Where does your digital breadcrumb trail lead?

According to Baker, we leave a trail of electronic breadcrumbs on our computers and myriad mainframe machines of the credit-card companies, our banks, our Internet suppliers, our telephone service providers.

Dec 1st, 2008
Th Where 01

By Jeff Bairstow

According to Baker, we leave a trail of electronic breadcrumbs on our computers and myriad mainframe machines of the credit-card companies, our banks, our Internet suppliers, our telephone service providers.

you might not be aware of this, but I hear there’s a move afoot to implant an RFID in every pair of men’s socks, thus solving, once and for all time, the vexing problem of catching those infuriating errant single socks that appear to be the prime inhabitants of most adult men’s sock drawers. So, in the process of tracking down the traveling socks an electronic trail is left that could be worth major dollars to those who can read the digital breadcrumbs. I kid you not–a few crumbs can speak volumes to the experienced data-miner.

We’re not talking here about some nerdy computer programming types whose idea of formal dress is a “Grateful Dead” tee-shirt and overlong floppy shorts plus a moderately worn pair of Nike’s. (Not that I have anything against the two brands just mentioned, you understand). No, for the real data-miner, a suit and tie are essential because these “geekerati” deal with your real-life top executives and their highly paid IT minions.

Some people prefer to call these high-level geeks, “numerati,” a compound of “number” and “literati,” the latter being the high-falutin’ snobs of the literary world. Indeed, the term numerati often appears in the pages of Business Week, a business magazine whose editors consider themselves to be moderately hip on IT and so they fret about data-mining from time-to-time. One Stephen Baker, a veteran Business Week editor, recently wrote a slim book entitled The Numerati (Houghton-Mifflin, Boston, MA). He also has a blog of the same name. I quote below from this somewhat lightweight book (my comments in italics):

“This all started with computer chips. Until the 1980s, these bits of silicon, bristling with millions of microscopic transistors, were still a novelty. But they’ve grown cheaper and more powerful year by year, and now manufacturers throw them into virtually anything that can benefit from a dab of smarts.” (A little dab’ll do ya, eh?)

“They power our cell phones, the controls in our cars, our digital cameras, and, of course, our computers. Every holiday season, the packages we open bring more chips into our lives. These chips can record every instruction they receive and every job they do. They’re fastidious note takers. They record the minutiae of our lives.” (But not without a little help from the numerati, surely?).

“Taken alone, each bit of information is nearly meaningless. But put the bits together, and the patterns describe our tastes and symptoms, our routines at work, the paths we tread through the mall and the supermarket. And these streams of data circle the globe. Send a friend a smiley face from your cell phone.” (Please, lose the smileys.)

“That bit of your behavior, that tiny gesture, is instantly rushing, with billions of others, through fiber-optic cables. It’s soaring up to a satellite and back down again and checking in at a server farm in Singapore before you’ve put the phone back in your pocket. With so many bits flying around, the very air we breathe is teeming with motes of information.” (You cannot be serious!).

According to Baker, we leave a trail of electronic breadcrumbs on our computers and myriad mainframe machines of the credit-card companies, our banks, our Internet suppliers, our telephone service providers and so on, and so on. But why is this such a bad thing? Are we unknowingly being compromised by the cleverness of the geekerati (or the numerati if you prefer that term)?

I don’t know the answer to that question and neither does Baker. Nor do we know how to mine both good and bad data for the benefit of society and business. By the way, I found the notes to each chapter to be more worth reading (and mining) than the rest of the book. Just drill down, as the numerati might say.

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Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor
inmyview@yahoo.com

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