We Are the Aliens
On a geological timescale, the emergence of the human “dataome” is like a sudden invasion by extraterrestrials, or an asteroid impact that precipitates a mass extinction
By Caleb A. Scharf on May 13, 2021
We Are the Aliens
Credit: Caleb Scharf
Something very old, very powerful and very special has been unleashed on Earth.
Humans are strange. For a global species, we’re not particularly genetically diverse, thanks in part to how our ancient roaming explorations caused “founder effects” and “bottleneck events” that restricted our ancestral gene pool. We also have a truly outsize impact on the planetary environment without much in the way of natural attrition to trim our influence (at least not yet).
But the strangest thing of all is how we generate, exploit, and propagate information that is not encoded in our heritable genetic material, yet travels with us through time and space. Not only is much of that information represented in purely symbolic forms—alphabets, languages, binary codes—it is also represented in each brick, alloy, machine, and structure we build from the materials around us. Even the symbolic stuff is instantiated in some material form or the other, whether as ink on pages or electrical charges in nanoscale pieces of silicon.
Altogether, this “dataome” has become an integral part of our existence. In fact, it may have always been an integral, and essential, part of our existence since our species of hominins became more and more distinct some 200,000 years ago. This idea, which I also pursue in my upcoming book, The Ascent of Information, leads to a number of quite startling and provocative proposals.
For example, let’s consider our planetary impact. Today we can look at our species’ energy use and see that of the roughly six to seven terawatts of average global electricity production, about 3 percent to 4 percent is gobbled up by our digital electronics, in computing, storing and moving information. That might not sound too bad—except the growth trend of our digitized informational world is such that it requires approximately 40 percent more power every year. Even allowing for improvements in computational efficiency and power generation, this points to a world in some 20 years where all of the energy we currently generate in electricity will be consumed by digital electronics alone.
And that’s just one facet of the energy demands of the human dataome. We still print onto paper, and the energy cost of a single page is the equivalent of burning five grams of high-quality coal. Digital devices, from microprocessors to hard drives, are also extraordinarily demanding in terms of their production, owing to the deep repurposing of matter that is required. We literally fight against the second law of thermodynamics to forge these exquisitely ordered, restricted, low-entropy structures out of raw materials that are decidedly high-entropy in their messy natural states. It is hard to see where this informational tsunami slows or ends.
All of which raises the question: Why exactly are we doing this?
An unexpected answer is that it’s not just us doing this. Our dataome looks like a distinct, although entirely symbiotic (even endosymbiotic), phenomenon. Homo sapiens arguably only exists as a truly unique species because of our coevolution with a wealth of externalized information; starting from languages held only in neuronal structures through many generations, to our tools and abstractions on pottery and cave walls, all the way to today’s online world.
But symbiosis implies that all parties have their own interests to consider as well. Seeing ourselves this way opens the door to asking whether we’re calling all the shots. After all, in a gene-centered view of biology, all living things are simply temporary vehicles for the propagation and survival of information. In that sense the dataome is no different, and exactly how information survives is less important than the fact that it can do so. Once that information and its algorithmic underpinnings are in place in the world, it will keep going forever if it can.
A very simple example can be seen in any of the great works of human literature, from Lao Tzu to Shakespeare. These writings, these informational packages, have found a way to persist through time by attaching themselves to us. We eagerly read them, restructuring our brains to remember them, and we go to great lengths to copy and reproduce these works, again and again across the centuries and in many languages and forms. But these texts aren’t just memes; they’re more like parts of a budded-off extended human phenotype that has its own processes and its own capacity to pressure the world around it to try to ensure its survival.
In the course of life’s three-to-four-billion-year history on Earth, it doesn’t seem that anything exactly like this has actually happened before. On a geological timescale, the emergence of the human dataome is like a sudden alien invasion, or an asteroid impact that precipitates a mass extinction—changing how energy flows and how the biosphere functions. It’s not just flesh-and-blood life on this world anymore. By a quirk of evolution, our very existence as clever talkative apes has gone hand-in-hand with the unleashing of something else, a new trick for the restructuring of matter in service of a phenomenon with very deep roots in the statistical arrangement of atoms and molecules, in their order and disorder or dispersal: in entropy and its cousin, information.
Look around where you are right now, at the walls of your room, or the chair you’re sitting on. Or the light you’re reading by, and the screen or paper you’re reading these words from. In the end, all of these things are here in support of data, of ideas and of the most potent quantity in the universe: information. Our very alien dataome may just be the harbinger of things to come.
This is an opinion and analysis article.