Framing the Dialogue

The Numerati

numeratiImagine a group of, let’s say scientists who monitor all of your Internet transactions and searches to develop a profile of you. The Numeratido just that to attempt to reduce (or inflate) you to a mathematical model about how you work, or how you shop, or how you might vote, whether you are a terrorist, or what kind of health risk you might be to insure and even who you might be inclined to spend the rest of your life with.

“Sloshing oceans of data, from e-mails and porn downloads to sales receipts, create immense chaotic waves. In a single month, Yahoo alone gathers 110 billion pieces of data about its customers…Each person visiting sites in Yahoo’s network of advertisers leaves behind, on average, a trail of 2,520 clues.”

For lack of a better term these numbers gurus are undertaking the “mathematical modeling of humanity.” Author Stephen Baker interviews many of these visionary numerati as he highlights the work that they do.

Originally published in 2008 one can only imagine the strides made in the past five years. Privacy, though considered, is often a secondary consideration as these perhaps mad scientist gather immense amounts of personal data on each one of us. I look in my wallet at how many “rewards” cards I carry. You may have noticed that when you grocery shop the coupon that accompanies your receipt is very often for some product that you buy or a model predicts which product that may interest you.

This data mining is interesting, frightening, and hopeful all wrapped up in one package. We soon may be able to monitor ourselves to predict a serious medical condition. Your boss may be able to set up monitoring on your computer, chair and office to see how productive you are. Match-making models may help you find that special someone. Your web searches may lead someone in law enforcement to mistake you for a potential terrorist.

“Imagine that government data miners sift through the details of our lives but fail to uncover terror cells. Good chance they’ll likely push for more data – making the case that collecting it is a matter of national security. Mishandled or misunderstood, this hunt threatens to ransack our bedrooms and medicine cabinets, ripping away what privacy we still hold on to. It can implicate innocent people – ‘false positives’ in data-mining lingo. Statistics, after all, point only to probabilities, not to truth.”

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