Scientists are yesterday’s wizards and demigods. And Nate Silver is a scientist. One whose ability to predict the outcome of elections is so precise, it’s nearly indistinguishable from magic. That’s why IsNateSilverAWitch.com is so funny. But really what his flawless prediction of the presidential election signifies is the coming of age of the quantified universe.
The site answers its titular question “Probably”. For many, that’s a more satisfying answer than the truth, which is that he crunches massive data sets to come to his conclusions. Most people want to believe that instincts, emotions, impressions, and optimism can help them make the right decisions for their lives. But they can’t, as our politics writer Greg Ferenstein digs into.
Luckily, with time, we will become Nate Silver. That’s because technology is making the world increasingly quantified. Elections naturally produce enormous amounts of data. But devices like the iPhone, Nike FuelBand, FitBit, and Nest are squeezing data out of everyday activities that previously went uncalculated. Apps like Instagram, Foursquare, and Twitter are recording what we do, where we are, and what we think. And the data collection will ramp up as wearable computing evolves and products like Google Glass go mainstream.
Data hubs will emerge to combine and make sense of all this data. We’ll see trends in our behavior and those of others that will let us make accurate predictions about our future habits and preferences.
You might be able to expect a daily 3PM productivity drop from a trend showing that you browse humor sites like 9GAG and tweet without links at that time. The fact that you’ve never been to a certain park in your city, but people similar to you take lots of Instagrams near that location could signal you’d probably enjoy a trip there. Your NEST might see you spend a lot of thursday nights home alone but seem antsy, moving from room to room. That might mean you should plan to have friends over or go to a concert those nights.
Those examples might seem a bit far-fetched, but the shift to a quantified existence is underway. We’ll draw some conclusions ourselves from the raw data, but expert data witches like Nate Silver could certainly help.
The only problem is that humans (not even witches) scale. We’re going to need Nate Silver software — algorithms that can both make meaning from the data and recommend what to do with that. Suddenly, the joke that Google should acquire Nate Silver doesn’t seem so far fetched.
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