The Numerati and The Broken Window: fiction beats facts

Stephen Baker and Jeffery Deaver have recently taken the very same topic – the explosion of data mining on every trackable aspect of our behavior – and done very different things with it.

Stephen Baker is a veteran BusinessWeek journalist, and The Numerati reads very much like, well, a collection of BusinessWeek stories. In seven chapters titled Worker, Shopper, Voter, Blogger, Terrorist, Patient, and Lover, the author offers a quick tour of what’s going on in domains of our lives ranging from employment to dating. While some factoids hold promise (could Parkinson’s be diagnosed though analysis of imperceptible changes in voice patterns, years before the visible onset of the disease?), the book does not really dive into the matter at hand (it contains not a single mathematical formula or line of code), nor does it offer satisfying profiles of those that Baker points to as the new masters of the universe (having investment bankers rather fallen out of fashion lately), the applied mathematicians and algorithm developers (“Numerati”) who are working to extract and use every single detail of our lives. Being familiar with many of the commercial uses of data, I thought at least I’d learn something from the chapter about global terrorism; I didn’t (even the NSA saw it fit to keep the reporter out of its walls, let alone real terrorist cells). The final chapter, Conclusion, is a coy defense of the hope that liberal arts majors will still count for something in the brave new world ruled by the Numerati: “We should grasp the basics of maths and statistics – certainly better than most of us do today – but still follow what we love… […] Even in the heart of the math economy, at IBM Research, geometers and engineers work on teams with linguists and anthropologists and cognitive psychologists […] The key to finding a place on such world-class teams is not necessarily to become a math whiz but to become a whiz at something.” I’m all for greater numeracy in basic schools, but if I were to counsel a young person choosing a course of studies, I still would caution that the opportunities for world-class epigraphists or papyrologists are, well, limited.

At the center of Jeffery Deaver’s The Broken Window sits an inscrutable data-crunching corporation, Strategic Systems Datacorp. Yes, it is a fictional construct; yet it does not seem materially different from ChoicePoint, Acxiom, and other companies run by pioneeristic Numerati and briefly profiled by Baker (rather too briefly and uncontroversially, if you ask me). The Broken Window, like many of Deaver’s books, is of course a thriller, featuring quadriplegic forensic expert Lincoln Rhyme and prematurely arthritic detective Amelia Sachs. Whether you like the genre or not, Deaver has done his homework before sitting down to write The Broken Window. In fact, I maintain that, once you strip away the layer of fiction, The Broken Window is both more entertaining and more informative than The Numerati. At least it helps you get a much better perspective on the privacy debate; it makes it clear that identity theft is a serious issue, and that paying for everything in cash, holing up in an unwired apartment and cutting RFID tags out of book bindings cannot possibly be a desirable solution. I am a big fan of the European Union for a couple of reasons that in my opinion make it a success (compensating for the folly of farm subsidies and the endless death throes of its surprisingly robust governance model): the Euro (I have been arguing that most of us here would have spent the last several weeks out in the street banging pots and pans, like Argentinians in 2001, had it not been for the common currency) and the EU privacy protection framework. In fact, I would probably be somewhat tolerant of American-style intrusions on my privacy (most bloggers are, I think by definition) if I lived in the United States, but I just have a preference for EU rules. A strong preference, I guess, after reading Deaver’s thriller.

In summary, if you know absolutely nothing about data mining, cover your bases and read Baker’s book. But if you know a bit, or you actually work with data, then skip it and snuggle up in your couch with Deaver’s.  You may well learn more, and you’ll definitely have more fun.

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