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Review: Act normal: Stephen Baker's 'Numerati' are counting on it

Some say environmentalism is the new religion, "green" the new god. But for a small set of the sharpest mathematicians and engineers and computer scientists — whose undetected imprint in our lives grows at an outsize rate — it is the datum that is deity.

These are the The Numerati, the eponymous clan described in BusinessWeek contributor Stephen Baker's new book. To put not too fine a point on it, they believe that just about everything, even infinitely complicated subjects such as love, is describable and explainable through data. One might say they wish to measure out our lives in coffee spoons — which means, of course, they must intently watch us while we make the coffee.

Samer Takriti, a 40-year-old, IBM-employed stochastic analyst (one who tries to generate predictions from random events), is currently enveloped in a project to redefine human-resources management by translating his colleagues into mathematical symbols. IBM wants to "develop a taxonomy of the skills of its 300,000 employees" and has therefore enlisted Takriti and his team to catalog its workers' habits (even the most mundane) and change individuals into "quantifiable financial instruments." Like, you know, numbers.

Eric Dishman, a 40-year-old anthropologist, finds dissatisfying the murky information that patients provide their doctors (e.g., "I usually sleep eight hours, but sometimes only five, but I make up for it on the weekends . . . "). He is therefore engineering a system of home surveillance that records occupants' every move; a special carpet in one's kitchen, for example, would register fluctuations in body weight and send the data directly to the doctor.

Beyond that, a team at MIT is experimenting with implantable nanosensors in mice. They hope that such devices to collect and transmit medical data will soon be used in humans. Interesting, no doubt. Rather scary, too.

Liam Julian, a St. Petersburg native, is a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.

The Numerati

By Stephen Baker


Mifflin, 256 pages, $26

Review: Act normal: Stephen Baker's 'Numerati' are counting on it 09/27/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 1, 2008 2:50pm]
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