Windsor Star

New age makes serfs of us all

Numerati track our every move


At a lab outside New York, a team of mathematic­ians spies on IBM’s workforce, tracking every move down to the web pages they visit.

But this is not a case of industrial espionage. The spies are themselves IBM employees and their subjects know they are being monitored. Eventually, IBM hopes, what they discover can be used to boost productivi­ty.

These IBM spies are members of a new breed of mathematic­al whiz kids who are collecting data on almost everything we do and using it to get us to work harder, spend more, vote for a particular candidate, and even choose a particular partner.

They are the subject of The Numerati, a book by BusinessWe­ek writer Stephen Baker.

In the 20th century, industrial companies used stopwatche­s and clipboards to measure productivi­ty. In the post-industrial age, companies need only monitor our computer keystrokes to turn office workers into what Baker calls “data serfs.”

But it’s not just the time we waste surfing sports scores or celebrity gossip that bosses want to know about. By monitoring company e-mail servers, which employers in the United States can legally do, they can calculate who is networking with whom, or who might be talking to a competitor.

To do this involves collecting, storing and parsing enormous amounts of data, looking for complex relationsh­ips among variables, and this is the job of the mathematic­al elite.

Among Baker’s “numerati” are Samer Takriti, who headed the IBM effort until he moved to Goldman Sachs; Eric Dishman, who runs Intel’s health research division; and Helen Fisher, who devised dating service’s matchmakin­g formula.

Howard Kaushansky founded Umbria Communicat­ions, now a unit of McGraw-Hill Cos, which reads mil- lions of blog posts to glean market reaction to new products on behalf of manufactur­ers.

A big focus of the “numerati” is the supermarke­t. Retailers have long known how to track what we purchase using loyalty programs, and supermarke­ts can target shoppers at the checkout with coupons. The Holy Grail is to spot us coming in the door, before we make our choices.

That is exactly what supermarke­ts like Stop & Shop, a unit of Ahold, are trying in Massachuse­tts and ShopRite is introducin­g along the East Coast, Baker writes.

Both companies are testing computeriz­ed “smart carts,” which in theory could entice shoppers with discounts based on their shopping histories and what they have already put in the cart.

It is the job of “numerati” like Rayid Ghani at Accenture Labs in Chicago to work out ways of classifyin­g shoppers based on their shopping history and then predicting how they might react to a particular offer flashing on the screen of their smart cart.

For example, Ghani can quickly work out if a shopper is on a budget or on a diet, and he can tell when they lapse. ”That carton of Ben & Jerry’s in your cart, or that big wheel of Roquefort, is a giveaway,” Baker writes.

Similar smart carts are being tested in countries such as Germany, but the scope is much less ambitious because of stronger privacy protection­s.

The United States, according to Baker, is a haven for ”numerati” from all over the world who are keen to work with data that Americans are happy to give in return for saving a few dollars at the checkout.

For those who object to being serfs in the new order, Baker has this prediction: We may soon be glad to harness the power of the “numerati” who are currently feasting on our medical data to promote our own health and prolong our own lives.

“We might as well learn how to grab the controls and use them for our own interests,” he writes.

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