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Plotting Your Every Move

What your technology is saying about you.

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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.

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.

Q: Explain how data research technology can help us as we age.

A: In health care, the numerati can do wonderful things. I went to Intel in Portland, and they’ve wired homes of elderly people with technology that monitors the health of retirees so that they don’t have to go to assisted living facilities. The numerati at Intel are looking at the length of the residents’ strides, how they distribute their weight when they stand, and how often they visit the kitchen. They’re even looking for the length of time it takes a resident to recognize a voice on the telephone. If your son calls you and it takes you an extra half a second to recognize his voice, it might mean the onset of some cognitive disease. It’s incredible detail, but they’re looking for changes in people’s living patterns that might indicate deteriorating health.

Q: Could some data could be used to exploit people?

A: One area that we have to worry about is health insurance. For example, if insurance companies get data that can be used to establish preexisting conditions, they might deny us coverage. As this health surveillance equipment takes root, more of us are going to leave tracks, and our living patterns are going to be recorded and studied.

Q: Does the volume of information available online mean scammers will become more sophisticated?

A: There’s an ongoing war between scammers and defenders. Some of these scammers are a criminal element of the numerati. They look at our data, figure out what we like, where we go, and they try to cheat us. Other numerati are building tools to protect us. This will be a major business for companies like Microsoft, IBM and Google.

Q: Can we control who gets hold of our data?

A: That’s very hard to do. The industry is very young, about a decade old, and there aren’t that many protections available. People who are considering entrusting details about their personal lives to online services should ask friends if they’ve had good experiences. They should also be careful to read the privacy policies of online companies. They should limit the number of companies they entrust with their data—and of course, provide Social Security and banking numbers only to services they know and trust entirely. One trick I have, when I give data to a company, I use the first letter of the company’s name as my middle initial. TheEconomist, for example, knows me as Stephen E. Baker. That way, I can see whom they’re selling their subscription data to.

Q: It can be unsettling to know that our behavior can be predicted with the right information.

A: Ultimately, we are always going to be unique; we’re always going to be beyond the range of machines in our complexity, so they’re never going to truly understand us. They might be able to figure out what kind of food we like to eat or if we like to wear striped shirts, but we will always be changing.

Krista Walton is an assistant editor at Preservationmagazine in Washington.