Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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Smart systems, dumb ones, and privacy

July 11, 2010Privacy

Everywhere I talk about the Numerati, I find people worrying about the erosion of personal privacy. This post is about the flip side of that fear, about living in a world run by systems that don't know us, that are dumb and fixed in their ways. In short, this is about the world we've been living in for the last century or so.

A couple days ago, we received a copy of our credit report. The amount of wrong information was startling. We lived for years in Paris, France. The credit report has it as Paris, Texas. And it misunderstood the address of my office in Mexico City for someplace in Ohio. These are not the smart systems that cause so much concern. These are the dumb computers we've been living with for decades. They're clueless, and their misunderstandings cause all sorts of problems extending far beyond the world of credit.

These old computer systems do not know us. They treat us like dots and place us into groups (often based on misreading of our data) and then they use rules to manage us. Living under these formal systems and their kissing cousins, bureaucracies, some of us nurse the illusion of privacy.

The way I see it, we're going to be managed by machines, one way or another. We cannot build logistics for seven billion people on face-to-face interactions. So the question is whether we want those systems running our lives to know us, and to be (relatively) smart. Or do we stick with the clueless status quo?

I'm for smart systems. I want Amazon to know my book tastes, the bank to give me loans based on my personal record (and not my general profile), most junk-mailers to understand that I would never buy what they're selling, the electricity company to hitch me to a smart grid. I could go on and on. Privacy? Yes, it can be a problem, and we'll figure out ways to deal with it. But these dumb formal systems are for the birds.

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