What the in­ter­net can tell us about who we re­ally are

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - BOOKS -

part­ner’s pe­nis is too large, and is caus­ing them phys­i­cal pain.

Some of the other re­sults con­cern­ing fe­male sex­u­al­ity are also per­plex­ing. Around 8pc of women will ad­mit in con­ven­tional sur­veys to watch­ing porn, but Google es­ti­mates that up to 40pc of all searches of porn sites are made by women. What is dis­turb­ing here is that it seems many more women than men visit porno­graphic sites that de­pict rape and sex­ual vi­o­lence against women.

The au­thor ad­mits there is “a dark­ness” in some of the so-called big data he analy­ses. The pur­pose of this book is not merely to pro­voke or un­set­tle its read­ers. In­stead, its au­thor be­lieves that the colos­sal amount of data which sur­faces ev­ery day on the web will have a rev­o­lu­tion­ary im­pact on many as­pects of mod­ern life.

He ar­gues that it will pro­vide more de­tailed and ac­cu­rate re­search than has pre­vi­ously been avail­able to econ­o­mists, so­ci­ol­o­gists, and psy­chol­o­gists. This, he sug­gests, will al­low them to be­come, for the first time, gen­uinely sci­en­tific in their method­olo­gies. He be­lieves that should also make their work of greater prac­ti­cal value.

Stephens-davi­d­owitz is aware of some of the risks posed by ac­cess to this new reser­voir of in­for­ma­tion. He ac­cepts that the re­sults of big data analy­ses could lead to greater ma­nip­u­la­tion of the public by cyn­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ers or canny politi­cians. On the other hand, he sug­gests that hu­man fal­li­bil­ity can un­der­mine such ef­fects. Hil­lary Clin­ton’s re­cent pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, for ex­am­ple, re­lied upon a so­phis­ti­cated form of data anal­y­sis that even­tu­ally proved to be badly flawed.

Big data may also be an­a­lysed to de­duce our read­ing habits, and it ap­pears that we some­times buy books we don’t re­ally want to read, but would like to think that we do.

Ama­zon posts de­tails of quo­ta­tions that are taken from the books it sells. One an­a­lyst has com­pared the fre­quency of quotes taken from the be­gin­ning of a book with those from its fi­nal chap­ters. This may in­di­cate how many of those who bought a par­tic­u­lar book will have fin­ished read­ing it.

By that reck­on­ing, less than 3pc of those who be­gan to read the French econ­o­mist Thomas Piketty’s mon­u­men­tal trea­tise, Cap­i­tal in the 21st Cen­tury, were able to make it to the clos­ing pages.

Seth Stephens-davi­d­owitz need not worry on that score. His eye-open­ing book is writ­ten in a lively, en­gag­ing style, and is more of a page-turner than many works of fic­tion.

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