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March 24th, 2009 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

The NumeratiThe Numerati , by Stephen Baker (Houghton Mifflin 2008) [B&T Books] QA410.B35 2008.

Lent is a good time for mortification. So try this: google yourself and see just what really embarrassing, stupid, or perhaps criminal thing you’ve put out on display for God and everyone to see. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Back now? Now, here’s the scary bit: Google only scratches the surface.

Stephen Baker, in this highly readable little book, surveys the economic, political and social forces which have led us to both collect and reveal more about ourselves than at anytime in history, the methods by which people of fields as diverse as mathematics, anthropology, and psychology collaborate to find patterns and sense out of vast ocean of data we produce, and the perils and even the promises that all these endeavors. These people Baker dubs the Numerati. For some the term itself may conjure up some vast conspiracy (as in the Illumnati) or perhaps something more neutral but just as elitist (say glitterati, literati, or culturati). The ambiguity is likely intentional. What Baker brings across is that with every keystroke, every swipe of a credit or debit card, virtually any transaction or interaction we are providing information, but information that is so diverse and seemingly free-form that only those with with highly polished skill yet diverse skill sets can bring to any useful order. These new elites may shape our future, but Baker argues that they by no means control it.

Baker takes on seven topics which illustrate how those with the proper tools can extract patterns out the seeming chaos of electronic traffic: the workplace, the marketplace, the political sphere, national security, medicine, the blogesphere, and personal relationships. In each case he set out the goals of collecting information, the challenges in meeting those goals, the techniques used to overcome those challenges followed by the limitations and potential pitfalls. For instance, it is well known that the customer shopper discount cards have a dual purpose. They allow a supermarket chain to selectively target discounts to customers based on what they are more likely to buy (they also allow these chains the freedom of not giving some customers any discount, again based on buying habits). These cards also allow supermarket chains to create a finer grain demographic of their customer base. Basically, until recently, retailers have worked with fairly crude demographics (matrices based on age, sex, ethnic group and ZIP code). Shopping discount cards allow retailers to see patterns from the ground up and create groups based on aggregates of individual shoppers. Ever wonder why supermarkets use discount cards and retail merchants do not? Because grocery shopping is far more regular than retail shopping. What cards cannot do is predict what a given customer is likely to select based on the items she has already placed in the cart. Retailers are looking a ways for shoppers to get the equivalent of a “do you want fries with that” prompt while going down the aisles. How are they doing this while still allowing the shopper to remain anonymous? Check out chapter two.

Oddly, one aspect of weighing and targeting consumer sentiment seems to have been lost. You have likely seen on Amazon or Netflix an addendum to your search stating something like “People who have see x also liked y.” There are some books and movies (Napoleon Dynamite comes to mind) that just don’t fit any sort of predictive pattern. So then, could a danger of constantly reading and rereading patterns result not in a broadening of choices with true and creative novelty but simply a proliferation on variations?

Baker could have painted these numerati as in league with Big Brother and their projects as leading inextricably to a new totalitarianism. However, much of book is dedicated to profiling these individuals. In portraying their ambitions, perspectives, and even their senses of humor and insights, Baker makes it clear that those who attempt to discern the order amongst a seemingly undifferentiated plain of data know not only the promise and limits of their endeavors, but also the dangers. Perhaps this is no better illustrated than in his discussion of national security and terrorism. Bad actors attempt to stay hidden in plain sight while also covertly using the system they wish to disrupt and do so in such a way as not to repeat themselves. Unlike shoppers, they don’t want their patterns discovered. This behavior in itself creates a pattern. While Baker does interview NSA specialists, the more interesting profiles come from the world of Las Vegas casino security. The sort of data-mining operations found in counter-terrorism appear to be the same sort of operations casinos work against, writ large. The rub is that as contained as the casino world is, the amount of data casinos collect on their guests pervasive, extensive, exhaustive and almost entirely intrusive. In order to find furtive connections one must not only wade through a whole lot of background but do as little as possible to disturb things. The civil liberty issues here are obvious. What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what about what happens on AT&T or Sprint. If security falsely charges you with illicit communication at the roulette wheel, the worse that will happen is that you get tossed out (more likely, however, you can convince security that they were mistaken). The consequences of either not detecting a terrorist or wrongly identify someone as a terrorist are much higher, and the chances of being mistaken are much greater that predicting a stranger’s preferred brand of peanut butter.

Despite the perils, Baker has room for optimism. There are genuine areas where giving over and gathering vast amounts of provides the possibility of great good (here the chapter on medicine bring this view into focus). Moreover, Baker is charmingly convinced that while the numerati may set our possibilities, we are still the ones who chose and so drive the data.

jimm wetherbee

If The Numerati looks good, here are some other interesting Baker and Taylor Books. . .

  • Rapture for the Geeks: When AI Outsmarts IQ, by Ricard Dooling
    Call Number: QA76.88 D65 2008
  • Planet Google: One Company’s Audatious Plan to Organize Everything We Know, by Randall Stross.
    Call Number: HD9696.8.U64 G667 2008
  • The Black Swan: The impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
    Call Number: Q375.T35 2007