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Updated: March 18, 2010 13:14 IST

Three myths in the Numerati discussion

D. Murali
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The first of the three enduring myths in the Numerati discussion is that the world is divided between word people and number people, says Stephen Baker in ‘They’ve Got Your Number’ (www.landmarkonthenet.com). Mathematicians and computer scientists, in fact, speak words, he finds. “The key difference between the Numerati and the rest of us lies in the toolbox they carry. It contains sets of mathematical formulas and drawers full of algorithms that mankind has been building for thousands of years.”

For starters, ‘The Numerati’ is a non-fiction book by Baker, with interviews of people who are studying, developing and implementing the technologies and techniques used to capture and analyse many of our everyday actions as we communicate, travel and make purchases. “He explains how the initial goal of this data capture and analysis is typically to identify sets of characteristics, which makes it easier to manage the billions of data points these sets may contain,” informs Wikipedia.

The new challenges, according to Baker, are for the Numerati to predict how humans will respond to a car advertisement or a wage hike. “The models they build will fall flat if they fail to understand human behaviour – if they plug in the wrong data. Figuring out how to boil us down to numbers requires not only the right tools but also the real-world context.” With the growing need, therefore, for teams that draw from different disciplines, such as anthropology, linguistics, and history, it is urgent that any divide between the so-called numbers and word people should be demolished, Baker argues.

We are all objects of study

The second myth is that the Numerati are in control, and that they will have their way with us. Wrong, even the greatest and the most powerful of the Numerati only master certain domains, the author reassures. “Everywhere else, they’ll be just like the rest of us: objects of study.” Whether they are patients with a genetic predisposition for blindness or supermarket shoppers with a sky-high tendency to throw a candy bar in the cart, the Numerati are sitting in the databases with the rest of us, he adds.

And the final myth is those who master the numbers will make all the money. An example mentioned in the book is of Inform Technologies, which ventures into ‘the tangled, multilingual universe of written news, and proposes to match readers with the webs of far-flung stories that will interest them. In its early stage, Inform sets out to organise the entire world of news so that every article is linked to every other piece of news that relates to it.’

In Inform’s scheme, each piece of news is a thread connecting to an immense and constantly mutating tapestry depicting the world today, Baker describes. “In time, the idea is to follow the readers’ clicks and queries and turn them – or us – into statistical profiles. Each one of us will then get a customised stream of news.”

It should interest those in the media that the author visualises news as a sphere of infinite dimensions, with the stories shooting through it as vectors, with related stories travelling in clusters. Very similar to the vector-ridden galaxy in Carnegie Mellon’s ‘next friend’ analysis, he observes.

Imperative read.

**

Tailpiece

“At the cloud conference, they had to turn away many at the gates.”

“Because the hall was full?”

“No, these people were farmers from the nearby villages, anxious to know when it would rain next!”

**

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