Culture & Ethics Icon Culture & Ethics
Neuroscience & Mind Icon Neuroscience & Mind

Can Everything Be Reduced to Data?

Image credit: Alina Grubnyak via Unsplash.

Are human beings just complicated data storage units waiting to be outclassed by artificial intelligence? A new Substack account from computer scientist and tech entrepreneur Erik J. Larson is setting out to promote something deeper and more complex than the reductionistic explanations so rampant in our culture today. He calls the Substack “Colligo,” taken from the Latin meaning “coming together.” 

“I want to show the problems with our data-driven world and show or assemble a richer humanistic picture,” writes Larson in his debut post. “Dataism is at odds with human flourishing. Data is just input into something else. If we are just data, then we are inputs into something else. It’s difficult to find a Renaissance moment in this ruinous reductionism.”

Larson is perhaps best known for his 2021 book The Myth of Artificial Intelligence: Why Computers Can’t Think the Way We Do (Harvard University Press). There Larson argues, much like Robert J. Marks does in his book Non-Computable Youthat computer and human intelligence are not interchangeable and shouldn’t be confused. He also writes on matters of tech and culture for outlets such as Wired and The Atlantic and is working on a grant-funded book now, as well. Larson spoke at the COSM technology summit in 2021, which you can enjoy below.

Now, Larson wants to streamline his thoughts on Substack. He notes that he’s not an academic, wants his ideas to be more available to the general public, and also simply wants to write beyond the occasional Atlantic article — because he has a lot to say. 

It’s encouraging to see someone of Larson’s caliber launching a Substack. Countless other writers are hopping on the Substack bandwagon, and not all of them, of course, are worth reading. Larson, though, has shown his quality through his already well-established corpus of written work. In addition, his perspective is much needed. We hear a lot of mixed-up viewpoints on AI. Some think it’s the end of the world. Others think it’s going to be our savior. Figures like OpenAI CEO Sam Altman seem to think it’s a weird mixture of both. Larson, however, brings a balanced and in-depth perspective not only to AI but to human nature, and what it is about us that’s worth preserving. 

“The World Is Screwed Up”

“My starting point is that the world is screwed up,” Larson writes. He elaborates by adding, 

For now, we can say the world we live in is dominated by data, algorithms for analyzing data, and even an understanding of ourselves as data. The popular historian Yuval Harari, for instance, declared that our modern worldview is “Dataism.” Dataism is the view that everything is data, including ourselves. As a factual statement this is either vacuously true or almost certainly false. As a worldview it’s positively anemic.


Essentially, Larson’s project goes to the level of worldview. He’ll be asking questions about what it means to be human in a computer age, and how we can resist the “tyranny of data.” All of our debates over the benefits and challenges of technology ultimately stem from our ranging perspectives on what human beings are for, and more broadly, what makes life meaningful. We are not machines and were made for more than dataistic input and output. It’s to that central idea that Larson is dedicating his new project. “I’m grateful to be able to start the Colligo community,” Larson concludes. “To gather together all of you who share a passion for truth, for good writing, and for human flourishing. It’s not a community of machines. It’s a community of people. Colligo — and you all — are part of a new humanism.”

I’m excited to subscribe and follow Larson as he kicks off this new journey. In his introductory post, Larson lays out the subscription options and sincerely hopes you’ll come along for the ride. I have a feeling we won’t be disappointed.

Cross-posted at Mind Matters News.