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The Numerati, by Stephen Baker

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Thursday, Sep 4, 2008

The advance of digital technology further and further into the nooks and crannies of our lives is based on an elementary trade-off. It supplies us with a great deal of convenience: It lets us communicate with one another wherever and whenever we want to; it provides us with instantaneous access to and limitless storage of media, everything from personal photos to films to most of the history of recorded music on a terabyte hard drive; it’s capable of building in a level of redundancy in our lives, preserving what we might otherwise forget and protecting us from oversights—if you lose tickets to an event, chances are the barcode on them can be canceled and new ones issued to you. And if your credit card number is stolen, chances are the bank will recognize suspicious purchases and notify you. But in exchange for all this convenience, we sacrifice privacy and spontaneity: We permit all our public actions to be cataloged and processed, and we make ourselves completely and instantly accessible not just to our friends and family, but to marketers who seek to guide our behavior in contexts that they can detect and analyze perhaps even before we have a chance to, and to the state, which may seek to stifle dissent before it has the opportunity to assemble and gather force. We become willing parties to our own reification, to our assimilation into the giant digital data machine. Obviously there is pleasure in this, not only in the expanded access to entertainment but also in the thrill of losing ourselves, of ceding responsibility, of having an all-powerful deity-like entity feed us what it thinks we need to know to be happy in whatever situation we end up in. In short, we have a easier time navigating the world as we experience it because it has been preformatted by powerful institutions. Unfortunately our interests are more or less tangential to these institutions, whose primary concern is their own survival and growth.


So, considering how technology threatens to render our wishes irrelevant even as it pretends to cater to them—that is, to our desires boiled down to the need for convenience, to consume more faster and with maximum indiscriminateness—it would seem diligent to regard technology’s encroachments with circumspection and skepticism. Because information technology makes so much of our private lives public and because it flattens our experience into a universal code of ones and zeros that threatens to annihilate our sense of its uniqueness, it’s natural and prudent to be ambivalent about IT and the dislocating change it incurs. But The Numerati, a new collection of profiles of mathematician data miners by frequent BusinessWeek contributor Stephen Baker, offers mostly token displays of such ambivalence. The book—whose chapters explore how data about us can be used to make us the target for ads and political appeals, how it can be used to better surveil us at work and capture terrorists (or at least casino cheaters), how it can expose our health issues, and how it can predict the fate of our relationships—is not really for skeptics. While occasionally paying lip service to privacy advocates, it is generally fawning in its coverage of the companies who sell their abilities to profile us in terms of what we might be susceptible to buy. It regards their invasive business practices as inevitable, the inescapable result of increased competition, and a reflection of the dubious proposition that consumer preferences dictate the direction of the economy. Companies need to spy on their own customers, the logic goes, in order to know what those customers will want just in time to provide it to them, maximizing whatever logistical competitive advantage can thereby be derived. “Retailers simply cannot afford to keep herding us blindly through stores and malls, flashing discounts on Pampers to widowers in wheelchairs,” Baker warns in a typical passage.


But if you are not primarily worried about what companies can or can’t “afford,” the values implicit in the book may bother you. You might not celebrate as a company learns to shed its “barnacle” customers—i.e. the ones that try to keep companies to their word and make them deliver on their promises. You might not be happy that shopping carts can persuade people to buy more at the supermarket than they otherwise would have. You won’t cheer when a computer figures out who you voted for based on contextual clues, opening you up to a new slew of fundraising appeals. Baker seems to register just how dehumanizing and awful the world of surveillance and forced digitalization of our lives will be, but in the book, the craven instincts of the business journalist usually take over, and he presents corporate management’s side as the final word—our inevitable fate that we may as well start loving since we are powerless to alter it.


Think of the endless rows of workers threading together electronic cables in a Mexican assembly plant or the thousands of soldiers rushing into machine-gun fire at Verdun—even the blissed out crowd pushing through the turnstiles at a Grateful Dead concert. From management’s point of view, all of us in these scenarios might as well be nameless and faceless. Turning us into simple numbers was what happened in the industrial age. That was yesterday’s story.


The examples cited here are bizarrely incongruous—are we supposed to be happy to be compared to soldiers being ordered to march into certain death? is that at all comparable to Deadheads at a stadium show? and simply because a lot of people have gathered in one place means they have been ontologically reduced to a statistic automatically? But setting that aside, the phrase yesterday’s story is enough to tip us off to Baker’s teleological impulses, while his elision of management’s point of view with that destiny, with the end of the story, with the point of view that shapes the story, is characteristic of the book as a whole. It is our fate to become numbers in the eyes of the powers that be, because it suits those powers that we be organized in that much-more-manageable fashion. But Baker would have us believe that history itself is responsible, not the institutions and those who profit by them.


The confusions about cause and effect then extend to the means of data collection. “When it comes to producing data,” he declares, “we are prolific.” This seems an innocuous enough statement, but it’s totally backward. Our behavior is simply our behavior; to us it is lived experience, memory, sense stimuli. We don’t “produce” the data, the technology that collects it transforms our lived experience into that data that institutions (corporations, the state) crave. It works to have us reconceive ourselves as numbers, as the sum of datapoints, and then presents its manipulations of that data as the means for our personal extension, even though we are now limited to the field it has defined. “Once they have a bead on our data, they can decode our desires,” Baker notes, but it seems more appropriate to say that they encode it, trapping it in the mediated digital world. Amazon, for example, usefully tells us what we might want based on our behavior, and then buying the books it has suggested begins to seem a way of completing ourselves. The data—the preexisting categories, the defaults, the automated processes incumbent in the systems that capture information—has started to produce us.


The most obvious example of this is social networks, or the even more totalizing Second Life. These data-harvesting applications hope to encourage us to conduct our social lives in their petri dishes and behave in preconditioned ways the service providers can measure and exploit—attaching ads and recommendations to social exchanges that in the real world would transpire with unencumbered spontaneity, with no commercial subtext. Online, though, our behavior—now transformed into marketing data—suddenly works, to those we “network” with, like a sales pitch—a means to some other end rather than being autonomous. Our actions seems less real until they are posted and shared and processed to our maximum advantage with regard to the impression we would like to create or the number of page views we would like to garner. Our consciousness, when reduced to data out of convenience, becomes merely instrumental, something easily reprogrammed to accomplish various tasks. We can automate our social life or refashion our identities thanks to the tools the networks provide, but the thrill of lived experience vanishes to a degree, becoming more and more a matter of adjustments on the spreadsheet of self.


After Baker has misconstrued our role in turning ourselves into data, it’s a short leap to claim that “the only folks who can make sense of the data we create are crack mathematicians.” In other words, don’t try to understand yourself; you need a math genius to tell you who you are and what your meant to do through your behavior. Statisticians are better managers of our datasets than we are, and they are better able to manipulate our data to see what it will yield—to see what our true possibilities are. Apparently our own account of our hopes and dreams and intentions is irrelevant to the degree that it is not conditioned by what the math geniuses have calculated and made permissible. Once we are data, we are inscrutable to ourselves.


Not only does our reduction to data make us strangers to ourselves, but Baker goes so far as to opine that in the future, we will be “happy to pay for the privilege of remaining, to some degree or other, in the dark” about the selves that can be constructed from our data. He has in mind the disconcerting probabilities that we will contract diseases, but it applies plausibly to the whole range of knowledge that can be produced about us. When we begin to be overtargeted, we will need filters to discover our authentic reflection in the efforts to persuade us. We will want liberation from the self left behind by the trail we’ve blazed through commercial culture, as that identity is merely the one that shopping permits us to have. A more integral self will fight that commercially derived one for social space in which to manifest. But the hegemony of consumerism will require us to pay for that privilege of being able to conceive an authentic self independent of our data stream.


What can we do to thwart our being converted to data? Baker suggests a can’t-beat-em-join-em approach, urging us to make spreadsheets of our achievements to demonstrate our worth. As digital data hounds become more thoroughly intrusive, we can probably count on the advent of services that would throw out false scents in our name, creating fake data trails to muddy the image of ourselves therein, to obscure our health concerns from insurance companies who would like to exclude us, and to mask our shopping proclivities to ensure that we don’t suffer price discrimination or perhaps attract favorable discounts. Just as credit-score doctors learned how to game FICO, a counter-Numerati is sure to emerge to try and thwart their efforts to define us. Short of that, it will increasingly be to our benefit to conduct ourselves anonymously if we want to preserve any sense of self at all.


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