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The Numerati

How computers and data patterns are invading our lives.

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The Numerati is a book about math that won’t cause liberal-arts majors to heave it across the room. The slender volume contains not a single esoteric Greek letter or mystifying equation.

What’s more, writer Stephen Baker artfully conjures up vivid images to explain what he’s talking about and why a reader should care.

"The Numerati” is a more literary name for what used to be called “number crunchers,” the mathematicians and computer geeks who understand programming, probability, and seemingly incomprehensible theorems. Teamed with ever more powerful computers linked to the Internet, they’re on a mission.

“They’re looking for patterns in data that describe something almost hopelessly complex: human life and behavior,” Baker writes. “The audacity of their mission is almost maddening.”

They aim to figure out what we’re going to buy, who we’re going to vote for, how well we do our jobs, perhaps even who we’re likely to fall in love with, by analyzing the statistical patterns of data.

Think you carefully guard your privacy? Think again. It’s becoming an almost impossible task.

We all leave a trail of digital bread crumbs from our cellphone calls, Internet searches, credit card purchases, and blog entries, or on our home pages at social-networking sites such as MySpace or Facebook.

Even withholding our names doesn’t necessarily make us anonymous anymore. Eighty-seven percent of Americans can be identified by name if only their gender, birth date, and postal zip code can be determined, one recent study found.

Data whizzes, Baker concludes, “are adding us up. We are being quantified.”

East Germany used to employ thousands of spies to find out what their citizens were up to. That’s so 20th-century.

Today, “The computer will rat on us, exposing each one of our online secrets without a nanosecond of hesitation or regret.... we are in danger of becoming data serfs – slaves to the information we produce.”

We meet the Numerati in their offices, at cafes, going about their work. They seem like regular folks, though most don’t seem to have given much thought as to how computerized profiling is changing the world.

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