With the Triumph of Numbers, I read and wrote about the power of using numbers, and how the observation of empirical regularities led to the basic knowledge on how to use such numbers. Already in the triumph of numbers, it was indicated how valuable (numerical) data were regarded to be, for instance by the recollection how the first censuses were regarded as state secrets, because the information could be used to make assertions about the military strength of (rival) nations.
Unfortunately, I.B. Cohen’s Triumph of Numbers ended quite abruptly with a description of Florence Nightingale. It felt unfinished. But the use of numbers has evolved since, and quite substantially so.
How much our use of numerical data has evolved, and to what extent is has invaded our daily lives (without many of us knowing it!), is convincingly described by Ian Ayers, in his magnificent book ‘Super Crunchers’ (2007).
Companies know more and more (and more!) about you: you buy products online, you speak with the customer relations department (with a person behind a computer), you gain discounts with customer cards, and of course you are careful to make sure you receive you frequent flyer miles. Right? If not, you may have bought it all using a credit card, the transactions of which are stored anyway.
So, the companies from whom you buy, know all this, because they have learned to store all this precious information. And using this information – and believe me, we’re dealing with massive amounts of data – each of these companies crunches the data and is able to very exactly predict what each of its’ customers will do next. Groceries successfully predict what to buy the next summer, based on what they sold months or weeks ago. Casino’s know how to predict how much money each individual customer is willing to lose before leaving (it’s actually called the ‘pain point’). You can be sure that if a gambler reaches this pain point, an employee of the casino steps forward to offer him/her an incentive to stay (i.e. a free drink or meal). Airlines predict when you will be unsatisfied by their service (i.e. they lost your baggage too often), and will upgrade your seat (for free) just before you’ll start flying with another company.
The list of excellent examples goes on and on. But, the general – and possibly frightening – conclusion drawn by Ian Ayres is, that if a company starts giving you gifts, you probably have paid too much.