Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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Reporting in Dubai and Helsinki--and lost in Shenzhen

April 26, 2019Writing the book

I just sent in the the copyedited manuscript for a book I’m co-authoring. HarperCollins will be releasing it sometime this fall, and we’ll no doubt be adding updates, at least through the summer.

I’m not going to talk about the book here, but instead the places it carried me to. Dubai, Shanghai, Helsinki, Detroit, Palo Alto, LA again and again. I avoided renting cars. I waited for buses and subways, took some rideshares, and walked a ton. When you avoid cars, especially in America, you end up walking a lot.

I’d never been to Asia, I had long hoped that I’d get invited there to talk about the Numerati or Watson. Didn’t happen, but now I had my chance.

I didn’t have any interviews scheduled, and didn’t even know which city I’d be focusing on, when I lined up at the Chinese Consulate in New York for a visa. To get the visa, I had to show hotel reservations for every night, so I booked Shenzhen and Guangzhou, both in the south. I figured I could change them if I ended up going north, to Shanghai or Beijing. And I bought a plane ticket. (LA to Hong Kong on Hong Kong Airline for $575 roundtrip. I paid another $100 for more legroom.

So after CoMotion, the mobility conference in Los Angeles, I flew off to Hong Kong—and without any scheduled interviews. What I had was a woman in Shanghai who had assured me, verbally, that she would help set up interviews.

I still hadn’t heard from her when I traveled (mostly by subway) from Hong Kong to the southern city of Shenzhen. It used to be a fishing village, or so they say, and now it’s a sprawling megapolis of 25 million people. It’s the home city of Tencent, and Internet giant, and is regarded as China’s Silicon Valley.

It turned out that the hotel I’d chosen on Orbitz when I applied for the visa was way the hell north. I came out of the subway, and found myself, in the blazing sunshine, near a bus stop. I didn’t know where I was, only that my blue blinking dot was a long way south from the Hotel.

I looked around for information about which bus to catch. It was all in Chinese. And when I asked a very friendly woman if she could help, she agreed to, even though I couldn’t understand a thing she was saying. She had my phone, and was conferring with her friend about how to get to the hotel.

It was at that point, when I felt like I was traveling. Communication was difficult. In the west, this almost never happens to me. I speak some languages, but can also speak a lot of English, especially in Europe, where it’s the lingua franca. Even if I were somewhere in the distant country, where people only spoke Swedish or Dutch, those languages are cousins.

But Chinese was foreign. And for three extremely strange days, I wandered around Shenzhen, exploring this fast-growing nook of a vast country, and still not interviewing anyone. I ate in restaurants that had pictures on their menus, because the words meant nothing.

Some photos



A storefront in Shanghai

Dancers in a park in Shanghai

Some rambling old places like this green one in Shenzhen. 


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