The latest threat to liberal democracy: dataism



We are approaching another “end of history” moment – but with a difference, argues John Naughton, professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University.

In his famous 1989 article, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that the collapse of the Soviet empire meant the end of the great ideological battle between east and west and the “universalization of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”, he writes for The Guardian:

This was a bold, but not implausible, claim at the time. What Fukuyama [a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy] could not have known is that a new challenge to liberal democracy would eventually materialize, and that its primary roots would lie not in ideology but in bioscience and information technology.

For that, in a nutshell, is the central argument of Yuval Noah Harari’s new book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. In a way, it’s a logical extension of his previous book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which chronicled the entire span of human history, from the evolution of Homo sapiens up to the political and technological revolutions of the 21st century, and deservedly became a world bestseller.

What saves Harari’s argument from ridicule is that he sets the scientific and technological story within an historically informed analysis of how liberal democracy evolved, Naughton adds. And he provides a plausible account of how the defining features of the liberal democratic order might indeed be upended by the astonishing knowledge and tools that we have produced in the last half-century.

“In the early 21st century,” Harari writes in a striking passage, “the train of progress is again pulling out of the station – and this will probably be the last train ever to leave the station called Homo sapiens. Those who miss this train will never get a second chance. In order to get a seat on it, you need to understand 21st century technology, and in particular the powers of biotechnology and computer algorithms.”

In place of the founding tenets of modernity – liberalism, democracy and personal autonomy – there is a new religion: Dataism, Cambridge University’s David Runciman notes:

Its followers – many of whom reside in the Bay Area of California – put their faith in information by encouraging us to see it as the only true source of value. We are what we contribute to data processing. There is potentially a huge upside to this: it means we will face fewer and fewer obstacles to getting what we want, because the information needed to supply us will be instantly accessible. Our likes and our experiences will merge. Our lifespans could also be hugely extended: Dataists believe that immortality is the next frontier to be crossed. But the downside is obvious, too. Who will “we” be any more? Nothing more than an accumulation of information points. Twentieth-century political dystopias sought to stamp on individuals with the power of the state. That won’t be necessary in the coming century.

As Harari says: “The individual will not be crushed by Big Brother; it will disintegrate from within.”


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