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The Numerati Hardcover – August 12, 2008

3.8 out of 5 stars 67 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In this captivating exploration of digital nosiness, business reporter Baker spotlights a new breed of entrepreneurial mathematicians (the numerati) engaged in harnessing the avalanche of private data individuals provide when they use a credit card, donate to a cause, surf the Internet—or even make a phone call. According to the author, these crumbs of personal information—buying habits or preferences—are being culled by the numerati to radically transform, and customize, everyday experiences; supermarket smart carts will soon greet shoppers by name, guide them to their favorite foods, tempting them with discounts only on items they like; candidates will be able to tailor their messages to specific voters; sensors in homes or even implanted in bodies themselves will report early warnings of medical problems (have you noticed Grandpa has been walking slower?), predict an increased risk of disease in the future or adjust a drug for a single individual. An intriguing but disquieting look at a not too distant future when our thoughts will remain private, but computers will disclose our tastes, opinions, habits and quirks to curious parties, not all of whom have our best interests at heart. (Sept. 15)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Every click we make, every cell phone call, every credit-card purchase enlarges our “digital dossiers,” business journalist Baker explains in this bracing behind-the-screen investigation into the booming world of data mining and analysis. Our digital echoes collect in a vast ocean of data that marketers and government agencies alike are eager to trawl, if only it were charted. Enter the top-notch mathematicians Baker dubs the Numerati. Baker gamely visits eerily high-tech companies and speaks with algorithm wizards intent on quantifying everything we do in all arenas of life in order to mathematically model humanity and manipulate our behavior. Baker’s report on microtargeted marketing, the use of workplace data to “optimize” employees, the scrutiny of online social networks, and the robotic reading of millions of blogs supports his warning that we’re “in danger of becoming data serfs—slaves to the information we produce.” This is a fascinating outing of the hidden yet exploding world of digital surveillance and stealthy intrusions into our decision-making processes as we buy food, make a date, or vote for president. Yet, as Baker assures us, we are not helpless. For one thing, machines still can’t process sarcasm. Read and resist. --Donna Seaman

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; First Edition edition (August 12, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618784608
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618784608
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (67 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,099,173 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

I was lucky to be able to spend most of 2010 with the team at IBM that was educating Watson, the computer that the next winter would be taking on human champions in the game of Jeopardy. It seemed apparent to me as I was reporting and writing the Watson book, Final Jeopardy--Man vs Machine and the Quest to Know Everything, that machines like Watson would change the way we manage knowledge, language and memory--in short, how we think. Computers would also be getting smaller and coming in closer contact with us, and perhaps eventually be implanted in our brains. So I took a break from non-fiction and wrote a novel about this future. That's The Boost.

A bit about my history. I graduated from college with a love of Spanish and a desire to be a writer. So I moved to Quito, Ecuador, taught English and wrote fiction. I couldn't sell my stories. So I turned to journalism, starting out at The Black River Tribune, in Ludlow, Vermont. My goal, though, was to be a foreign correspondent. So I freelanced in Spain and Argentina, got a job as a reporter at The Daily Journal in Caracas, Venezuela, and later, The El Paso Herald-Post. (Much of The Boost takes place along that section of the U.S.-Mexico border.) Finally I got a job as BusinessWeek's bureau chief in Mexico City, where I stayed for 5 and a half years and where my wife and I started our family (3 boys). We moved on to Pittsburgh, where I ended up spending a lot of time at Carnegie Mellon University and delving into technology. BW sent me to Paris in 1998 to cover European technology. We moved back to New York in 2002. Four years later, I wrote a cover story on the coming Big Data economy , Math Will Rock Your World. It led to The Numerati.

Shortly before leaving BusinessWeek, in December, 2009, I was visiting IBM Headquarters. Over lunch there I heard about the Jeopardy computer that researchers were building. That turned into Final Jeopardy.

Through 2013, I worked with Jonathan Bush, co-founder of athenahealth, on a book about our dysfunctional health care system, and how tech-savvy entrepreneurs could disrupt it. The book--Where Does it Hurt? An Entrepreneur's Guide to Fixing Health Care--comes out in May, 2014, a week before The Boost.

We live in Montclair, NJ, and our sons are in Pittsburgh, Madison, Wi, and Seattle.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Stephen Baker, a technology writer for Business Week, takes us into the world of data miners, forecasters, and matchmakers. The math whizzes who analyze our blogs for trends, create the ads that make us eager to buy, and analyze the chatter that could conceal signs of criminal activity--these are the Numerati. Baker gives us a chapter each on work, shopping, politics, spy vs. spy, healthcare, and even [...] (What does the length of your ring finger have to do with the kind of person you're attracted to? Read and find out.)

Some of it is "house-of-the-future" stuff--imagine, for instance, a floor tile that will alert the doctor when your aging parent's gait seems more hesitant than usual. According to Baker, experts watching old reruns of Michael J. Fox shows can detect characteristic signs years before he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

And then there's the political game. With ever-more-insightful analysis, political math mavens have found that (thank god!) America is nowhere near as polarized as you would expect. Many a liberal Democrat lurks in the McMansion suburbs, and vice versa. But politics is tough--your grocery basket doesn't lie, but nobody wants to give the time of day to a pollster. How they craft the exact political messages that will get you to the voting booth might, oddly enough, be related to your shopping habits.

Shopping--now this is a chapter that should be of interest to every die-hard Amazon fan. Sophisticated algorithms designed to deduce your taste in novels or music can be frighteningly accurate (or, as my Quick Picks occasionally remind me, maddeningly stupid, but that's the topic for a different book). After finishing this chapter, I could think of half a dozen things my grocery store knows about me that I never told them.
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I became interested in this book after reading the companion cover story in BusinessWeek. Although the stories and interviews were interesting, I thought the book fell short on connecting the math beyond the most basic concepts.

Baker admits he was a liberal arts major in college and doesn't pretend to fully understand the math behind the analysis. Obviously, an in-depth mathematical discussion would have been beyond the grasp of most readers and presumably the author. However, a little more detail on the methodologies beyond the simplistic descriptions would have given the book more substance and utility.

Data Mining and Data Warehousing have been around for many years. Retailers have used it extensively to understand their customers. Yet, Baker fails to discuss these established practices and compare them with this new emerging area.

Baker spends most of his book describing the people he interviews in a series of stories. The book is an easy read and is entertaining. If you read for entertainment and are interested in this subject, you will probably like this book. However, if you read for knowledge and are looking for a good, informative business book on this subject, it may disappoint you.
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Format: Hardcover
I would highly recommend reading Baker's book immediately before or after reading How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of "Intangibles" in Business by Douglas Hubbard. Baker would probably consider Hubbard one of the "numerati". Both authors talk about some of the specifics of the analysis methods (but moreso Hubbard) and both talk about the general trends and impacts (but moreso Baker).

Like his table of contents (which is simply worker, shopper, voter, blogger, terrorist, patient, lover), Baker's book is sweeping if a bit terse in places. As a quant, I find Numerati an easy read with virtually no math but still enlightening even for the most quantitatively adept reader. There were several examples in Baker's book where I already knew of the mathod but had not heard of that application. He did some great research and covered a lot of topics in this giant and elaborate field of work.

My main concern for many management-level readers of this book is that in some cases Baker gives a reader just enough information to think they can apply it to a similar problem they have, falling into the "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" trap. Again, this can be offset with a read of Hubbard's book. It might also have been helpful to talk about the rise of "crackpot rigour" in a world with lots of data and relatively few competent mathematical analysts (various "data mining" experts come to mind).

In all, its one of my favorite reads of the year. I felt like someone was finally casting light on my own obscure field.
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Format: Hardcover
Quantitative profiling of human behavior ranges from the beneficial (recommendation engines for books and movies) to the scary (employer and police monitoring), and everything in between. "Numerati" provides a journalistic introduction to this topic, that is easy to read and understand. I found it way too simplified, though:

1. The author treats this technology as a "black box" which makes it seem almost miraculous to the uninitiated reader. The first requirement in writing about any technology is to explain what it can and can't do; the book does not provide enough information about this.

2. Like all technology it has both good and bad uses (and most uses are good in some ways and bad in other ways), but the book does not provide enough information about the social and policy tradeoffs inherent in its development, use, and regulation.

In summary, the book provides a readers with a very basic introduction to the brave new world of statistical profiling, but doesn't explain enough about the technology or its consequences to be really satisfying.
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