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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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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