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“This is a fascinating outing of the hidden yet exploding world of digital surveillance and stealthy intrusions into our decision-making processes as we buy food, make a date, or vote for president. Yet, as Baker assures us, we are not helpless. For one thing, machines still can’t process sarcasm. Read and resist.” — Booklist, STARRED REVIEW
“Captivating . . . an intriguing but disquieting look at a not too distant future when our thoughts will remain private, but computers will disclose our tastes, opinions, habits and quirks to curious parties, not all of whom have our best interests at heart.” — Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW
“Baker’s smart, readable style makes this a pleasure. A must-read for anyone who wants to understand life and business in the Google Age.”
—Chris Anderson, Editor-in-Chief of Wired and author of The Long Tail
“In this timely and compelling book, Stephen Baker pulls back the curtain on the number-crunchers who have insinuated themselves into our lives. You’ll be amazed, alarmed—and, at times, even inspired—by the power of this new geek elite to predict whom we’ll marry, what we’ll buy, and how we’ll vote.”
—Daniel H. Pink, author of A Whole New Mind
“An eye-opening look at the shadowy hunt to uncover who we are and what we’re looking for. The Numerati is a story about human invention, creativity, and the thirst to understand and predict human behavior in the digital age.”
—Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational
by Stephen Baker
Every day, we produce rivers of personal data simply by living our lives—clicking Web pages, flipping through channels, swiping credit cards, and making cell phone calls. Companies like Yahoo! and Google are harvesting an average of 2,500 details about each of us every month. Who is looking at all this data? And what are they doing with it—and with us? Those are the urgent questions journalist Stephen Baker explores in The Numerati (September 15, 2008), and his answers are both surprising and unsettling.
In one of the most ambitious undertakings of the twenty-first century, a new math intelligentsia is devising ways to dissect our every move and predict, with stunning accuracy, what we will do next. Their goal? To manipulate our behavior—what we buy, how we vote, whom we love—without our even realizing it.
As Baker illustrates in this compulsively readable tour-de-force of original reporting and analysis, these Numerati have infiltrated every realm of human affairs, quietly profiling each of us as shoppers, patients, voters, potential terrorists—even lovers. The implications are vast: our privacy evaporates. Our bosses can monitor and measure our every move. Politicians can zero in on our values to try to swing us in a tight election. But the Numerati are also working on our behalf, using methods perfected in Las Vegas casinos to track potential terrorists, helping us to find our soul mates—even transforming health care by diagnosing illnesses like Parkinson’s years before symptoms become obvious. As one member of the Numerati tells Baker, “The next Jonas Salk will be a mathematician, not a doctor.”
Enlightening and entertaining, The Numerati shows how a powerful new endeavor—the mathematical modeling of humanity—is transforming every aspect of our lives.
Stephen Baker has written for BusinessWeek for over twenty years, covering Mexico and Latin America, the Rust Belt, European technology, and a host of other topics, including blogs, math, and nanotechnology. But he’s always considered himself a foreign correspondent—an approach that was especially useful as he met the Numerati. “While I came from the world of words, they inhabited the symbolic realms of math and computer science,” Baker says. “This was foreign to me. My reporting became an anthropological mission.”
Baker has written for many publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe. He won an Overseas Press Club Award for his portrait of the rising Mexican auto industry. He is the coauthor of blogspotting.net, featured by the New York Times as one of fifty blogs to watch. He’s also launching thenumerati.net.
Baker will embark on a national author tour in support of The Numerati this fall. Cities will include New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Austin, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle.
THE NUMERATI – Stephen Baker’s Book Tour
Sun., Sept. 14
Globe & Mail/Ben McNally Brunch Series
New York, NY
Tues., Sept. 16
Google, Author Talk
Wed., Sept. 17
Carnegie Mellon University,
School of Computer Science Breakfast Event
Carnegie Mellon University, Center for Analytical Research and Technology (CART) Seminar
Borders (Bethal Park)
Tues., Sept. 23
Treasury Executive Institute (U.S. Mint) Talk
Noblis, “Tech Tuesday” Talk
Borders (Tyson’s Corner)
Sun., Oct. 12
INFORMS Annual Meeting
Wed., Sept. 24
EmTech08 at MIT, Lunch Speaking Session
Thurs., Sept. 25
Powell’s Books (1005 W. Burnside)
Tues., Sept. 30
Microsoft Speaker Series
Elliott Bay Book Company
San Francisco, CA
Thurs., Oct. 2
Yahoo! Author Talks
(Mission College; Sunnyvale)
11 a.m., 1 p.m.
Business and Leadership Forum
Mon., Oct. 6
Barnes & Noble (3535 US Route 1)
Tues., Nov. 18
University of Texas at Austin,
2008 Ready to Commercialize Conference,
Keynote Speech/Panel Discussion
Wed., Nov. 19
Thurs., Dec. 11
Free Library of Philadelphia
Fri., Dec. 12
Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce Talk
A Conversation with Stephen Baker
Who—or what—are the Numerati?
They’re members of a global elite of computer scientists and mathematicians, and they’re busy analyzing our every move. They’re rummaging through mountains of data in search of our behavior patterns so that they can predict what we might want to buy, who we’re likely to vote for, what job we’d do better than our colleagues. Some are even matching us with potential lovers. The Numerati are masters of symbolic realm. The Googleplex is crawling with Numerati. So is IBM.
When I started this book, I thought that the Numerati were different from the rest of us—
that they were “numbers people.” But as I watched them study our shopping and voting patterns, I saw this wasn’t true. They analyze data in much the same way all of us do every day. Let’s say a friend asks you for a $100 loan. You immediately begin working through data and probabilities. How much does she earn? Does she lie more than most people? What are the chances she’ll move? What will she do if you say no? You give different weight to each variable.
That’s exactly what the Numerati do. In a sense, we’re all Numerati. But in their calculations they deal with millions of us at the same time, and they use big machines.
Data collection is old hat. What’s new about what the Numerati are doing?
Imagine that a detective or a biographer wanted to piece together a year of your life—say, 1991. For this, he might have to climb up to your attic and dig through boxes of letters, folders of snapshots, telephone bills, all sorts of paper. He might have to interview friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Our histories used to exist largely on paper and in foggy memories—but that has changed. Our photos and correspondence, and practically everything we do at the office, now travels as digital data. With this shift, we now deliver the details about our lives in a single standard set of symbols: ones and zeros. Who can make sense of all that data, turning it into new insights about us? Only the Numerati.
This shift can be frustrating for those of us who studied humanities. There used to be a pretty clear divide. The math types stuck to engineering and science and architecture—and they left the study of humans to us. Those of us who dropped Calc 101 could still rise high in psychology, journalism, law, and marketing. But now the Numerati are storming into these fields.
Not that those of us in the humanities are standing still. We’ll increasingly be using the Numerati’s tools and methods on our own behalf. This might mean scouting out the most reliable heart surgeons in our area, drawing up résumés that pop to the top of search results, or installing software to crunch our jogging data and put us on the optimal regimen to train for the Boston Marathon.
Was there a “spark moment” that inspired you to write this book?
I was at IBM Research, talking to Samer Takriti, a Syrian-born mathematician. He was telling me about his goal to build mathematical models of 50,000 of his colleagues. He explained that he and his team had all the data they needed to create simulations of those workers. One day, his group would be able to predict how productive each person would be, which ones would work best together, which ones were worth training.
That afternoon I drove home from IBM’s Watson Lab, about forty miles north of New York. I remember replaying Takriti’s words as I crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge and thinking, If they can model us as workers, then others can model us as patients, shoppers, voters . . . This is the mathematical modeling of humanity! That was when the book popped into focus.
Will the reign of the Numerati cause a backlash in defense of privacy?
I doubt it. From what I’ve seen, people say they care about privacy. But they often aren’t willing to sacrifice money, convenience, or the promise of safety for it. I know that I zip through EZ Pass, carry a cell phone, and let the supermarket snoop on me by using a loyalty card. In each case I’m sacrificing privacy. And if there’s a chance that I can make my soon-to-be-sixteen teenager safer on the road, I’ll happily turn our car into a surveillance-mobile.
Is this a business book?
No. It’s about us. It’s about how the Numerati are deciphering our behavior and how this will change our world.
Don’t get me wrong—what the Numerati are doing is a crucial trend in business. The Numerati are remaking entire industries, starting with advertising and media. This book began as a BusinessWeek cover story, “Math Will Rock Your World.” Lots of the Numerati we get to know in this book are working for businesses, including Yahoo, Accenture, and Chemistry.com. But the focus is not on the business, or how they’ll make money. It’s on how the Numerati are gaining control of our lives, at work, at the mall, at the doctor’s office.
Do the Numerati make mistakes?
All the time. They rely on statistics and probability, and sometimes they get it wrong. Just one piece of data can topple the most brilliant mathematical analysis. That happened to me—it kept Chemistry.com, when we tested the system, from lining me up with my wife. One danger is that people will accept the analyses of the Numerati without question, because they’re delivered with the certainty of science. I hope that people who read this book will be in a better position to understand what goes into these conclusions—and to refute them if necessary.
Should we be scared of the Numerati?
Let’s say . . . vigilant. They have unprecedented power to uncover our secrets. And their predictions, produced by algorithms, will have a lot to say about whether we get a job, how much we spend for health insurance, even if we’ll get swept up as a terrorism suspect.
Here’s what we have to keep in mind: the Numerati are not always right. They work with statistics, often delivering stunning results. A grocer, for example, will be thrilled if 60 percent of targeted shoppers go for a promotion on filet mignon. It won’t matter if a few of those getting coupons are vegans or devout Hindus. But shift the focus from shopping to brain cancer or homeland security. Then the errors—what the Numerati call “false positives”—become a very big deal. So we don’t want them to misread us. At the same time, we don’t want them to know us and predict our behavior too well. That would feel a bit like Big Brother was watching, which is a danger.
What was the most frightening thing you discovered while writing this book?
The possibility of a police state. The Numerati are crunching our consumer and demographic data to predict what kind of voters we are, and whether we’re likely to buy Hummers. Fair enough. But let’s say a government committed to law and order goes through the consumer records of convicted pedophiles and builds a statistical profile of a child molester. Are civil libertarians going to fight this? Whose side are they on, they’ll be asked, that of children or sex criminals? That’s a hard battle to fight.
Then let’s say the authorities match this profile against that of every teacher in the country. It wouldn’t be hard to do. It turns out the guy teaching eighth-grade English at the local school has a 43 percent chance of being a pedophile. What then? Should he be fired? Should parents be warned about him? Will the authorities be legally liable if they do nothing and that teacher later commits a crime? Questions like these open a big can of worms and potentially undermine our law’s presumption of innocence until guilt is proven.
How about the most inspiring?
That would be David Heckerman. He’s a researcher at Microsoft, and also an M.D. He was doing research on filtering e-mail for spam. This meant chasing a moving target because the spammers kept tweaking their e-mails to get past filters. It was almost as if that spam mutated. It occurred to Heckerman one day that maybe his spam-hunting algorithm could anticipate the mutations of HIV, the virus that leads to AIDs. That’s one really cool thing about the Numerati—they can jump from one discipline to the next, often riding the same algorithms. And that’s what Heckerman did. He moved his Microsoft team into HIV research. Though they haven’t developed an effective vaccine yet, they’re making progress.
How are the Numerati affecting this election?
Microtargeting is the rage in this election year. It’s based on the statistical analysis of every conceivable piece of our data, from our subscription to Wired or HBO to the number of school-age children we have living at home. The big campaign push, and most of the money, is still in the mass market, things like TV ads. But if a candidate can use microtargeting to zero in on a few thousand voters in crucial districts, it could spell the difference in the election.
Were you and your wife surprised by the results of your online matchmaking experiment?
I was surprised that my wife put up with it. She was deeply reluctant to sign up for Chemistry.com and not happy at all that I did it so enthusiastically. Initially, we were both perplexed that the system didn’t match us. They were trying to set her up with some guy who lived on the far side of JFK Airport, about an hour and a half away from our house. And I wasn’t even showing up in her results, though I live in the same town (and the same house). Eventually, we learned about the small error on my part that was keeping us apart. We both felt better in the end.
Which chapter was the most fun to write?
I loved reporting the medicine chapter. It took me to Oregon, where Intel researchers have wired the homes of elderly people with countless sensors. They have cameras, motion detectors, microphones that pick up changes in the voice, and even sensors under the floor to detect shifts in a person’s balance. Some of it sounds outrageous, but I think many of us are going to be living our golden years under this type of surveillance, all of our patterns of movement analyzed statistically. Sometimes, though, this can lead to misunderstandings. The Intel people had one woman’s bed wired to monitor her weight. One night it seemed she gained seven or eight pounds. Was she taking on liquids? Congestive heart failure? As it turned out, her little dog had jumped on the bed. Another false positive.
How did your experience as a journalist prepare you to write this book?
Well, it certainly didn’t teach me any math. In fact, I wrote the book for people like me—
those who tend to close any book with equations or Greek letters running across the pages . . .
I’d say my experience as foreign correspondent helped. I spent years in places like Mexico, France, and Venezuela, and I viewed my job as anthropological—bridging cultural and linguistic divides. I approached the Numerati’s realm as a foreign culture, one that had its own lingo and worldview. One of the keys to this kind of reporting, I should add, is a readiness to ask dumb questions. I’m quite good at that.
What are the biggest misconceptions about the Numerati?
Did you ever hear the joke about the extrovert at the math party? He was the one looking at someone else’s shoes.
We have this idea that there are word people and numbers people, and that the numbers people lack social skills. That’s not true. In fact, we’re all both word and numbers people. And when it came to communication, most of the Numerati I met were highly articulate in English, even when it was their second or third language.
Are the Numerati transforming realms of our lives other than those discussed in the book?
Where there’s data, the Numerati are rushing in. I was thinking for a while about writing a chapter on how they’ll help us optimize our bodies. Bikers like Lance Armstrong are already doing this, measuring the energy they expend, the calories they eat—basically fine-tuning themselves as machines. These techniques will grow more sophisticated, and hobbyists will pick them up. Those who follow the best algorithms should win.
Which areas of our lives are the Numerati transforming most quickly?
They’re racing ahead in shopping, marketing, advertising, and media. Look at Google. It’s revolutionizing entire industries (including my own) by applying mathematics and computer science—the tools of the Numerati—to the world of information. It’s a case of numbers colonizing words.
When they get to the final page of The Numerati, what do you hope readers will be thinking and feeling?
I hope they start seeing (or imagining) the Numerati at work everywhere they look, whether at school, at work, at the hospital, or at the grocery store. That has happened to me. I’m acutely aware of the data that I’m sending out into the world, whether I’m driving through an EZ Pass on the Garden State Parkway or checking the baseball scores on my PC at work. Hmm, I wonder. What conclusions will they draw from that? If readers of the book start thinking this way, perhaps they’ll analyze the patterns of their own behavior and the data they produce. For many of us, it’s a new way to learn about ourselves. And like it or not, it’s the way the rest of the world will get to know us.
Meet The Numerati (pdf)