“Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, And What The Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are”

“Everybody Lies:  Big Data, New Data, And What The Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are”

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     The above, is the title of new book just out this week by Seth Stephens Davidowitz; and published by Harper Collins.  Mr. Davidowitz was interviewed this morning (Friday/May 12, 2017) on CNBC’s Squawk Box.  Mr. Davidowitz is a former Data Scientist for Google, and he is currently designing and teaching a course about his research at The Wharton School, at the University of Pennsylvania, where he will be a visiting lecturer, according to his online biography.  Mr. Davidowitz received a BA in Philosophy, Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford, a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard. 

     For those of you who have the time, inclination, and interest, Mr. Davidowitz will be giving a talk on his book at the Washington D.C.-based think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute, Tuesday, May 16, 2017, from 4:00 pm – 5:30 pm at the AEI auditorium.  Contact Stan Verger, a Resident Scholar at AEI, 202-862-5894, or email  stan.verger@aei.org

     Kirkus Review began with this colorful statement: “If your pal ‘swears to God that he’ll repay a loan, write it off; a tour of the many things big data can tell us about ourselves.”  Kirkius adds that Mr. Davidowitz “ventures into sociology, and psychology, with his look at the corpus of search terms run through that site [Google], “a bizarre data-set” often yields uncomfortable results, revealing hidden reservoirs of racism, sexual insecurity, hypocrisy, and outright dishonesty.”  Is he talking about all of us — or, members of Congress?  But, I digress.

      On the AEI invitation to come and hear Mr. Davidowitz speak next week, Mr. Verger wrote that “on an average day, Internet searches worldwide amass about eight trillion gigabytes of data;” which of course a treasure trove of information that can, and is no doubt used by retailers, among others, to put together a profile of who we really are, or what our searches tell others about who we really are.  “I think there’s something very comforting about that little white box that people feel comfortable telling things that they may not tell anyone else about:  Their sexual interests, their health problems, their insecurities. And, using this anonymous, aggregate data, we can learn a lot more about people than we’ve ever really known,” Mr. Davidowitz said.

     Shankar Vedantam, writing on the KVCR radio program page, [show originates from the San Bernardino Valley College campus], May 2, 2017, noted that “by mining data from the Internet, Stephens-Davidowitz has found surprising correlations that tell a far different story [about who we really are] than those presented by surveys.  Online data, for example, allow him to estimate the percentage of American men who are gay; predict the unemployment rate weeks before the federal government releases the official number; and, uncover parents unconscious bias against [newborn baby being a boy versus] girls.”

     As with anything dealing with statistics, there is an age-old axiom:  ‘Statistics lie; and, liars tell statistics.”  Having said that, there is no doubt that this kind of data is a mother-load for retailers, law enforcement, intelligence services, and so on.  This kind of data analysis is much more sophisticated and likely much more accurate than the outmoded surveys and polls that predicted a Hillary Clinton win in the 2016 presidential race.  And, Wall Street is increasingly relying on artificial intelligence (AI) to buy and sell stocks, commodities, bonds and even when to short, or go long.

     This kind of data would be a ‘godsend’ for intelligence agencies who are putting together a psychological profile of an adversary or other world leader, in attempting to assess how she, or he, might react to a potential commercial, or military action.  But, we do run a danger that we get a distorted impression from this data.  What people search and look for on the Worldwide Web, versus what they are like in real life, can be two very different things.  I would suspect that people often live vicariously on the Web, and say/write things that they would rarely, if ever, write in a public forum.  Then, there is the ability to employ the Incognito application that is offered on Google Chrome, for example, as a way of hiding/masking who we are; and, what we’re searching.  And of course, there is the Dark Web, and the employment of encryption, which can and does allow one to stay hidden — to a large degree.  So, the mosaic, or picture of who we are, that can be derived from this kind of data collection isn’t perfect; and, can certainly miss a lot, or important details.  Of course, someone who suspects that they are under surveillance, or soon might be, can also deliberately search for terms and things that are nothing more than a digital false trail; and, meant to mislead those who have prying eyes.

     Nonetheless, one can easily see the power of this kind of data collection; and, it probably works in eighty percent or more, of those individuals who are not using encryption, or the Dark Web, and who are not leaving false digital bread crumbs  — and, that might be good enough in most instances.  One also also has to assume that this kind of data collection will significantly improve over time, as researchers continue to upgrade their algorithms and data analysis.  Instead of Lon Chaney, and “The Man With A Thousand Faces,” maybe we will get ‘the man with a thousand different digital personalities.’   No wonder, there is a burgeoning off-the-grid movement.  V/R, RCP

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