing them as the discourse of power-hungry leaders. It was a way of saying that our world was rigged in its fervors, that we were the victims of charlatans, artists capable of creating desirable but false sublimations.

The philosophy of Dataism is close to that of Buddhism — Photo: Ben Collins-Sussman

Dataism is based on a similar argument. Here, however, the true reality, exposed behind false beliefs, is no longer the class struggle or the subconscious, but the biochemical algorithm. Whenever we hear about human beings, freedom, personal conscience, there is actually nothing more than algorithms. We are living in a big humanistic narrative, as grandiloquent as it is false.

This revelation also causes our ethics to lose legitimacy. If humans are mere animals but more aware and more dangerous (the two go hand-in-hand), then they can be treated like animals. Brought down by the arrows of derision and therefore lost, all our human greatness will dissuade us from respecting ourselves beyond our appearances. Democracy and human rights are part of these fantasies that had us entertained for some time. Better days are coming.

Dataism will not gather humans in tight crowds and coerce us into adopting it under threat of death. It will not implant any chip by force into recalcitrant individuals, like in Yevgeny Zamyatin's novel, We. Instead, it will quickly and unscrupulously provoke the split of humanity in groups that will be more radically segregated than under the old races: there will be humans and post-humans.

The humans, for financial or cultural reasons, will remain vulnerable to internal death and will keep their relic, non-augmented brains. The post-humans will only risk death by accident as the centuries pass. And since humanist morals will have disappeared together with the equality in dignity that safeguards it, one can imagine what sort of servitude this radical split between humans will produce. This Orwellian world only advances for a good reason: to attain happiness and cheat death.

Researchers in Silicon Valley, the artisans of Singularity University, are all waiting for better days to come like the Ancient Greek incarnations of Fate. Data sums up everything and reduces it all to one thing: the biochemical or physicochemical algorithms that define us. It is undoubtedly the characteristic of ideologies to reduce the world's immense diversity to one point that is easily controllable.

As an ideology, data is an ersatz religion and has its own eschatology: the expectation of immortality and happiness on earth, thanks to total control over the body and the reduction of the definition of happiness. It is also prophetic: All of this must happen because science makes what is so desirable possible.

Dataism is an ideology of radical transformation of humanity and, in this regard, is a derivative of Marxism. Through it, the ubiquitous materialism finds its justification, its goal and its meaning. We need to urgently be concerned by it.

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