They've Got Your Number by Stephen Baker

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They've Got Your Number by Stephen Baker

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Zoe Morris
Reviewed by Zoe Morris
Summary: The inside scoop on the way the mountains of data about our daily lives will change our destiny forever, this is a thought provoking and extremely readable book about a very real, of the moment issue.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: November 2009
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099507024

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If you are in the slightest bit paranoid, worry that Big Brother is always watching or like to believe that you are not a number, but a free man (or woman), then this may not be the book for you, as it will do nothing to dispel any of those worries. If, on the other hand, you think 'the mathematical modelling of humanity' sounds like one of the sexiest things ever, and are chomping at the bit to learn more about it, then you might well be interested in what Business Week journalist Baker has to say.

It's 2009 and with technology zooming ahead at a startling rate, millions of pieces of data are being gathered about each and every one of us on a daily basis. From the websites you visit to how long you spend there and the ads you click on, from the regularity with which you buy cereal and caviar, either alone or in the same shop, to your opinions on the important (politics) and less important (deodorant) issues of the day, you provide an unthinkable amount of information to anyone who is prepared to listen, without even thinking about it. For a long time this has provided a rich but untapped data source, sitting idle for those with the resources or skills to analyse it, and now that time has come.

Did you know, for example, that there are people whose sole purpose in life (at least from 9-5) is to build and refine massive, number crunching machines that pore over vast streams of data at the speed of light and pick out the subtle patterns from it all, providing answers to questions you've never bothered to think about: How much would a shop have to lower the price to tempt shoppers of a certain age or income to switch from Coke to Pepsi? Does the time a cow spends snoozing in the shade affect the quality of the meat it will give a year down the line? Can changes in the number of words a person regularly uses be an accurate predictor of early onset Alzheimer's? Does your definition of the word 'justice' indicate a firm political allegiance, or mark you out as potential useful swing voter?

This book, split into sections which focus on shopping, terrorism, medicine and voting among others, takes us on a whirlwind tour of this emerging new field, and how it relates to each and every one of us. Because, whether we like the idea or not, there are people out there who monitor our every move. They might not know our names or shoe sizes, but they know which neighbourhoods we live in, what we spend our money on, how we relax at the weekends, even what our blood pressure has looked like over the last few readings. Using all this information, they can and do pull together profiles, and batch us in with other people with similar values, income levels or lifestyles (healthy or otherwise). Then the fun really starts, as everything from in-store price promotions to mail shots and newspaper adverts are then targeted to reach the right people with the right message. It takes bog standard market research to a whole new level, and it's either fascinating or scary, depending on how you look at it.

People have been categorised through social profiling forever. Way back when it was demographic classification based on your age, your race, you post code, your income level. The same principles still apply, but using technology, companies can drill down deeper, looking at more intricate groupings at the flick of a button. What's more, once they have this information, Baker discovers, some companies will treat you rather differently. Some offer preferential rates to old versus new customers, or those from a certain 'tribe' (the new equivalent of Social grades A, B, C1 etc) or penalise others when they think they can get away with doing so.

So where does all this data come from? While some of it originates from the traditional sources of public records or mailing lists, increasingly it is us, the consumers, who provide it. Or, as Baker says, Today we spy on ourselves and send electronic updates minute by minute. And it's not just what we say, but how we say it too – looking at blogs, for example, some machines use subtleties such as choice of font type or colour and frequency of emoticons to draw all sorts of conclusions about the authors. There's not a lot we can do about it, either. While your initial reaction after the chapter on shopping might be to ditch the loyalty cards and deprive Mr Tesco of his constant stream of data about your personal shopping habits, it's soon clear that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and like it or not, you are being analysed and targeted in many other ways outside the supermarket walls.

This is not a book about computers taking over the world. Though artificial intelligence is better than it's ever been, many of the companies featured in the book still do things the old fashioned (i.e. human) way, just with a little help from their electronic friends. Imagine you want to know how many times a certain word appears in an electronic text – no one with any sense would read through it manually counting by hand when you have CTRL F for precisely that. The companies we learn about do exactly the same – they use the computers to identify patterns and flag them up so that a for-now-still-human eye can digest them. That level of comprehension is still needed, until computers can factor in every variable for what is significant, and filter out the rest. And, someone has to tell the computer what to look for in the first place.

The chapter on medicine was one of the most interesting for me, but also perhaps one of the most unreal at this time. Predictive analytics is a fascinating area, but the idea that certain illnesses can be predicted is still a bit of a fantasy at present. The chapter on online dating which followed, perhaps a little illogically, was also intriguing as it examined the science of attraction and the idea of a formula for matchmaking ideal partners.

Baker writes with journalistic flair and the book is well structured, engaging and suitably simple that even the most data illiterate of us can understand it. After all, it's not so much about the numbers, per se, as what those numbers represent. It has a bit of an American angle to it, but that doesn't make it less relevant to us on this side of the pond, since the concepts are similar, even if we're not, as yet, quite as obsessive about some of the areas such as health insurance eligibility or premiums.

The book poses a lot of questions, but provides answers to the vast majority, and food for though with the remainder. The readable style had me ploughing through the pages quickly, and each chapter brought fresh insights into an area I'd really not thought much about before. What this book won't do, however, is tell you all the inside secrets. You'll learn about the various different companies who feast on our data, and the various different things they use it for, but just like a magician, they don't reveal their secrets. But, while you might not understand the finer points of the complex computer coding involved, you're still left pondering the implications of it all.

Thanks go to the publishers for supplying this book.

If this book appeals to you then we think that you might also enjoy Bad Science by Ben Goldacre and The Tiger that Isn't by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot.

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