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The Numerati by Stephen Baker
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The Numerati

by Stephen Baker

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Recent springs and bounds in technology have opened the floodgates to a wealth of information that once required millions of man-hours to collect, collate, evaluate and assess, if indeed it ever happened at all. Now all of that can be handled, stored and processed by computers, constantly being fed by millions of users who are often happy to give up snippets of their information for the tiniest of benefits. But what hidden potentials lie waiting among those mountains of bits and bytes? And who are the people forging the algorithms to find those golden nuggets?

That’s what Stephen L. Baker attempts to sort out in The Numerati, a neologism he has coined for the computer scientists and mathematicians getting their hands dirty with our data. The book takes an admirably thematic approach and looks at developments across a broad spectrum of society, covering ways in which advancements have and will affect the worlds of work, commence, politics, medicine and romance. As we increasingly rely on modern digital technology in every facet of our lives, using websites and mobile phone apps to shop, watch films, hire services, chat with friends and find romantic partners, the ways in which our data is gathered and used should become of paramount importance to us, issues which Baker repeatedly attempts to underline throughout this book.

Unfortunately there are two major problems with the way in which it is put together. The first is the nature of Baker’s writing. The journalistic style which works well for a five-page article – leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for the reader to follow as he explores a specific thread – soon becomes tiresome when padded out into the length of a book. Each chapter feels like a separate article treating the same subject from a different angle, covering the same issues in another light, and bound together for this collection. As a result, it feels like the author is often repeating himself, hammering on about the same points, whilst spinning out his yarn with frivolous descriptions of what colour tie his interviewee is wearing or what flavour coffee he’s sipping whilst waiting for his next meeting. There is an inordinate amount of filler here in what is only a slender volume.

Yet the far greater criticism of this book is the fact that Baker doesn’t really understand what he’s writing about. This may sound like harsh criticism, but it’s all part of the disarmingly honest style which is supposed to appeal to the casual reader. Baker is certainly up front about this, and I was in no way expecting the pages to be decorated with mathematical formulae. However, the author has a genuine admiration for the work his Numerati do that borders on an almost medieval fear: he treats them as if they were dabbling with arcane black magic that regular mortals would never be able to comprehend. The description of these wizards and their work thus comes across as being very superficial, and fails to deliver any meaningful content to readers who might be even vaguely familiar with the topic.

To give the author his due, his treatment of the subject is sober and balanced, pointing out the need for caution and vigilance when it comes to privacy issues and the anonymisation of data. At the same time, Baker points out the limitations of mathematical models, and the potential for mistakes in the statistical handling of large data sets. Yet he also emphasises the untapped benefits behind the collection of medical data, or for companies and employees alike in being able to combining the skills and traits of the workforce intelligently, and shows how each of us is willing to give up our as much of our personal information as necessary when it comes to finding romance.

Overall, Numerati is a somewhat wordy summary of the way big data is changing the world in many areas. It touches on the hidden benefits that may be tapped in the future, as well as the dangers of indifference when it comes to issues of privacy and limitation. However, the chatty, journalistic style leaves this already slim work rather thin on the ground in terms of delivering information, and many people with a vague interest in the subject will learn nothing of novelty. Finally, the author’s reverential treatment of his genius Numerati, and perhaps ingenuine lack of understanding for what they do, leaves the book feeling like a case of the blind trying to lead the blind. ( )
  Fips | Oct 30, 2016 |
Easy to read, thought-provoking and informative. People are doing thing both troubling and amazing with our data. ( )
  ndpmcIntosh | Mar 21, 2016 |
I'm not sure why I picked this up from a remainder table, but I think the reviews were moderately interesting. Baker gives a galloping tour of today's efforts to understand and categorize people by gathering and quantifying all the digital fingerprints we leave every day on the web, in various databases from credit cards to governments to grocery stores. Easy to read, breezy - but ultimately it reads like a series of articles for the Sunday Times Magazine section. I found little I didn't know. ( )
  ffortsa | Nov 19, 2011 |
The chapters about how supermarkets use data provide the most concrete information. Other chapters generalize too much about the kind of information different businesses and agencies use in marketing and record-keeping. Without adding lots of equations and mathematical terminology, Baker could have explained more how groups use data.
  cbobbitt | May 22, 2010 |
'His text illustrates how fundamental and powerful data mining is to government and business to identify digital patterns, trends, profiles, consumer behavior, and attitudes'.--Ian D. Gordon, Brock Univ. Lib., St. Catharines, Ont. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information. Library Journal 5/15/2008
  DianaMcKay | Mar 3, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0618784608, Hardcover)

"Steve Baker puts his finger on perhaps the most important cultural trend today: the explosion of data about every aspect of our world and the rise of applied math gurus who know how to use it." --Chris Anderson, Editor-in-Chief of Wired Magazine (Wired Magazine )

An urgent look at how a global math elite is predicting and altering our behavior -- at work, at the mall, and in bed

Every day we produce loads of data about ourselves simply by living in the modern world: we click web pages, flip channels, drive through automatic toll booths, shop with credit cards, and make cell phone calls. Now, in one of the greatest undertakings of the twenty-first century, a savvy group of mathematicians and computer scientists is beginning to sift through this data to dissect us and map out our next steps. Their goal? To manipulate our behavior -- what we buy, how we vote -- without our even realizing it.

In this tour de force of original reporting and analysis, journalist Stephen Baker provides us with a fascinating guide to the world we're all entering -- and to the people controlling that world. The Numerati have infiltrated every realm of human affairs, profiling us as workers, shoppers, patients, voters, potential terrorists -- and lovers. The implications are vast. Our privacy evaporates. Our bosses can monitor and measure our every move (then reward or punish us). Politicians can find the swing voters among us, by plunking us all into new political groupings with names like "Hearth Keepers" and "Crossing Guards." It can sound scary. But the Numerati can also work on our behalf, diagnosing an illness before we're aware of the symptoms, or even helping us find our soul mate. Surprising, enlightening, and deeply relevant, The Numerati shows how a powerful new endeavor -- the mathematical modeling of humanity -- will transform every aspect of our lives.

STEPHEN BAKER has written for BusinessWeek for over twenty years, covering Mexico and Latin America, the Rust Belt, European technology, and a host of other topics, including blogs, math, and nanotechnology. But he's always considered himself a foreign correspondent. This, he says, was especially useful as he met the Numerati. "While I came from the world of words, they inhabited the symbolic realms of math and computer science. This was foreign to me. My reporting became an anthropological mission." Baker has written for many publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe. He won an Overseas Press Club Award for his portrait of the rising Mexican auto industry. He is the coauthor of blogspotting.net, featured by the New York Times as one of fifty blogs to watch.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:36 -0400)

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"The Numerati" shows how a powerful new endeavor--the mathematical modeling of humanity--stands to transform everyone's daily life.

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