Business / They've got your number
There are people trying to reduce all of our behavior to algorithms. Then they will know what we're going to do even before we do.
by Stephen Baker Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pages, $26 (Hebrew edition translated from the English by Guy Herling; Modan Publishing, 281 pages, NIS 88)
"I'm not a number! I'm a free man!" No. 6 says to his interrogator, No. 2, on the old British television series "The Prisoner." "I will not be filed, stamped, indexed or numbered. My life is my own."
"Everyone has a number," responds No. 2.
"The Prisoner" was the closest thing to a television series about LSD, and that may be why in 1967, after only 17 episodes, it was canceled. But after reading Stephen Baker's book "The Numerati," you can understand that the small screen hallucination of the 1960s is the reality of the 21st century. We're all numbers. Even you and I.
In 1687, Isaac Newton published "The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy." It was mathematics, philosophy and nature, all in one work. Newton described the force of gravity and the three laws of motion that were to serve as a basis for classical mechanics, which reigned in modern science until the time of Albert Einstein. And what did Einstein do? He wrote such a compact formula, a kind of pop formula, that it was irresistible: E=MC2.
We're always hearing that the language of mathematics is the language of the universe. For years scientists have been searching for the simplest, most basic mathematical presentation that will make order of the universe. They're looking for a number, a formula, an algorithm that will give meaning to our world and explain everything. The appearance of Google on the stage of history provided the ultimate proof that a single algorithm can indeed create order out of chaos. It can find the proverbial needle in the haystack: locate a picture that we're looking for, find the address we're interested in, present the text that we want, all in a split second. We were all so amazed. What Google did with information on the Internet is what the "numerati" are doing with us. The irony is mind-boggling.
The numerati, explains Baker in his book, are the new elite. They are the numbers crunchers who have graduated from the math and computer-science departments, who work in small start-up companies or giant technology firms, who collect and absorb the information called "our lives." They process it, put it into equations, and try to produce something from it. That something - what a surprise - is usually money.
We are all numbers. Humanists will try to contest this basic premise. After all, human beings are masters of creativity and thought, art and activity. It is impossible to quantify our life by reducing it to mere digits; our emotions cannot be converted into equations. Baker, who has worked as a senior technology writer at Newsweek, places a mirror before us and informs us that actually, there is not a single dimension of our lives that cannot be turned into a number, a statistic, a factor in a formula that is able to calculate our chances of preferring one company's frozen schnitzel to another's, of voting for one party over another, of falling in love with Girl A and not Girl B.
The numerati do not burglarize, steal or buy their information. They receive it from us on a silver platter. All who surf the Web provide innumerable details about themselves. Never mind the information you are aware you are providing: name, age, address, credit card number. We're talking here about information that you don't even realize is the most interesting of all: How long do you linger on the page where a certain product is described? Did you buy it in the end? Did you go to a page with a different product? Did you buy that? Do you buy online at all or do you just waste the site's time? Did you click on a banner ad? Did you buy what the banner advertised? How many times a week do you visit a site? How do you get to the site in the first place, and when you leave it, where do you go?
Playing with the numbers
The picture becomes clear: This Internet thing is a problem. They are constantly keeping track of us, collecting information and entering it into computerized models that turn us and our behavior into a statistic that is combined with millions of other statistics about other people, who are divided into groups. That makes it possible to start playing with the numbers: If I give you a 10 percent discount on a product, will you buy it? How about 15 percent? If I offer you another brand, will you desert the brand that you usually buy? Are you a loyal type?
Just a minute, does this mean that loyalty is also a quantifiable trait? Of course. These numerati can determine at what point you will switch brands. If you're in the right part of the graph because you, charming capitalist that you are, are not at all loyal, you can expect to receive coupons, advertisements and discounts for the competing brand. And if you are loyal, who's interested in you?
If that were the book's insight, though, it wouldn't contain much news. We know that the Internet poses a privacy problem; we know that we are being tracked all the time on the Web. No problem, we'll just log off. Who needs the Internet anyway? But that's not the end of the story.
At our place of work, every action can be measured, because we employ innumerable digital technologies that track us with the precision of a millisecond: how long we talk on the phone and to whom, whether the customer with whom we spoke sounded tense or nervous ("When we're under pressure we produce sounds differently," explains one of the numerati ), who sends us e-mail, what they say and how we reply. "The computer will rat on us, exposing each one of our online secrets without a nanosecond of hesitation or regret," writes Baker.
The tools that measure us, rank us and give us a grade are already available. They are developed by companies that sell them to larger companies that are interested in increasing their output by 4.8 percent. They'll also be happy with 4.79 percent. In this world there is no room for emotions, stories or the personal approach. It's a world of reports and numbers, and the numbers tell the whole story. They're not forgiving; they're no more or less than what they are - numbers.
The more the better
The statistics, equations and algorithms can be used to control our purchasing experience with positive feedback (imagine a shopping cart that reminds you what to buy because it knows you and your buying habits ) or negative feedback (if a website finds that you aren't buying anything, it will transfer you to the slow servers. Maybe you'll get fed up and stop wasting its bandwidth ). But beyond that, those numbers can also help politicians reach voters, tell them what they want to hear, and play them the jingles that could make them vote a certain way. The numbers can help you find the love of your life, the one who is hiding under all those responses to the questionnaire she filled out - responses that can be ranked, labeled, numbered and put into an equation that will produce a number that will point to you, the person statistically most suited to her. Not to mention the terrorist who interests you, if you work in law enforcement.
The numerati take our pictures, which were shot by the millions of cameras scattered all over the big cities, and turn them into statistics as well. The distance of our noses from our mouths, the color of our eyes - everything can be counted and labeled to make it easy to locate. "More data is always better, " says one of the numerati to Baker. If the numerati were a political party, that would definitely be their slogan.
Not that there aren't advantages to having our lives turned into one big statistic. In one chapter, Baker demonstrates how statistics about our physical condition can serve medicine by enabling the kitchen floor to transfer information to doctors about our posture. If our posture has changed, that may be an early sign of Alzheimer's. Another development will make it possible to check whether our voice has become softer; if so, that may be because we are suffering from Parkinson's. Doesn't that sound incredible?
A Kansas State University invention enables farmers to install an opening, a real door, in the body of a breeding bull. When you open it you reach the second of the bull's four stomach chambers. It turns out that farmers like to monitor the digestive activity of the bulls from close up, so they install in the stomach - yes, you read that correctly - a printed circuit containing sensors to measure the temperature and barometric pressure inside the animal, including a GPS system, just to be on the safe side. "Cows aren't concerned about their privacy," says one of the numerati. "And even if they are, they don't say anything about it." He's right, of course. And what about us?
Baker refrains from saying that we are the cows of the future. At the end of the book he describes several positive aspects of the frightening process that he describes so well. After all, if numbers rule, we can also use them for our benefit and show our employer that we sold more widgets in the last quarter. Don't we deserve a raise? Excel can become a good friend of yours if you know how to arrange the numbers properly. After all, that's what the numerati do.
But with all due respect to Stephen Baker's efforts to reassure us, one can't avoid feeling that this is just the beginning. At present we're a number, but we don't know that we're a number. Tomorrow we'll know that we're a number, and we'll even know which one. I want to be No. 6.
Sociologist Dr. Yuval Dror is the head of digital media at the College of Management's School of Media Studies.