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A Numbers Game

Plotting Your Every Move

What your technology is saying about you.

Q: Is interpreting that data something of an art as well as a science?

A: Yes, definitely, because there has to be a contextual understanding that can guide your judgment in interpreting the data. That should give comfort to those of us who are humanists and didn’t study math or science in college. These computer scientists and mathematicians need to work with all kinds of people, like anthropologists and historians, to try to make sense of the data that’s pouring in about humans.

Q: Do the numerati intrude on our privacy?

A: Not everybody has a right to go in and dig through all of this information, but you’d be surprised at how much of it is available to the numerati in various industries. Still, I would argue that for much of our history, we didn’t have a whole lot of privacy. Before the mid-20th century, most of us lived in communities where people saw everything we did. The grocer knew what kind of foods we bought; the barber knew about our personal life; all kinds of people knew the most intimate details of our lives. Then we started buying things in supermarkets, we had cars and we could separate ourselves in many ways. Now, because so many things are digitized, we’re moving away from that. It’s just a fact of life that we have to make bargains that sacrifice some of our privacy.

Q: What do you mean by bargains?

A: For example, you sacrifice privacy when you get a supermarket club card. You’re making a bargain—“I will tell you what I eat every week, and in exchange you’re going to give me a few bucks discount.” We make these decisions all the time; we sacrifice privacy for some kind of service or for the feeling that we may be safer. A big debate in government right now is whether the National Security Agency can monitor our e-mail and telephone communications to look for patterns that would lead to terrorists. A lot of us support that because we think we’re sacrificing some privacy for our safety. As the numerati work in more and more industries, from the supermarket to the workplace, we’re going to invite them into our lives and willingly provide them with data, because what they learn will help us.

Q: How do we benefit from having our data analyzed?

A: The numerati are doing what society has always done, which is coming to conclusions about you. You apply to college or apply for a loan, and in the process people judge you. Traditionally they look at you and say, well, I trust her because I know her father, or she goes to the same church that I go to, or she has a nice smile. And a lot of decisions about us are based on prejudices, fear of those who are not like us. Now the numerati are turning those judgments into a science. Sometimes it can be much more fair, because they see you simply for the data that you produce, not as someone different or scary.

Q: What can people look forward to as the numerati become more exact?

A: In a lot of ways they will make our lives easier. For example, if you go to the supermarket and find sales only on the food that you’re interested in buying, that helps you; if Netflix only recommends movies that really interest you, that’s a service. These customized services are something that traditionally only rich people have been able to afford.

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