Recent commentary on the threat that disinformation poses for democracy brought to mind a book I first encountered in 2017: Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. My original reactions to this provocative book were buried as part of several reviews on More to Come. Because of the timeliness of the discussion, I’ve reposted an update here as a stand-alone piece.
The book originally came to my attention after chatting with a seat mate on a plane ride. He gave it a strong recommendation and I’m glad he did. It was a fascinating read. Author Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a social scientist who uses big data sources to uncover hidden behaviors and attitudes. He notes that Google searches are a type of “truth serum” because we undertake those searches anonymously. Tools such as Google Trends can tell us what people — in huge data sets — are really thinking.
“In other words, people’s search for information is, in itself, information,” Stephens-Davidowitz explains. “The power of Google data is that people tell the giant search engine things they might not tell anyone else.”
That’s true about race, politics, and especially sex. People lie about all three things when taking surveys, but they don’t lie when searching for data in the anonymity of their living rooms. The acknowledgement in recent years of the rise of white nationalism in the mainstream media was something that Google searches predicted in 2008…on the night Barack Obama was elected president. There were more searches using the “n-word president” than “first black president” in some states.
A generally positive reviewer did note one challenge with the book’s focus on the value of big data.
I expected a reference to Cathy O’Neil, who shows in her book Weapons of Math Destruction (2016) how programs based on big data introduce a frightening new efficiency into predatory advertising, “distort higher education, drive up debt, spur mass incarceration, pummel the poor at nearly every juncture, and undermine democracy”. Programs designed with the very best intentions fall into deadly self-confirming feedback loops that confirm their efficacy even as they spiral away from the truth and increase injustice.
That’s a fair assessment as Stephens-Davidowitz could have helped us better understand the challenges with using big data in the way he suggests. Yet outside of that concern, the click-bait title, and a few other minor quibbles, this book has much to recommend it. There is great analysis, excellent storytelling, and witty writing throughout. Suffice it to say that this book may change the way you view the world…and truth and lies.
More to come…