CLR INTERVIEW: Stephen Baker is a writer for BusinessWeek and Blogspotting.net. His most recent book is The Numerati, a look into the work of a new “math intelligentsia” that is gathering and analyzing immense amounts of data about our lives. Below is Stephen’s interview with the California Literary Review.
- The Numerati
- Houghton Mifflin, 256 pp.
So, who are the Numerati and what do they want from us?
The Numerati are elite mathematicians and computer scientists who master the tools and techniques to sift through mountains of personal data, detect the patterns of individuals, and build predictive models of our behavior as shoppers, voters, patients, even potential terrorists. They work at places like IBM, Google and the National Security Agency.
Would you explain when and where it is that we give the Numerati information about ourselves in the course of our normal daily routine?
We deliver much of our information to the Numerati as we go about our day-to-day routines. The Internet, of course, is a huge source of data. Every click and keystroke can be analyzed. Every movement we make with our cell phone produces data about our location, every call on the phone describes our circle of contacts. Credit cards paint our portraits as consumers. Growing numbers of security cameras track our movements in stores and city streets.
You make it clear throughout your book that we are still generally anonymous – that the data gathered about us does not have a name attached to it. How difficult would it be to attach a name and address to the information that is collected about a person?
It would be easy to attach names and identities to much of our behavior. Companies often choose not to in order to avoid customer resentment and, perhaps, political and legal battles.
How possible is it to protect one’s privacy? What would a person have to do to keep the Numerati out of their life?
Even without the Numerati, privacy is a very difficult thing to protect. The government keeps track of our finances. Airline security personnel scrutinize our luggage. Neighbors and colleagues gossip. It’s true that the Numerati add a new dimension of surveillance. But it’s important to remember that most of this work is done by machines looking for patterns. Only in exceptional circumstances do the machines run by the Numerati hand over our dossiers to humans. As far as keeping the Numerati out of our life, it’s becoming ever more difficult. Fifteen years ago it was possible to conceive living a modern life without the Internet and cell phones. Now such a life would be highly challenging, and at best inconvenient.
This technology is truly a double-edged sword. Let’s start with a positive example. Can you point to a specific application where quantifying our lives seems particularly beneficial?
In the past, rich people benefited from customized service. The rest of us were treated as undifferentiated herds. With the rise of the Numerati, more of us will get targeted, customized treatment. We’ll be shown the books, movies, food and vacations we’re most likely to want. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But the best part of customization, in my view, will be personalized medicine. Today, if you and I both get the same illness, we’ll likely get the same prescription. It might make you sick and be too small a dose to do any good for me. Customized medicine, based on the mathematical study of our behavior and our genomes, could revolutionize health care.
How about a negative example, one that made you uncomfortable with the way this information is being gathered and used?
What the Numerati do is statistical analysis. They look for patterns. In their zeal to find potential terrorists, they may nab innocent people whose movements and routines follow suspicious patterns. It’s not a big deal if they get us wrong as shoppers or voters. But the stakes are much higher in terrorism. This is especially problematic in societies that do not guarantee legal rights such as habeas corpus and the presumption of innocence.
In researching this book, did any unsettling philosophical issues creep into your thoughts? If we can so easily be quantified, what does that say about what it means to be human? What does it say about free will? Do the Numerati ever discuss these kinds of questions?
They talk about those philosophical issues all the time. The fact is that these are the early days for the Numerati. They’re nowhere close to decoding the complexity of human behavior. They’re only beginning to understand our patterns and make the first connections. A grocery store, for example, might calculate that there’s an 85% chance that you’ll buy discounted Romano cheese. A political Numerati might conclude, correctly, that you’re likely to be the only Democrat on your street. Those bits of information are very valuable to them, but they have much more to figure out.