Parker's Reviews > Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart

Super Crunchers by Ian Ayres
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's review
Sep 10, 11

Read from August 31 to September 09, 2011

I picked this book up because Lessig called it "the most important book I've read in as long as I can remember". That's some high praise. Indeed, the thesis of this book is an important one to take to heart when thinking about the world today and in the future, but to my mind the book falls short of being an excellent defense of that thesis.

Ayres uses the words "Super Crunching" (over and over) to refer to the act of analyzing large data sets to make evidence-based conclusions about things that previously depended on the intuition of experts. He does a good job of indicating that this process is almost always more effective than human decision making — which he demonstrates to be true in virtually all fields of endeavor — but that there are positive and negative implications to that effectiveness.

So: granting Ayres his thesis, what do we do with it? Airlines have long engages in price discrimination based on factors like purchase date, frequent flier status, and the like; but what do we do when those practices are applied in every industry, and using data from all aspects of the customer's life?

One response, and the one that Ayres explores, is encouraging citizens to increase their numeracy and the attention they pay to purchasing decisions. Another, and he mentions this in passing, is the emergence of a "datamining free" certification, like "free range" or "organic", that promises prices or business practices set by humans.

Two problems are raised but inadequately addressed, for my taste. How do we preserve the humanity of commerce when algorithms determine how to not "leave money on the table", and when discretion is driven further up the chain of command? I don't want to get all Jaron LanierJaron Lanier on you, but these are real things to consider.

There are some amazing businesses that don't function very well from a pure economic analysis. Craigslist is famously used as a bad example in Harvard business classes, because there are so many unexploited opportunities for monetization. But isn't that lack of a sense of exploitation the real reason that it's a success, and a uniquely modern one at that?

In all, this book brings some important realities to the fore, and shouldn't be punished for that. It is accessible for a layperson, and really drives some points home. I wouldn't call it the most important book I've read in as long as I can remember, but I'd recommend it to somebody who wanted to learn more about the way decisions are made at the corporate and governmental levels.
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