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A Numbers Game

Plotting Your Every Move

What your technology is saying about you.

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— Tristan Paviot/Getty Images

Have you ever shopped online—purchased a book, for example—and, as you add the item to your shopping cart, you get a suggestion from the retailer? “You might also like ...” the message reads, and includes other items intended to catch your eye.

Or maybe you’ve paid for your groceries at the supermarket when the register spews out a discount coupon for detergent—the same brand you use at home.

Though many of us disregard these suddenly commonplace events, they are products of an up-and-coming industry that will change the way we live, and maybe for the better. In The Numerati, veteran journalist Stephen Baker depicts a near future in which math and computer whizzes across the world cull data from almost all of our everyday activities that involve a computer. Using this information, these “numerati” are increasingly able to profile us in myriad ways, from what products we’re likely to purchase to whom we’re likely to vote for—even, in the case of online dating services, whom we might fall in love with.

Sound too much like Big Brotherism? Not to worry, Baker says. In an interview with AARP Bulletin Today, Baker explains how the numerati will ultimately make our lives easier. By tracking our data footprints, advertisers can cater to consumers with more specificity, doctors can keep track of their patients’ health more efficiently, and counterterrorism agents can spot potential threats in our midst. This “mathematical modeling of humanity” is a new and inevitable reality, Baker says. 

And that online book suggestion? Don’t be surprised if it’s a novel you’ve been planning to read for months.

Q: Who are the numerati, and what do they do?

A: Well, we all produce data every day, through computers—when we drive through E-ZPass, when we use our cellphones—and this data piles up in enormous databases. Only people with enough math and computer science smarts can dig through those vast collections of ones and zeros, find all this information about our lives and begin to put together portraits of who we are. I call these people—the mathematicians, statisticians and computer scientists—the numerati.

Q: Sounds like a lot of what we consider normal activity, the numerati call data. What other kinds of data do the numerati mine?

A: They learn which Web pages we visit. I learned recently that Yahoo picks up an average of 2,500 bits of data about each of its users every month. The numerati also know where we move about, because when we carry a cellphone, it transmits and receives signals from cellphone towers and satellites, communicating where we are at every minute. When we use our credit cards, the numerati know what we purchase, where we shop and how frequently.

Q: Scientists have always relied on data and analysis. How are the numerati different?

A: The numerati have introduced a new field of science that looks at human behavior through what we do every day. Before, human behavior was really the terrain of humanists—people who studied things like history and law and literature to learn about humanity. Most scientists didn’t understand humans because they didn’t have good data on humans. Now, they do.

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