Tuesday, September 25, 2012

This Week at the Library (25 September)

Germany's national holiday, Der Tag der Deutschen Einheit, falls this next Wednesday, so this week my reading will be oriented toward 'das Land der Dichter und Denker',  just as in July I celebrated the American and French revolutions. On the reading menu? Germany: Unraveling an Enigma and Five Germanies I Have Known. One is cultural examination; the other, history.

Late last week, Stephen Baker's The Numerati caught my eye. Its cover belies the remarkable content inside, as Baker addresses as how every facet of our lives is being converted into data and tracked. Our masses of decisions and feelings  are turned into bits that computers can analyze so that mathematicians can construct models that allow corporations to target us more accurately -- or 'serve us better', if you prefer. There are seven chapters, detailing the ways we are examined as workers, shoppers, voters,bloggers, potential terrorists, patients, and lovers.  Although Baker is rather optimistic about the future of our lives under the microscope, I for one  find that the idea of being tracked and scrutinized by economic powers stinks of predation. Baker takes heart in the idea that the Numerati, the mathematicians tied to the computers who use their analyses to construct models that predict our behavior,  aren't one monolithic elite. The political scientists are scrutinized as shoppers, and if they object to a shopping cart suggesting where they should go based on their purchase history, they can fight abuse within their field. I don't find this terribly reassuring, especially when it comes to labor issues. I recently read in Naomi Klein's No Logo how a certain coffee firm has realized how much more profitable it is to only call in most of their staff during peak hours, so that people are summoned to work at short intervals throughout the day instead of serving through a shift. The workers exist only for the employer's convenience: the modeling serves the managers' bottom line nicely, because they sell the same amount of merchandise but don't pay nearly as much for labor. The workers, on the other hand,  can't make enough to support themselves and don't have time to do anything productive during their little intervals. It's the kind of story that makes you sympathize with those kids throwing bricks in Seattle.

I have some interesting book reviews and comments lined up for this week -- Naomi Klein's No Logo, David Owen's Conundrum, and William Power's Hamlet's Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age.

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