Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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Was I writing about software?

November 23, 2008Writing the book

Yes, the instructions the Numerati prepare for their machines are encoded in software. I know that. But as I wrote the book I avoided that term. I don't consider them software people. I think in many cases other people handled the code-writing. More to the point, in today's world, with computers connected to practically every business and transaction, software is nearly everywhere. And yet to refer to it by name evokes in many the image of Bill Gates, or perhaps thousands of coders hunched over keyboards in San Jose or Bangalore. In any case, in this review in the Philadelphia Inquirer, math writer and professor John Allen Paulos repeatedly refers to the Numerati creating software.It's not a big deal and it's not untrue. I'm flattered that Paulos, author of the best-selling Innumeracy, reviewed the book.

Dr. Marcus de Sautoy, from his Web page

Another eminent mathematician, the Oxford professor Marcus de Sautoy, reviewed the book in today's Guardian. Here's the blurb that I can picture one day on the back cover of the paperback:

The numerati are no fantasy; they exist. Baker is telling us about a phenomenon that is important and often overlooked. That makes his book urgent and exciting.

But he would have like to have seen more math--or as the British would have it, maths.

Baker's mathematical descriptions are often superficial, and indeed he seems to regard the maths as little more than magic. His numerati come across as sorcerers armed with mysterious, secret knowledge, not as scientists with tools that can be rationally analysed. This has the effect of making them seem more sinister than they are.

He goes on to review the examples from the book and writes:

Most of us have no idea how much of our lives are being tracked. If we did, we would probably be horrified. At the same time, it is hard to deny that the numerati do much that is good. Baker's analysis is pretty balanced, and he spells out why we should be grateful to the numerati, as well as concerned in some areas.

And he concludes:

There is a tendency within our society to view science with suspicion, whether it is stories of nano-robots infiltrating our body and messing with our DNA, black holes appearing in the Large Hadron Collider in Cern that will swallow up the universe, or genetically modified crops sweeping the world and destroying all in their path. All scientific progress involves steps into the unknown, and that inevitably entails risk. That is why books like this are valuable. Once you know about the science and its implications, you are in a much better position to distinguish sinister developments from mere hype.

So when it comes to Baker's numerati, all of us have a responsibility to understand how much companies and government can or cannot use or abuse the maths. This book won't make you an expert on how the mathematicians do their tricks, but it will make you more aware of the the implications. Read it and you'll have a much better idea of who has got your number.

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