A pleasing excursion into the daunting terrain of computer-driven information.
British comedian and writer Harkness debuts with an anecdote-laden account of our propensity for making a data set out of anything that can be turned into numbers. “Routinely collected, stored, shared, linked together and analysed,” big data, writes the author, are now used to monitor diseases, predict crime, shape our elections, surveil our private moments, and track our purchases at supermarket checkouts—an extraordinary reach for a term coined in 2006. With a focus on how this enormous information-gathering has affected each major area of our lives, Harkness visited experts in places from Brooklyn to Silicon Valley and engaged in lucid conversations about numbers-crunching, from early recording-keeping (death and census data) to Alan Turing’s use of mechanized reasoning to break secret World War II codes to our present widespread use of big data in business, science, politics, and other realms. “Basically any interaction between man and machine, or machine and machine, these days is being logged,” one researcher told her. The author confesses her appreciation of big data’s benefits—its ability, for example, to trace links between behavior, environment, and health outcomes—but also her wariness of its growing intrusiveness. “Our most personal information, our private exchanges, our network of friends, are used by others without our consent,” she writes. Since the invention of the filing cabinet, governments have tried to run society by watching data, warned a privacy advocate: “If only we had more data we could control things better!” Harkness’ style is light and conversational, but she makes clear her serious concerns about a society in which it is now possible to predict the likelihood of a person’s future involvement in homicide or other serious crime based on the police records of friends and acquaintances. “I’m not a data point, I am a human being,” she writes. “And so are you.”
A readable guide for the non–IT set.