Review: Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are

Book Review, Privacy

By: Lisa Hoover

Everybody Lies

I recently read Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz after I heard it recommended by Julie Smith at the New York Library Association Section of School Libraries conference in May. I found it utterly fascinating, and it gave me some great ideas to use with my students. I think it’s a must read for any librarian interested in what modern data can do. 

Here’s the book description from Amazon

Blending the informed analysis of The Signal and the Noise with the instructive iconoclasm of Think Like a Freak, a fascinating, illuminating, and witty look at what the vast amounts of information now instantly available to us reveals about ourselves and our world—provided we ask the right questions.

By the end of an average day in the early twenty-first century, human beings searching the internet will amass eight trillion gigabytes of data. This staggering amount of information—unprecedented in history—can tell us a great deal about who we are—the fears, desires, and behaviors that drive us, and the conscious and unconscious decisions we make. From the profound to the mundane, we can gain astonishing knowledge about the human psyche that less than twenty years ago, seemed unfathomable.

Everybody Lies offers fascinating, surprising, and sometimes laugh-out-loud insights into everything from economics to ethics to sports to race to sex, gender and more, all drawn from the world of big data. What percentage of white voters didn’t vote for Barack Obama because he’s black? Does where you go to school effect how successful you are in life? Do parents secretly favor boy children over girls? Do violent films affect the crime rate? Can you beat the stock market? How regularly do we lie about our sex lives and who’s more self-conscious about sex, men or women?

Investigating these questions and a host of others, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz offers revelations that can help us understand ourselves and our lives better. Drawing on studies and experiments on how we really live and think, he demonstrates in fascinating and often funny ways the extent to which all the world is indeed a lab. With conclusions ranging from strange-but-true to thought-provoking to disturbing, he explores the power of this digital truth serum and its deeper potential—revealing biases deeply embedded within us, information we can use to change our culture, and the questions we’re afraid to ask that might be essential to our health—both emotional and physical. All of us are touched by big data everyday, and its influence is multiplying. Everybody Lies challenges us to think differently about how we see it and the world.

Stephens-Davidowitz is perhaps the perfect person to write this book; he is a New York Times op-ed contributor and lecturer at the Wharton School now, but he previously worked as a data scientist at Google (and much of his data for this book comes from Google). He started his career with a PhD in economics from Harvard. 

Stephens-Davidowitz divides his book into three sections: Data, Big and Small; The Powers of Big Data; and Big Data: Handle with Care. He tackles data driven questions like how many voters chose not to vote for Barak Obama because he is black, whether where you go to school effects your success, whether violent films affect the crime rate, and whether men are as self conscious about sex as women. 

Fortunately for us librarians, he explains the data he used to reach his conclusions, and in many cases addresses the flaws in the data. And he uses all sorts of interesting examples; I was fascinated to learn about how the racehorse American Pharoah – who went on to win the Triple Crown – was chosen using data analysis, for example. The variety of examples and the interesting nature of the datasets keeps the reader – at least this reader – engrossed in the narrative. 

As an educator, I love that this book was so heavily focused on data gathered from Google searching, as it’s a tool I can feel confident just about all of my students have used, which makes it a great way to reinforce just how much data they are putting out there on the web and what it can be used for. 

I do wish the author had emphasized the privacy and ethical issues a bit more; he does have a section on this in Part III of the book, but it’s the last section – I would have liked to see it addressed throughout to help drive the point home, and to make sure all readers were exposed to the concept, not just those who read the book all the way through.

However, I think even when it isn’t explicitly discussed, the reader must be thinking it – it’s hard to read about how data was collected regarding racism toward Barack Obama or about sexual problems, for example, without reflecting on what your own search history might say. I think the reader cannot avoid considering privacy issues while reading about just how much data Google (and others) can collect. 

Likewise, I think his discussion of A/B testing (in which users see different versions of a website to determine which style gets the most clicks), it’s hard to escape the feeling that we’re being manipulated in some sense. Is this worse than the manipulation inherent in any advertising? It’s up to the reader to decide for themselves. 

Overall I found this an interesting and thought provoking read, and I would recommend to any librarian (or other educator) who teaches – or wants to teach – about privacy and data.

Lisa Hoover

Lisa Hoover is a Public Services Librarian at Clarkson University and an Adjunct Professor in criminal justice at SUNY Canton. In addition to her MLS, Lisa holds a JD and an MA in political science. She began her career as an editor and then manager for a local news organization, adjunct teaching in her “spare time.” She teaches courses in criminal procedure, criminal law and constitutional law. She is passionate about 1st Amendment issues. She recently began her career as a librarian, starting at Clarkson University in June 2017 teaching information literacy sessions and offering reference services. Lisa and her husband Lee live in Norwood, New York with their cats Hercules, Pandora and Nyx and pug-mix Alexstrasza (Alex). Find her on Twitter @LisaHoover01.

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