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JerryFish
Staff
Book review: The Numerati by Stephen Baker

An easy and quick read, The Numerati by Stephen Baker (2008) makes many predictions that have come true.An easy and quick read, The Numerati by Stephen Baker (2008) makes many predictions that have come true.I recently read a book called “The Numerati” by Stephen Baker. It was recommended to me because I'm interested in data analytics — though the title made me think it might have to do with secretive organizations (i.e., the Illuminati). In some sense, it does have to do with that, though it is really about companies involved in large-scale data collection and analytics, and its effects on you and me.

In essence, the book talks about all of the data that are being collected on us, much of it whether we like it or not:

  • Purchasing habits are gathered from online orders, credit card purchases, and rewards cards.
  • Locations are picked up through mobile phones, so our traffic patterns can be analyzed and interactions with individuals can be studied.
  • Sensors are being developed to give real-time information about our health.

And on and on and on.

The book is a bit dated, as it was published in 2008. However, the author makes some thoughtful projections about where the technology might be headed. It is interesting to note that many of his predictions have become reality. For example:

  • We will be "wearing" biosensors that give us feedback on our health. (Apple watches, internal monitors and bathroom scales with Bluetooth are now prevalent.)
  • Our purchasing patterns will be analyzed to tailor ads to our interests. 
  • Facial recognition software will enable stores to identify us when we walk in, and then tailor ads, placed either on shelving endcaps or on displays on shopping carts, to our interests. (We aren't quite there yet.)
  • Because web browsing patterns will indicate political preferences, candidates and parties will target us with pleas for contributions via ads and robocalls.

Of course, much of the book is related to whether it is — or is not — a good idea for companies to collect this data, and whether we should push back. The author does not take sides, but rather points out both sides of the argument. Do we really want companies to have access to this much information about our lives? Is there a way to stop it? Or should we accept it, since, for example, having real-time sensors to monitor our current health could be a boon to adjusting lifestyles to improve health, or as early warnings that a stroke is about to happen? 

This was probably the most thought-provoking aspect of the book for me. Previously, I was inclined to think that data collection in general was a violation of my privacy. But the author makes a case that the data collection and analytics can also empower us (for instance, we don't have to view many ads that don't interest us, so we save time.) This made me reconsider my views.

Stephen Baker, the author, is not necessarily a data analyst himself, but he does a great job of weaving a story of interviews with experts in the field in understandable language. This makes the book an easy and quick read (220 paperback pages).

I certainly enjoyed this read!

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2 Comments
G_M
Occasional Contributor

Definitely fun to read!

Staff

Thanks G_M!  Glad you enjoyed it too.