Historian Yuval Harari has been given space in FT to pen a teaser-article on how Big Data would take away the remnants of free will. As a teaser article, it serves the purpose. It whets the appetite for the book’s conclusions. But, big data is not the first threat to free will. The notion of free will can be and has been debated ad nauseam.
The absence of free-will had been noted by spiritual teachers. More recently, behavioural scientists have noted the absence of free will. Just a day earlier, I read this article. It was published three months ago. It records that there is no free will.
Consumer marketing is already a repudiation of the so-called free will. At the basic level, framing of a sentence or question can change the way we respond. Most of us know that. Dan Ariely’s famous TED talk, ‘Are we in control of our own decisions?’ demonstrated rather well that free will is an illusion. In other words, science is validating spiritual truths.
More often, we end up justifying or rationalising our decisions, after the fact. So, big data, to the extent it succeeds, will be an extension of these trends. It may also spell their end because humans push everything beyond their logical relevance or SELL BY date – whether it is quantitative easing or political correctness.
Therefore, big data might end up achieving the opposite, eventually: giving humans back a semblance of control rather than wresting from them whatever little humans think they have of it.
As one of my bosses told me some twenty-two years ago – he was young then nor is he too old now – life is nothing but a series of accidents. I understand it far better now. Big data cannot really change that.
The book should be an interesting read regardless of the conclusions that Prof. Harari might want us to take away from it.