Entertainment Books

Saturday 18 August 2018

What the internet can tell us about who we really are

Popular science: Everybody Lies, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, Bloomsbury; €25.99

Everybody Lies
Everybody Lies
Everybody Lies: What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are

David Blake-knox

Lying appears to be an inescapable part of human nature. Indeed, it seems unlikely that we could continue to live in relative harmony with one another if we did not lie from time to time. This provocative book by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz aims to reveal the scale and magnitude of the lies that we tell ourselves, as well as other people.

To begin with, he questions the value of information provided by traditional forms of empirical survey. He notes, for example, that more than 90pc of college professors have regularly claimed to be producing "above-average" academic work. As the author points out, this is a statistical impossibility that suggests self-delusion, or a basic lack of honesty - or, perhaps, both.

Stephens-Davidowitz believes there is now a more accurate way to access the truth about what human beings are really thinking and doing. That is by analysing the enormous amount of data which billions of individual searches on the internet have thrown up. The author, who is a former data scientist with Google, believes these searches are fuelled by what he calls "the digital truth serum": the anonymity which permits people to admit online to things that they would never dream of acknowledging anywhere else.

Not surprisingly, some of the more intriguing revelations generated by this data concern our sexual preoccupations. From the available data, it appears that many more wives and girlfriends worry that their husbands or boyfriends might be gay than suspect they might be cheating. Meanwhile, a high proportion of men who view gay porn sites also visit sites featuring tests that purport to establish whether or not they are really homosexual.

Some of the author's findings confirm conventional wisdoms. We might predict, for instance, that many men are worried about how well endowed they are. But we could still be amazed by the sheer number of those seeking reassurance on this matter.

The good news for men is that this seems to be much less of an issue for their girlfriends or wives. In fact, a more common complaint made by women on the web is that their partner's penis is too large, and is causing them physical pain.

Some of the other results concerning female sexuality are also perplexing. Around 8pc of women will admit in conventional surveys to watching porn, but Google estimates that up to 40pc of all searches of porn sites are made by women. What is disturbing here is that it seems many more women than men visit pornographic sites that depict rape and sexual violence against women.

The author admits there is "a darkness" in some of the so-called big data he analyses. The purpose of this book is not merely to provoke or unsettle its readers. Instead, its author believes that the colossal amount of data which surfaces every day on the web will have a revolutionary impact on many aspects of modern life.

He argues that it will provide more detailed and accurate research than has previously been available to economists, sociologists, and psychologists. This, he suggests, will allow them to become, for the first time, genuinely scientific in their methodologies. He believes that should also make their work of greater practical value.

Stephens-Davidowitz is aware of some of the risks posed by access to this new reservoir of information. He accepts that the results of big data analyses could lead to greater manipulation of the public by cynical advertisers or canny politicians. On the other hand, he suggests that human fallibility can undermine such effects. Hillary Clinton's recent presidential campaign, for example, relied upon a sophisticated form of data analysis that eventually proved to be badly flawed.

Big data may also be analysed to deduce our reading habits, and it appears that we sometimes buy books we don't really want to read, but would like to think that we do.

Amazon posts details of quotations that are taken from the books it sells. One analyst has compared the frequency of quotes taken from the beginning of a book with those from its final chapters. This may indicate how many of those who bought a particular book will have finished reading it.

By that reckoning, less than 3pc of those who began to read the French economist Thomas Piketty's monumental treatise, Capital in the 21st Century, were able to make it to the closing pages.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz need not worry on that score. His eye-opening book is written in a lively, engaging style, and is more of a page-turner than many works of fiction.

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