In this month’s article. Mike Farahbakhshian shows how ancient superstitions live once more, as massive distributed systems like NoSQL and IoT evolve beyond data collection into distributed decision making. See how controversial anthropology and dystopian space operas show us how to envision this brave new world and why. Estimated reading time: 9 minutes. Suggested drink pairing: Garnacha or Priorat
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke
In the grim future of the year 40,000, the galaxy is in a state of endless war between species. Humanity is lashed together in a vast interstellar Imperium that is corrupt and fraying at every seam. It is uncertain if their leader, the God-Emperor of Humanity, is dead, or comatose. One of his last acts was to ban artificial intelligence, and thus all technology has been delegated to the cybernetically enhanced Tech-Priests of Mars, the Adeptus Mechanicus.
These priests forge and repair all technology, but its understanding has been lost to time. They invoke “machine spirits” before using every tool, lest the “machine spirit” become enraged and cause a malfunction of a weapon or spaceship. Are the spirits real or mere superstition? Are they fragments of a contraband artificial intelligence or something far more alien and sinister? No one knows.
Okay, so this isn’t real: this is from the sci-fi schlock-fest that is Warhammer 40,000. If you haven’t experienced it, imagine if Alejandro Jodorowsky actually delivered his failed attempt at a Dune movie… after a bender with Salvador Dali. Yet within this pile of dung is a piercing insight into human psychology and an equally shocking revelation into the future of Big Data.
The revelation? We must placate the Machine Spirits.
Why? Distributed logic and the intertwining of software and data. The era of Big Data is over. The era of Big Logic has begun.
Okay, I’ll explain this in more detail. Let’s begin this wild ride not 40,000 years in the future, but 40,000 years in the past.
Household Gods: Animism, Magic, and the Delegation of Control
Between 1890 and 1915, Sir James George Frazer wrote a controversial book called The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion. It is an exhaustive study of superstitions, rituals, and beliefs among a variety of peoples: Stone Age hunter-gatherer tribes, Bronze age city-states, and civilizations of antiquity.
The thesis is that society progresses in a uniform fashion: tribes of people initially believe in an animistic world, in which everything is imbued with a spirit. As society becomes more hierarchical, certain tasks are delegated to shamans, and finally religious clerics. Yet certain atavisms of the earlier belief systems remain. The tamest example:[i]: The term pontiff, which comes from an Archaic Latin word for “bridge,” refers to an ancient Roman belief that the spirits of bridges required placation by a religious caste to keep the bridge sound.
The key takeaway: the world of early humans was decentralized and individual people had very little control of events. A tree branch might fall, and with no scientific understanding of what would cause it, the data (a tree branch was attached to the tree at moment X, and is on the ground at moment Y) is conflated with the control (something made the tree branch fall). If an apple falls off a tree and hits you on the head, and you have no idea of the science behind it, you’d rightfully conclude that the tree intentionally dropped the apple. Why: Self-defense? A gift? A warning? That is up to interpretation, and the origin of many superstitions.
Early human language reflects this obsession with animacy and intent[ii], and a few relics survive in modern English: the verbs look versus see, or listen versus hear. Fans of historical linguistics — all three of you poor fellows — will know that there were two Proto-Indo-European words for “fire[iii]” and “water[iv],” one describing the material and one describing the material in action.
As technology advanced to allow people more control of their environment, society in turn became more hierarchical and controlled. While each individual person had more power over his or her environment, they in turn were ruled by family, community, and state. Belief systems reflect this: the Roman household gods of the pantry (the panes) and the household (lares) were subordinate to the state gods (Jupiter, Juno and Vesta). For much of Japanese History, the Shinto spirits (kami) were subordinate to the state and Emperor.