Book Review: The Numerati – How They’ll Get My Number And Yours, by Stephen Baker

numerati4Sunday Business Post, 16th November 2008

How the digital dungeon has imprisoned us all

We are all Winston Smith. We are the office functionaries in a new, global Ministry of Truth, where our phonecalls, purchases and blog-postings can all become important fodder for statisticians around the world.

These statisticians are known as the ‘Numerati’. Business Week journalist Stephen Baker has been communicating with them on our behalf for this highly-informative, enlightening and downright terrifying book.

Terrifying? Yes, because there is not, it seems, an area of our lives which cannot be measured and evaluated to a marketable end by these Numerati.

We are already familiar with the concept of the loyalty cards dished out by supermarkets, and how these companies subsequently tailor discount vouchers and ‘special offers’ to our specific shopping habits.

This information also gives them a basis for predictive analysis on future stockholding and marketing focus.

Now, apply that to practically everything we do in our daily lives, and you’re only beginning to see how the Numerati will operate in the new data age.

The Numerati aren’t simply prying into our private lives, they’re also watching what we do when we’re at work – and assessing our aptitude and suitability for our job.

Syrian-born mathematician and IBM researcher Samer Takriti is working on a project which will hone the company’s staff into a computer-readable portfolio of skills.

In effect, big companies such as IBM will be able to recruit job-specific staff by reading and scoring an individual’s suitability, adaptability, salary expectations and other minutiae of detail, in much the same way in which gamers buy players on Football Manager.

But the ultimate effect of this focused data will be to make billions of dollars for companies by rerouting tried and tested marketing devices. Conspicuous consumers will be a pushover, but even the most cynical among us will be susceptible to the new model.

If the Numerati have their way, every advert we inadvertently access in our daily lives will already be perfectly tailored to our needs, and work in tandem with our established habits, idiosyncrasies and lifestyle.

We will be tracked by our online activities, our visits to the GP, our shopping habits, and our mobile phones – there are even ways in which our facial expressions and pulse rates will betray signals we didn’t know we were transmitting. The net result will be a potentially sterile, clinical, entirely customised lifestyle.

Political preachings, retail choices, up-to-the minute insurance updates, even the details of potential soul mates, all of these will, in the Numerati’s grand design, be put in the way of each individual – and to that individual alone.

Even the smallest alterations in our behaviour or actions can be interpreted in dozens of specific ways; we could betray any potentially life-threatening illnesses before we even feel the need to visit a doctor, or be targeted as a potential terrorist before we’ve had the opportunity to cause any damage.

As a business writer, Baker is in supportive awe of these brilliant geeks and their technological and analytical advances which, to this reviewer, still seem too frighteningly fantastical to be real. The ‘Big Brother’ elements seem not to faze him and, as a piece of analysis, The Numerati, while brilliantly written and engaging throughout, too often fails to question the morality of this manipulation of our free will.

Still, it’s hard not to be charmed by the chapter entitled Lover, where traditional humanity and emotion come to the fore.

Baker puts the digital matchmaking programme Chemistry.com to the test – and fails to be matched with his wife, with whom he is very much in love. It seems that, at least in affairs of the heart, there may be some way to go before we can all live in mathematically-enhanced, blissfully suffocating ignorance.

If you are in business, this book will be a useful, future-proofing tool. If you are a conspiracy theorist who firmly believes the statisticians had your number aeons ago anyway, this book will confirm all your fears.

If you are sceptical that such laborious, clandestine shenanigans are calculated to give you a global rating or value as a human being, The Numerati will serve to make you one of the new illuminati, however you interpret the findings.

And part of the joy of this is that, if you buy it online or use your card to pay for it, they’ll immediately know you’re on to them.

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