Published: October 31, 2008
Maybe you’re the kind of person who doesn’t believe that the kind of person you are can be deduced by an algorithm and expressed through shorthand categorizations like “urban youth” or “hearth keeper.” Maybe I’d agree with you, and maybe we’re right. But the kind of people — “crack mathematicians, computer scientists and engineers” — whom Stephen Baker writes about in “The Numerati” clearly see things differently. In fact, they probably regard such skepticism as more fodder for the math-driven identity formulas they’ve created to satisfy the consumer-product companies and politicians who hire them.
Baker, a writer for BusinessWeek, categorizes the categorizers into seven chapters: some number crunchers seek to decode us as shoppers, others as voters or patients or even potential terrorists. In all cases, the idea is to gather data, use computers to compile and interpret it, and draw conclusions about how we will behave — or how we might be persuaded to behave. “We turn you into math,” one of his subjects declares. Sometimes the data comes from firms that collect it from public records or subscription lists, or that conduct exhaustive attitudinal surveys, concluding on the basis of whether you own cats or subscribe to gourmet magazines which political “tribe” you belong to, and thus how a campaign should approach you (or not). But the most interesting information comes from us, particularly by way of our online activities. Baker’s savants monitor our collective (if anonymous) Web surfing patterns for “behavioral clues” that, for example, help advertisers decide when to hit us with what pitch.
You probably already have a sense that this sort of thing is going on, but Baker uncovers some surprising details. A chapter on efforts to convert the information disclosed by bloggers and users of social networks is among the most interesting. Baker offers an anecdote about a firm called Umbria helping a cellphone company that’s decided to charge more for Bluetooth data connections, a move that “sent bloggers into a fury.” Umbria, which studies bloggers and divides them into tribes, concluded that all the spleen-venting was coming from the “power users,” whereas “the fashionistas, the music lovers, the cheapskates” did not care. “With this intelligence,” Baker writes, the company could placate the power users by offering them “free” service (while raising the prices on headsets) and “continue charging everyone else.” He goes on to describe Umbria’s efforts to teach its computers to interpret blogs and draw conclusions from different phrases, font choices, background colors and even emoticons.
On one level, this is just the low comedy of the profit motive: our finest techno-wizards and their beautiful machines wrestling with the meaning of “:)” so that some cellphone company can micro-target its fee increases. But Baker also, in effect, offers a counternarrative to the usual story about the digital revolution. While millions of ordinary citizens have been empowered to express their individuality with a panoply of new tools, a smaller number of people have been working out the most efficient ways to convert those individuals into numbers on a spreadsheet.
We used to go about our business and let marketers try to catch up with us. “Today,” he writes, “we spy on ourselves and send electronic updates minute by minute.”
The most cautionary chapter concerns information-age tools that hunt for terrorists and other bad guys, which risk being “repurposed” in dangerous ways. The most optimistic one deals with data mining and health care, predicting a time when “networked gadgets” will monitor our weight, our physical activity and even our bathroom time to help us live “healthier, happier and longer lives.” Both chapters — all the chapters, really — involve a lot of speculation (many sentences begin “Let’s say . . .” or “Imagine . . .”). By and large, Baker seems to accept much of what the new “counting elite” say they can do now or will be able to do someday, but sometimes their claims and Baker’s credulity are all the reader has to go on. At one point, a data cruncher who is devising ways to improve office-worker efficiency says the underlying stochastic calculus isn’t too hard to understand, starts to explain a formula . . . and then he stops, and Baker lets it drop. Presumably he was simply more interested in keeping up his short book’s crisp pace, but “The Numerati” could have used a few more specific and nonhypothetical examples, like that Bluetooth anecdote. Baker makes only passing mention of the application of extensive mathematical modeling that the typical reader is most likely to be familiar with: the Wall Street version, which has proved, shall we say, fallible.
Still, Baker may be right in saying the mathematicians and computer scientists he writes about are or soon will be “in a position to rule the information of our lives.” Maybe you don’t believe in the version of you that some guy is coaxing out of a computer in the nondescript offices of a company you’ve never heard of. But that’s not what matters. What matters is whether that guy, and his clients, believe in it. :(
Love your way... you are Brilliant!
Alan Davidson is the author of the Free report
"Body Breakthroughs for Life Breakthroughs: How to Peak Your
Physical, Emotional, Mental, Moral, and Spiritual IQs for a
available at www.throughyourbody.com
Alan is also the author of Body Brilliance:
Mastering Your Five Vital Intelligences (IQs)