The Selfish Dataome

Caleb Scharf in Nautilus:

You’ve heard the argument before: Genes are the permanent aristocracy of evolution, looking after themselves as fleshy hosts come and go. That’s the thesis of a book that, last year, was christened the most influential science book of all time: Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. But we humans actually generate far more actionable information than is encoded in all of our combined genetic material, and we carry much of it into the future. The data outside of our biological selves—call it the dataome—could actually represent the grander scaffolding for complex life. The dataome may provide a universally recognizable signature of the slippery characteristic we call intelligence, and it might even teach us a thing or two about ourselves. It is also something that has a considerable energetic burden. That burden challenges us to ask if we are manufacturing and protecting our dataome for our benefit alone, or, like the selfish gene, because the data makes us do this because that’s what ensures its propagation into the future. Take, for instance, William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616 and his body was buried two days later in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-Upon-Avon. His now-famous epitaph carries a curse to anyone who dares “move my bones.” And as far as we know, in the past 400 years, no one has risked incurring Will’s undead wrath. But he has most certainly lived on beyond the grave. At the time of his death Shakespeare had written a total of 37 plays, among other works. Those 37 plays contain a total of 835,997 words. In the centuries that have come after his corporeal life an estimated 2 to 4 billion physical copies of his plays and writings have been produced. All of those copies have been composed of hundreds of billions of sheets of paper acting as vessels for more than a quadrillion ink-rich letters.

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