They’ve Got Your Number: Book Review

Maybe you’re the kind of person who doesn’t believe that the kind of person you are can be deduced by an algorithm and expressed through shorthand categorizations like “urban youth” or “hearth keeper.” Maybe I’d agree with you, and maybe we’re right. But the kind of people — “crack mathematicians, computer scientists and engineers” — whom Stephen Baker writes about in “The Numerati” clearly see things differently. In fact, they probably regard such skepticism as more fodder for the math-driven identity formulas they’ve created to satisfy the consumer-product companies and politicians who hire them.Baker, a writer for BusinessWeek, categorizes the categorizers into seven chapters: some number crunchers seek to decode us as shoppers, others as voters or patients or even potential terrorists. In all cases, the idea is to gather data, use computers to compile and interpret it, and draw conclusions about how we will behave — or how we might be persuaded to behave. “We turn you into math,” one of his subjects declares. Sometimes the data comes from firms that collect it from public records or subscription lists, or that conduct exhaustive attitudinal surveys, concluding on the basis of whether you own cats or subscribe to gourmet magazines which political “tribe” you belong to, and thus how a campaign should approach you (or not). But the most interesting information comes from us, particularly by way of our online activities. Baker’s savants monitor our collective (if anonymous) Web surfing patterns for “behavioral clues” that, for example, help advertisers decide when to hit us with what pitch.

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