Crunch the numbers, change the world: a big book, backed by big business (EMC, Cisco and FedEx, which did not have editorial input), on the big ocean of information that humans are generating, for better or worse.
Smolan (of Day in the Life series fame) and Erwitt (co-authors: America at Home, 2008, etc.) open with an aptly numerate observation from Eric Schmidt, the executive chair of Google: From the dawn of time until 2003, humans spun out 5 exabytes (that is, 5 quintillion bytes) of data, an amount we now generate every two days. We take in much of that data unwittingly via the billboards and ads and sound bites and such that fill our eyes and ears. Computers take it in via the “trail of digital exhaust” that we leave behind: GPS positions, phone calls, texts, web histories and so forth. Smolan and Erwitt tell the stories of some of this data with, for instance, a medical/genetic profile of a young Afghani-American woman whose DNA indicates such probabilities as “less than 2 percent chance of developing Parkinson’s disease”; a sidebar by ubiquitous nerd A.J. Jacobs, an adherent of the self-tracked (as opposed, one might think, to the self-examined) life; and, of course, the inhuman side of the question in the matter of drones, a question that has lately been exercising Rand Paul—drones being controlled by humans, after all, whence their inclusion here. Smolan and Erwitt don’t seem to have a specific political program, but they tend to the data-is-good side of the argument, or, perhaps better, the data-is-good-if-put-to-good-uses school. Those good uses are plenty, from maximizing planting seasons and human fertility cycles to predicting bad weather to figuring the makings of the universe. Still, one wants to see the human face of, say, a sneering Dick Cheney targeting some opponent—for, as the authors conclude, “Data is the new oil.”
Not for the technophobic or number-averse, but for the rest of the audience, an often fascinating look at the quantification of us all.