The Roots of the Word ‘Numerati’

August 23, 2011
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It was long my goal to make “numerati” a common word. Most of us don’t get too many chances in life to create a new word, and I thought I had one. And early in 2009, I thought I had hit pay-dirt. William Safire, who must have been quite ill by that time, sent word through an assistant that he wanted to origins of numerati for a column he was writing int the Times. I sent him a long and detailed history, hoping that a sentence or two would make it into his article.

It was long my goal to make “numerati” a common word. Most of us don’t get too many chances in life to create a new word, and I thought I had one. And early in 2009, I thought I had hit pay-dirt. William Safire, who must have been quite ill by that time, sent word through an assistant that he wanted to origins of numerati for a column he was writing int the Times. I sent him a long and detailed history, hoping that a sentence or two would make it into his article.

The article never appeared, and Safire died on Sept. 27 of that year. Going through my old email, I found the memo I sent him. Here it is:


Here is the brief history of the word “numerati.”

In February of 2006 I sold a proposal to Houghton Mifflin for a book entitled The Age of Numbers. The idea was that by using the tools of modern life, all of us were producing mountains of information about ourselves. A select group of mathematicians and computer scientists would be culling through these data to model, predict and “optimize” our behavior as workers, shoppers, voters, patients, potential terrorists, even lovers. I called this the “mathematical modeling of humanity,” and predicted that it would be one of the great undertakings of the 21st century. Thus my original title.

My editor, Amanda Cook, thought the title was “static” and unlikely to light a fire under general interest readers. She asked for a replacement. We considered “Quants.” But they were linked too tightly to the world of finance (and, as it turned out, up to no good). “Nerds” and “Geeks” were way too negative. So here we had what we saw as a ruling class, a numerical elite with enormous and growing power over our lives. Think of the Google guys! And yet they didn’t have a proper name. So, with a nod to the literati, digerati, and above all, the illuminati, I came up with the numerati.

I cite the illuminati, because unlike the broader literati and digerati–people in the know about things literary and digital–the illuminati are said to be a special order which wields power behind the scenes.

A few words about the scary stuff. Yes, in the marketing of the book there is a threatening undercurrent. (The British publisher, Jonathan Cape, insisted on a subtitle: They’ve Got My Number–And Yours.) It is true that these people (or at least their machines) are privy to many of our secrets. Without a doubt, they use this information in attempts to manipulate us. But I do not see them as inherently malevolent. In the realms I explore in the book, they want to deliver advertisements that might interest us. They want us to be healthier (and cheaper to cure). They want to cherry pick potential Republicans in Greenwich Village or the Upper West Side. In short, they want to use their intelligence to treat us as individuals–not herds.

However, their science, like any powerful tool, can be used against us. An insurance company staffed by numerati could analyze the patterns of our behavior, pick out the 5% of us most likely to get cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, and jack up our rates or perhaps deny us coverage. More threatening, a government could use these tools to monitor and manipulate its population. (And it’s inevitable that this type of statistical analysis will corral innocent people, “false positives,” in any round-up.)

The numerati, to answer your question, are marked more by what they do than what they know. Here’s why. Unlike the world of letters, where modern literati can delve into Melville or Ovid, the only action for the numerati occurs on the cutting edge of research. It is on this frontier that they are studying our patterns, writing their algorithms, and making fortunes. The breakthroughs from five years ago–the early recommendations from Amazon, for example–are now stale. Those with a bit of enduring value are now encoded into commodity software.

I should add that the numerati, sans nom, have long been turning bits of our world into numbers. Pioneers of the group specialized in operations research. During WWII, as German u-boats were sinking our convoys, these experts rendered the North Atlantic theater into math and optimized the deployment of destroyers. This helped turn the tide in the war. After the war, operations researchers went on to rejigger logistics of the world as we know, from airplane routes to the Majo League baseball schedule. However, they never extended their science to humans, because they lacked both the data to describe our behavior and machines powerful enough to crunch it. That is what is new.

I’ll paste here the paragraph from the book describing the march of the numerati into the realm of humanities:

…Still, the computer knew its place. It thrived in the world of numbers. It didn’t appear to threaten people on the other side of the divide, those of us who specialized in words and music and images. We barely noticed it. Yet over the following decades, the computer grew in power, gobbling up ever more ones and zeros per millisecond. It got cheaper and smaller, and it linked up with others around the world. It produced jaw-dropping efficiencies and swallowed entire technologies. It supplanted typewriters and moved on, like an imperial force, to rout record players and film cameras. It took over the mighty telephone. Finally, in the ‘90s, even those of us who had long viewed computers as aliens from the basement world of geekdom started to make room for them in our homes and offices. We learned that we could use these machines to share our words and movies and photos with the entire world. In fact, we had little choice. The old ways were laughably slow. But there was one condition: We had to render everything we sent, the very stuff of our lives, into ones and zeros. That’s how we came to deliver our riches, the key to communications on earth, to the masters of the single symbolic language. Now, these mathematicians and computer scientists are in a position to rule the information of our lives. I call them the Numerati.