Since the 1990s, the avalanche of personal information we voluntarily reveal and which computers easily harvest has endlessly intrigued observers, the latest being Tanner, a fellow at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. The author delivers the obligatory announcement that “big data” means the death of privacy, but not before backing it with plenty of entertaining evidence.
Tanner illustrates his arguments with a traditional, vivid example from the business and entertainment world: Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Gamblers happily sign up for Caesars’ loyalty programs, which track their play (these days, nobody puts an actual coin into a slot machine) and deliver a steady stream of discounts, complimentary meals and rooms, and even free chips, all carefully targeted to encourage return visits. Tanner weaves this example into a gripping account of the modern direct-marketing industry, formerly reliant on the phone book to deluge us with junk mail. Although less lionized than the founders of Facebook, Google or Twitter, countless other entrepreneurial computer nerds have founded scores of enterprises devoted to assembling, packaging and reselling data from government, school, police, hospital, insurance and commercial records. Businesses are addicted, mostly due to the fact that only a minority of consumers objects to giving up any possibility of remaining anonymous. Merely knowing a zip code, gender and birthdate provides enough information to identify nearly 90 percent of the population. Tanner emphasizes that no one expected privacy until mass urbanization began 200 hundred years ago; in fact, the Constitution doesn’t even directly address it. The author also warns against the vast possibilities for abuse and provides a chapter on countering it.
In this fascinating look at the dazzling if suffocating domain of digital information gathering, Tanner concludes that it is returning us to a world of farms and villages, where intimate details of everyone’s lives were public knowledge.