The Dawn of Algorithmic Man, or an Even Worse Death
by Mark Wallace
Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus (2016) chronicles the (as he sees it) ongoing death of humanism, which Nuval sees as the “religion” that has dominated the world for 300 years. It is to be replaced by Dataism, the belief in the wisdom of algorithms, which are beginning already to know us better than we know ourselves, and which will soon be making decisions on all our behalves:
You may not agree with the idea that organisms are algorithms, and that giraffes, tomatoes and human beings are just different methods for processing data. But you should know that this is current scientific dogma, and it is changing our world beyond recognition. (429)
It is perhaps unnerving to contemplate the approaching death of human subjectivity in its familiar form. Yet I for one welcome our algorithmic overlords. This is because our subjective death at their hands will serve merely to spare us as a species from an even worse death in the long run. Ever since 19th century studies into the nature of deep time and of the universe, our inescapable doom has been present to the general consciousness. The Victorians knew, as their ancestors had not, that the sun was destined to die, and mankind along with it. This, in its novelty, was perhaps a starker reality to them than it is to us. Take, for example, Joseph Conrad’s reflection on the death of the sun, and its implications for ideologies of progress:
The fate of a humanity condemned ultimately to perish from cold is not worth troubling about. If you take it to heart it becomes an unendurable tragedy. If you believe in improvement you must weep, for the attained perfection must end in cold, darkness and silence.
Quoted in Cedric Watts, A Preface to Conrad (Longman, 1982), p. 87
H.G. Wells, too, was preoccupied by this inevitability, and its implications for the belief in progress. In Men Like Gods (1923), for example, he writes:
[O]ur sun and planets are cooling, and there seems no hope of escape from the little world upon which we have arisen. We were born with it, and we must die with it. That robbed many of us of hope and energy: for why should we work for progress in a world that must freeze and die?
Why indeed? The death of the sun provides a more final and absolute denouement for the human race than even the impending climate catastrophe anticipated by scientific consensus. We don’t have the means to build a civilisation outside of the solar system, or even to get a single person out there. Human progress is ultimately futile. Let us leave it, then, to the algorithms. Long before the death of the sun, if Harari is correct, they will have taken over, probably reduced humanity to slaves, drones, our currently overdeveloped consciousnesses existing at subsistence level. At least, though, we are spared Conrad’s apocalyptical vision, which becomes one less thing to worry about.
It may not end in cold, darkness and silence as Conrad thought, but the death of the sun will be the obliteration of the Earth, and will be one which we will see coming long before it arrives. In this context, we should welcome the anaesthesia that will come with the dawn of algorithmic man. We can already feel the numbness taking over, as our bodies and minds adjust to lives as adjuncts to technology. The great anaesthetising is only beginning, and will take generations. Resistance is probably futile, but in any case misguided.