There are people out there studying numbers—all about you.
Coming about five years too late to really shock anybody, BusinessWeek contributor Baker’s book about the “crack mathematicians, computer scientists, and engineers” who are busy converting the billions of bits of data today’s citizen leaves behind into usable information, is nevertheless a well-considered take on a hard-to-grasp subject. The propellerheads with whom Baker converses seem a pretty benign bunch, far from the Panopticon-loving Dr. Evils the conspiracy-evoking title suggests. The author effectively describes the oceans of information average Americans shoot out into the world merely by using their cell phones, laptops and credit cards. Once, gathering this kind of material required all the totalitarian ingenuity of a police state like East Germany. “Today,” Baker notes, “we spy on our ourselves and send electronic updates minute by minute.” But what’s the use of all that data if there’s nobody to decipher it? Answering that question occupies the bulk of the text, as the author interviews a wide range of the deep thinkers whose companies are finding new ways of mining, organizing and helping other firms monetize that data. Among the more interesting is Jeff Jonas, a tech prodigy now working at IBM, who created a software called NORA (non-obvious relationship awareness) that specializes in finding links between data strands that can locate anybody from a card cheat at a casino to an al-Qaeda deep-sleeper. Privacy seems not to be an issue for most of Baker’s interviewees, who are more interested in finding out how supermarkets can better predict what their customers will buy. Although the author has a sure feel for his subject, his magazine-friendly prose and fairly uncritical immersion in this insiders’ perspective begins to pall over the length of an entire book.
Engaging, but not especially illuminating.