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, commerce, 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 direction 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.