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The Numerati, By Stephen Baker

Tim Walker
Friday 12 December 2008 01:00

Imagine a future in which our bosses work to get the best out of us, where retailers regularly bombard us with targeted advertising, where pollsters try to predict our voting habits and dating agencies our romantic preferences. Sounds rather like now, doesn't it?

But with the help of the Numerati – those computer experts, statisticians and analysts that give Stephen Baker's book its title – advertisers, employers and the rest will be able to pinpoint our tastes with ever increasing accuracy.

From medical records to movie tastes, more of our personal information is becoming available to those who know how to tap the digital stream, and it's being exploited to track and predict our shopping lists, our political predilections, even the state of our health. The Numerati's ongoing project, writes Baker, is "the mathematical modelling of humanity."

Much of his book is made up of infor-mation that anyone who's been paying attention already knows or could surmise. By turning a person's habits at work or play into numerical data, computers can analyse behaviour for the benefit of employers who want to optimise their workforce, digital marketers trying to ensnare us based on the content of our emails, and so on. "Advertisers," Baker writes, "can anticipate people's online journeys – and sprinkle their paths with just the right ads."

This much is familiar to anyone who regularly uses the internet. That such processes are becoming more sophisticated isn't surprising in itself. Baker often fails to give enough mathematical detail to make those processes fascinating, and rarely produces compelling portraits of the Numerati themselves. Instead we get vague descriptions of the views from their office windows, or of the coffee shops in which he waits with his laptop to meet them.

The book also suffers from poor timing by touching on pollsters' activities in Virginia during the 2005 gubernatorial election. Evidently written before the recent presidential election, it misses a trick: there's surely another book to be written about the number crunching of Obama's personal Numerati there.

The narrative nonetheless heats up in the chapter on voting patterns. Baker describes with some clarity the shift from easily definable social and voter demographics in previous decades, to the current fragmentation, with today's Democrats frequently hiding among communities of Republicans and vice versa. Pollsters now require far more detailed data to do their jobs, while advertisers need more advanced tools to help consumers to cut through the crap in a world of endless choice.

Later in the book, Baker and his wife become willing guinea pigs for an online dating agency eager to prove its matchmaking skills. Set up at first with a slew of unfamiliar women, Baker soon realises that he's entered his age preferences incorrectly. He tweaks his online profile and – hey presto! – up pops Mrs Baker at the top of the list. The site matches partners using not only their stated preferences, but also the elements of their personality that are unintentionally revealed in their profile by, for instance, the breadth of their vocabulary. Even our love lives can be broken down into ones and zeroes.

On the other hand, the author is at pains to emphasise the Numerati's limitations. Computers might be able to cope with extremely complex tasks, but some of the most simple human skills are beyond them, such as picking out the words "Osama bin Laden" in different languages – the name has 11 different spellings in Chinese alone, which a computer must be taught.

In a constructive conclusion, Baker stresses that the work of the Numerati needn't be sinister. They aren't some crack squad of computerised clergy holding sway over our every thought; they want to make our lives easier.

Wouldn't you rather be targeted with ads matched to your tastes than a barrage of irrelevant promotions? Isn't it comforting to think there are increasingly efficient ways to second guess terrorism? And surely any early warning system for future health problems should be welcomed? Meanwhile, computer models that track an employee's productivity will doubtless prove useful to any HR departments looking to make savings during a lean 2009. The Numerati can, and probably will, provide them with the necessary tools.

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