Monday, November 9, 2020

Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz (author), Tim Andrés Pabon (narrator)

HarperAudio, May 2017

An ongoing problem in research in psychology, political polling, and many other areas that rely on asking people questions about their views, activities, and experiences, is that people lie. Sometimes because the topic is a sensitive one, sometimes because they don't like pollsters, sometimes simply as a joke. Whatever the reason, a significant percentage of the people responding to any survey, will lie, and undermine the value of the data you think you're gathering.

This audiobook is about what you can find when you look at the the sources of data where people don't lie, because it would defeat their purpose rather than yours.

Google and other search engines are major sources of that "honest data." When people are looking for information, whether they're looking for help with their depression, or for racist jokes, they won't get what they want if they don't say what they want clearly enough for Google or Bing or DuckDuckGo to find it. Even on less charged or sensitive subjects, though, the search engines get far more data on any given topic than any manageable survey could retrieve in a workable timeframe.

And that data can tell us important things, trivial things, and things we might prefer not to know, such as where those searches for racist jokes are coming from, and what they tell us about who voted against Barack Obama, and why. Or where specific public needs aren't being met. It can tell us what are the symptoms people have when they are in the very early stages of pancreatic cancer, early enough that it might still be beatable.

To be clear, Stephens-Davidowitz looks at other sources of "big data" too, not just the search engines by any means, He also looks seriously at both the good and the bad that intelligent use of big data can offer; we want the government to be able to respond to public needs, for instance, but we don't want the Minority Report vision of a future with a Bureau of Pre-Crime, arresting you before you've even decided to do anything criminal.

Mostly it's lively and entertaining, as well as thought-provoking. Unfortunately for me, I was listening to it on Election Day and the couple of days following, when we didn't know what the outcome would be, and the section talking about the 2016 election was very hard on my nerves, and I nearly stopped listening. But that's my sensitivities and the timing, and I expect that section won't have that effect on most listeners.

I did find the conclusion to be unintentionally funny, as he went on and on about the importance of a properly strong conclusion not being verbose... But I forgive him for that. Recommended.

I bought this audiobook.

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