Data collection is old hat. Why are things different now?
Imagine that a detective or a biographer wanted to piece
together a year of your life. Say 1991. For this, he might have to climb up
into your attic and dig through boxes of letters, big folders of snap shots,
telephone bills, all sorts of paper. He might have to interview friends,
neighbors and co-workers. Our histories existed largely on paper and in foggy
memories. That has changed. Our photos and correspondence, and practically
everything we do at the office now travels as digital data. With this shift, we
now deliver our details in a single standard made of ones and zeros. Who can
make sense of all that data, turning it into new insights about us, new
services, new industries? Only the Numerati.
This can be frustrating for those of us who studied
humanities. There used to be a pretty clear divide. The math types stuck to
engineering and science and architecture--and they left the study of humans to
us. Those of us who dropped Calc 101 could still rise high in psychology,
journalism, law and marketing. But now the Numerati are storming into the
Not that we’re standing still. We’ll increasingly be using
their tools and methods on our own behalf. This might mean scouting out the
most reliable heart surgeons in our area, drawing up resumes that pop to the
top of search results, or installing software to crunch our jogging data and
put us on the optimal regime for the Boston Marathon.
Is this a business book?
No. It’s about us. It's about how the Numerati are deciphering
our behavior, and how this will change our world.
Don't get me wrong. This is a crucial trend in business. The
Numerati are remaking entire industries, starting with advertising and media.
This book began as a BusinessWeek cover story, "Math Will Rock Your
World." Lots of the Numerati we get to know in this book are working for
businesses, including Yahoo, Accenture and Chemistry.com. But the focus is not
on the business, and how they'll make money. It's on how the Numerati are
taking control of our lives, at work, at the mall, at the doctor's office.
Do the Numerati make mistakes?
All the time. They rely on statistics and probability, and
sometimes they get it wrong. Just one piece of data can topple the most
brilliant mathematical analysis. That happened to me; it kept Chemistry.com,
when we tested the system, from lining me up with my wife. One danger is that
people will accept the analyses of the Numerati, because they’re delivered with
the certainty of science. I hope that people who read this book will be in a
better position to understand what goes into these conclusions—and to refute
them if necessary.
Should we be scared of the Numerati?
Let's say vigilant. They have unprecedented power to uncover
our secrets. And their predictions, produced by algorithms, will have a lot to
say about whether we get a job, how much we spend for health insurance, even if
we'll get swept up as a terrorism suspect.
Here's what we have to keep in mind. The Numerati are not
always right. They work with statistics, often delivering stunning results. A
grocer, for example, will be thrilled if 60% of targeted shoppers go for a
promotion on filet mignon. It won't matter if a few of those getting coupons
are vegans or devout Hindus. Shift the focus from shopping to something like
brain cancer or homeland security. Then the errors--what the Numerati call
"false positives"--start to become a very big deal.
So, we don't want them to misread us. At the same time, we
don't want them to know and predict us too well. That would feel a bit like Big
Brother, which is a danger.
What was the most frightening thing you discovered while
writing this book?
The possibility of a police state. The Numerati are
crunching our consumer and demographic data to predict what kind of voters we
are, and whether we're likely to buy Hummers. Fair enough. But let's say a
government committed to law and order goes through the consumer records of
convicted pedophiles and builds a statistical profile of a child molester. Are
civil libertarians going to fight this? Whose side are they on, they'll be
asked, children's or sex criminals? That's a hard battle to fight.
Then let's say the authorities match this profile against
that of every teacher in the country. It wouldn't be hard to do. It turns out
the guy teaching eighth-grade English at the local school has a 43% chance of
being a pedophile. What then? Should they fire him? Tell the parents? Are they
legally liable if they do nothing and he later commits a crime? This opens a
big can of worms and potentially undermines our legal presumption of innocence.
The most inspiring?
That would be David Heckerman. He's a researcher at
Microsoft, and also an M.D. He was doing research on filtering e-mail for spam.
It was a moving target, because the spammers kept tweaking their e-mails to get
past filters. It was almost as if that spam mutated. It occurred to him one day
that maybe his spam-hunting algorithm could anticipate the mutations of HIV,
the virus that leads to AIDs. That's one thing that's really cool about the
Numerati. They can jump from one discipline to the next, often riding the same
algorithms. And that's what Heckerman did. He moved his Microsoft team into HIV
research. While they haven't developed an effective vaccine yet, they're making
How are the Numerati affecting this election?
Microtargeting is the rage this election year. It's based on
the statistical analysis of every conceivable piece of our data, from our
subscription to Wired or HBO to the number of school-age children we have
living at home. The big campaign push, and most of the money, is still in mass
market, things like TV ads. But if either candidate can use microtargeting to
zero in on a few thousand voters in crucial districts, it could spell the
difference in the election.
Which chapter was the most fun to write?
I loved reporting the medicine chapter. It took me out to Oregon, where Intel
researchers have wired the homes of elderly people with countless sensors. They
have cameras, motion detectors, microphones that pick up changes in the voice,
even sensors under the floor to detect shifts in balance. Some of it sounds
outrageous, but I think many of us are going to be living our golden years
under this type of surveillance, all of our patterns analyzed statistically.
Sometimes this can lead to misunderstandings. The Intel people had this one
woman's bed wired to monitor her weight. One night it seemed she gained seven
or eight pounds. Was she taking on liquids? Congestive heart failure? It turned
out her little dog had jumped on the bed. Another false positive.
How did your experience as a journalist prepare you to write
Well, it certainly didn't teach me any math. In fact, I
wrote the book for people like me--those of us who tend to close any book that
has formulas or Greek letters running across the pages...
I'd say my experience as foreign correspondent helped out. I
spent years in places like Mexico,
France and Venezuela, and
I viewed my job as anthropological--bridging cultural and linguistic divides. I
approached the Numerati as a foreign culture, one that had its own lingo and
world view. One of the keys of this kind of reporting, I should add, is a
readiness to ask dumb questions. I'm quite good at that.
What are the biggest misconceptions about the Numerati?
Did you ever hear the joke about the extrovert at the math
party? He was the one looking at someone else's shoes.
We have this idea that there are word people and numbers
people, and that the numbers people lack social skills. That's not true. In
fact, we're all both word and numbers people. And when it came to
communication, most of the Numerati I met were highly articulate in English,
even when it was their second or third language.
Was there a spark moment that inspired you to write this
I was at IBM Research, talking to Samer Takriti, a
Syrian-born mathematician. He was telling me about his project to build
mathematical models of 50,000 of his colleagues. He explained that he and his
team had all of this data now, and that they could use it to create these
simulations of workers. One day, they would be able to predict how productive
each one would be, which ones would work best together, which ones were worth
That afternoon I drove home from IBM's Watson lab, about 40
miles north of New York.
I remember replaying Takriti's words as I crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge
and thinking: If they can model us as workers, then others can model us as
patients, shoppers, voters... This is the mathematical modeling of humanity!
That was when the book popped into focus.
Were you and your wife surprised by the results of your
online matchmaking experiment?
I was surprised that my wife put up with it. She was deeply
reluctant to sign up for Chemistry.com and not happy at all that I did it so
enthusiastically. Initially, we were a both perplexed that the system didn't
match us. Sure, we were both Explorer/Negotiators, and we were told that we
might be too similar. They have this idea that opposites attract. But still,
they were trying to set her up with some guy who lived on the far side of JFK Airport,
which is about an hour and a half away from our house. And I wasn't even
showing up in her results, even though I lived in the same town (and the same
house). Eventually, we learned about that small error on my part that was
keeping us apart. We both felt better in the end.
Which area of our lives are the Numerati transforming most
They're racing ahead in shopping, marketing, advertising and
media. Look at Google. It's revolutionizing entire industries (including my
own) by applying mathematics and computer science--the tools of the
Numerati--on the world of information. It's numbers colonizing words.
When they get to the final page of The Numerati, what do you
hope readers will be thinking and feeling?
I hope they start seeing (or imagining) the Numerati at work
everywhere they look, whether it's at school, at work, at the hospital or the
grocery store. That’s what has happened to me. I’m acutely aware of the data
that I’m sending out into the world, whether it’s driving through an EZ Pass on
the Garden State Parkway
or checking the baseball scores on my PC at work. Hmm, I wonder. What
conclusions will they draw from that? If readers of the book start thinking
this way, perhaps they'll analyze the patterns of their own lives and the data
they produce. For many of us, it's a new way to learn about ourselves. And like
it or not, it's the way the rest of the world will get to know us.