The Numerati

How computers and data patterns are invading our lives.

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The Numerati is a book about math that won’t cause liberal-arts majors to heave it across the room. The slender volume contains not a single esoteric Greek letter or mystifying equation.

What’s more, writer Stephen Baker artfully conjures up vivid images to explain what he’s talking about and why a reader should care.

"The Numerati” is a more literary name for what used to be called “number crunchers,” the mathematicians and computer geeks who understand programming, probability, and seemingly incomprehensible theorems. Teamed with ever more powerful computers linked to the Internet, they’re on a mission.

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“They’re looking for patterns in data that describe something almost hopelessly complex: human life and behavior,” Baker writes. “The audacity of their mission is almost maddening.”

They aim to figure out what we’re going to buy, who we’re going to vote for, how well we do our jobs, perhaps even who we’re likely to fall in love with, by analyzing the statistical patterns of data.

Think you carefully guard your privacy? Think again. It’s becoming an almost impossible task.

We all leave a trail of digital bread crumbs from our cellphone calls, Internet searches, credit card purchases, and blog entries, or on our home pages at social-networking sites such as MySpace or Facebook.

Even withholding our names doesn’t necessarily make us anonymous anymore. Eighty-seven percent of Americans can be identified by name if only their gender, birth date, and postal zip code can be determined, one recent study found.

Data whizzes, Baker concludes, “are adding us up. We are being quantified.”

East Germany used to employ thousands of spies to find out what their citizens were up to. That’s so 20th-century.

Today, “The computer will rat on us, exposing each one of our online secrets without a nanosecond of hesitation or regret.... we are in danger of becoming data serfs – slaves to the information we produce.”

We meet the Numerati in their offices, at cafes, going about their work. They seem like regular folks, though most don’t seem to have given much thought as to how computerized profiling is changing the world.

Using massive data crunches, for example, stores will be able to spot and discourage “barnacles,” shoppers who nip in to buy only discounted items. Barnacles will be identified and removed from mailing lists, not offered coupons, and otherwise deterred from shopping at that store. Shoppers who’ve shown they’re big spenders, on the other hand, could be offered extra benefits.

Political strategists already seek the help of the Numerati.

“If the data we emit gives off even the slightest whiff of ‘swing voter,’ the political Numerati will be hot on our tracks,” Baker says.

The aim: Calculate the rate of return for each advertising dollar so that ads reach only the exact people they are designed to influence.

We’re being watched and quantified. In fact, a mathematical double of each of us is being created for the Numerati to observe and experiment on. “In this new world, all of us are going to face situations in which our most intimate data is exposed, at least to somebody,” he says.

Baker, a senior writer and technology blogger at BusinessWeek, isn’t a dystopian about our shrinking privacy. He simply notes that there’s not a lot we can do about it.

We can read the small print on website privacy disclosures before we sign up (even better, one wonders, how about employing computer programs to read the legalese and alert us to any potential privacy problems?).

Someday people may market their personal data themselves, in essence, get ahead of the curve and profit from what’s going to be found out about them anyway.

At least some of the time, most people will want to be found and analyzed. We’ll want our digital identity to be out where computers can find it, whether we’re searching for love or money, Baker says.

The incentives to make ourselves intelligible to machines will be too strong to resist. “We need good page rank. We must fit ourselves to algorithms.”

Governments and businesses have long collected information on us. But never before could they collect the various bits and pieces in one spot, and then sift, shake, and sort them into a coherent picture.

The old programming adage – “garbage in, garbage out” – is growing less true, Baker says.

Powerful new algorithms are going through your digital garbage and turning it into a gold mine of data about you.

Gregory M. Lamb is on the Monitor staff.

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