Words by Nikhil Kapoor
March 20, 2020
6 Minute Read
The shift in the faith from God to humans to algorithms
Let’s say you are thrown back 500 years from now and you fall sick. What would you do? Sorry, there’s no hospital around or an emergency number you can call. All you can do is to pray to God to get healthier. And that’s exactly what people used to do. For centuries, humans used to believe that the prime authority comes from the heavens and the clouds; and that the answers to all their personal and societal problems shall be resolved by God. They used the concept of God to explain everything under the sun- from diseases to the very fundamentals of nature, like where does the rain come from, what causes lightning or how life itself began. This was the phase of Theism.
But in the last 2–3 centuries, we witnessed the dawn of a sort of humanist revolution, coined as Humanism, where we started trusting our collective strength as a race, above everything.
According to Humanists International, “Humanism is a philosophical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively. Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethics based on human and other natural values in a spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.”
This phase was about putting human feelings and experience at the center of things rather than putting God as the ultimate arbiter of what should and what should not be done. A tremendous political, religious and ethical revolution that brought down authority from the clouds/Gods to Earth/humans. Humans started looking for answers to their personal as well as societal problems within themselves and in their feelings. Now let’s reconsider the same problem, if you fall sick today, you are most likely to go to a human doctor rather than praying to God for your health. You depend on humanism, a belief in your doctor and his medical training. In India, there is an old saying that doctors are second to god on this earth.
Let’s take a moment to examine how some of the most important ideas of the last 2/3 centuries across various fields of life put human feelings at the center of decision-making.
1. Politics: The voter knows the best
In humanist politics, the voter is the supreme authority. All the political decisions are taken by asking each human being what they think about it, rather than asking God. And most of the time, it’s the human feelings that decide the issue and not rational thinking.
2. Economics: The customer is always right
There are several forces driving this. In today’s digitally, socially, and physically crowded world, consumers seek products that are “unique to me.” According to Accenture Strategy’s 2017 Global Consumer Pulse Research, 81 percent of consumers want brands to get to know them and understand when they need brands- and when they don’t want brands involved in their lives.
Consumers want to know that brands understand them, but they do not want to feel like their privacy is being compromised. Your brand needs to be understanding, not invasive. By relentlessly pursuing information about customers’ mindsets and expectations, brands can keep track of where their needs are being met and monitor the pain points of where the brand is falling flat. Gut feel won’t be enough to help brands navigate the things that are working well and the things that are faltering
3. Art: The beauty lies in the eye of the beholder
In Humanist art, How do you know what is good or bad art? Art or beauty is anything that humans think or define as art or beautiful and not God.
4. Education: Think for yourself
In the age of theism, when God was the prime authority, the main purpose of education was to connect you to God and teach you what God or the bible said. In a humanist education, the main purpose of education is to enable you to think for yourself.
5. Ethics: If it feels good, do it
What is good? Or evil? What is a sin? In the middle ages, the concept of God defined all of that. It didn’t matter what people actually felt. But in a humanist society, if humans feel good about something, then it becomes ethically right to do it, unlike divine commandments. For eg- Homosexuality.
Until today, human feelings were probably the best decision-making system we knew of. But behavioral economists and evolutionary psychologists have demonstrated that most human decisions are based on emotional reactions and heuristics shortcuts rather than on rational analysis; which simply won’t work in the age of silicon valley. How we used to think that our decisions are based on ideas, intuition and hunches that can’t be predicted, leave alone duplicated. But the advent of data makes this easily calculable in the present day.
Now with the digital revolution, we are gaining all sorts of computing power necessary to accumulate huge amounts of data from every individual and process and analyze it to understand us better than we understand ourselves. The big corporations such as Google, Facebook or Amazon already have the data of where you go, what you do or what you buy. This, still, is external data that they capture. We are now very close to a point where these big corporations will start gaining the biological understanding of what is happening inside your body and your brain. This means that the most important decisions of your life will be taken based on big data algorithms rather than your own feelings. In the humanist age, the value of an experience came from within yourself. In a Dataist age, the meaning is generated by the external data processing system. The tipping point is when you have an external algorithm that understands you- your feelings, emotions, choices, desires- better than you understand them yourself.
The most important asset of the 21st century is data. Today, data is the new God and religion and, in the end, it’s all a question of authority. What is the highest source of authority that you turn to when you have a problem in your life? A thousand years ago you’d turn to the Church or any other religious institution. Today, we expect algorithms and corporations to provide us with the answer- who to date, where to live, how to deal with an economic problem. So more and more authority is shifting to these corporations/algorithms.
In the medical industry, for example, everything has moved from a belief in God to a belief that data will cure us. We now use Fitbit to monitor our health, trust robotic surgeries for precision and can change our genetic coding to strip out deadly diseases (CRISPR).
One of the major reasons we see the shift in trust from humans to computers is that computers and algorithms, that we have built, have access to a superior type of data- data that comes from within/ inside your body and, hence, are able to make decisions and predict for us with far more accuracy than any other human ever could. Computers are starting to outperform humans in more and more tasks, be it physical, cognitive or emotional. We already have supercomputers like IBM’s Watson.
In the near future, when you apply for a loan to your bank, it’s likely that your application will be processed by an algorithm rather than a human. An algorithm will decide whether to grant you the loan or not, on the basis of data gathered around your financial behaviour. When you apply for a job, an algorithm will decide whether you are fit for the role or not, whether you need medical assistance or not, based on your physical and mental data; and when looking for a life partner, an algorithm will decide whether you two are compatible with each other or not. Well, that’s already happening.
Things are moving so fast that it’s impossible to imagine what the future might hold. The world of 2100, at present, is almost unimaginable. We have no idea where we’ll fit in, if at all.
Illustration — Sourajit Sengupta
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