Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
‘Everybody Lies, What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are’ by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is not the typical type of book that I would read. But, and I want to make this point early on, had Stephens-Davidowitz followed through on his plan to call the book ‘How Big Is My Penis? What Google Searches Teach Us About Human Nature’ I would have proudly purchased it in an airport book store.*
My initial concern was that this book was going to be too data heavy, too numbers focused, too dry, and ultimately boring. However, this is anything but the case. Stephens-Davidowitz effortlessly combines a personal tone, humour, and just the right level of seriousness to guide the reader through his findings regarding Big Data. He covers a whole multitude of topics from horse racing, baseball and dating, through to hate & prejudice, child abuse, and sex & pornography. With each topic he covers Stephens-Davidowitz carefully sets the tone, allowing the reader to feel comfortable when stumbling across the shocking statistics.
One section of this book that really stuck with my is when Stephens-Davidowitz is talking about Facebook and social media sites. He writes “Facebook is digital brag-to-my-friends-about-how-good-my-life-is serum” and later concludes “In fact, I think Big Data can give a twenty-first-century update to a famous self-Help quote: ‘Never compare your insides to everyone else’s outsides’. A Big Data update may be: ‘Never compare your Google searches to everyone else’s social media posts’”. I often think reminders like this are helpful, especially in this era dominated by the social media influencer – we don’t know what going on behind the closed doors of other peoples lives.
He also discusses the exceptionally current topic of hate & prejudice, going in to some detail about the effects of Obama’s speeches, and the rise of Donald Trump prior to his Presidency. It is somewhat reassuring that Stephens-Davidowitz believes “[w]e can use data to fight the darkness. Collecting rich data on the world’s problems is the first step toward fixing them”. He is however, not unaware of Big Data’s potentially bigger flaws later stating “[n]umbers can be seductive. We can grow fixated with them, and inso doing we can lose sight of more important considerations”. He later dedicates an entire to section to his thoughts regarding the flaws of Big Data; insight well suited to the overall tone of the book. Ultimately, I think that it is up to each individual within in a society to ensure that we are looking out for those around us, and we all have our part to play in stamping out hate & prejudice – both explicit and implicit. If Big Data can in someway aid this, without risking ethical and moral concerns, then even better.
Later in the book the author provides as basic overview into various methods used by data scientists; dopplegangers, data stories, A/B testing, and nature experiments. By covering the more academic, behind the scenes information Stephens-Davidowitz gives context to the examples in the previous chapters, and enables the reader to start their own process of creative thinking.
One thing that I share in common with Stephen-Davidowitz is struggling to write a conclusion; his final chapter is titled ‘How Many People Finish Books?’ – I know I’m personally guilty of not finishing many a book! Therefore I am going to take his lead, word for word, and conclude “I am going to get a beer with some friends and stop working on this damn conclusion. Too few of you, Big Data tells me, are still reading”.
*For those confused by this statement, I refer you to the footnote on page 124, and the advice Stephens-Davidowitz was given by his editor – I guess you’ll have to read the book!
Everybody Lies in Facts:
Author: Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, foreward by Steven Pinker
First Published: 2017 (England)
Publishing House: Bloomsbury Publishing
Pages: 338 (284 bulk)