Is there such a thing as free will? Author Stephen Baker might answer yes and no. In his new book, “The Numerati,” he sets out to uncover how global number crunchers are able to take the seemingly insignificant details from our daily lives, crunch them and turn them into a complex picture about us that can be used to predict our future behavior and perhaps even influence it. This kind of personal information has been available to anyone who wanted it for a long time, but with the increasing amount of time that we now spend online, the details of who we are based on this activity is getting easier to extract. If this sounds a bit like Big Brother to you then you understand all too well the potential implications, but for the moment at least, it’s not that insidious.
Via Rob Walker from his review in the NY Times:
You probably already have a sense that this sort of thing is going on, but Baker uncovers some surprising details. A chapter on efforts to convert the information disclosed by bloggers and users of social networks is among the most interesting. Baker offers an anecdote about a firm called Umbria helping a cellphone company that’s decided to charge more for Bluetooth data connections, a move that “sent bloggers into a fury.” Umbria, which studies bloggers and divides them into tribes, concluded that all the spleen-venting was coming from the “power users,” whereas “the fashionistas, the music lovers, the cheapskates” did not care. “With this intelligence,” Baker writes, the company could placate the power users by offering them “free” service (while raising the prices on headsets) and “continue charging everyone else.” He goes on to describe Umbria’s efforts to teach its computers to interpret blogs and draw conclusions from different phrases, font choices, background colors and even emoticons.