THE BLOG
09/13/2014 06:56 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Book Review: Dataclysm

Many books have been written about Big Data, and I'm the author of two of them. While the topic is well trodden, we understand far less about what companies are actually doing with this information. As I know all to well, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Netflix, and their ilk don't exactly share their secret sauces. Each takes pretty drastic steps to lock down their data. Individual privacy may be dead, but the same can't be said of the corporate realm.

Enter Christian Rudder, the co-founder free dating site OkCupid. (Yes, I've been a member in the past.) By virtue of his role, Rudder is in the rare position to shed light on what a data-intensive company is doing. His new book Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking)doesn't disappoint. In fact, it's is downright fascinating. Think of it as a exceptionally well written insider's account of the Big Data revolution.

Rudder's text emphasizes practice over theory. He splices in a bit of statistical, psychological, and sociological theory, but only in his quest to prove what data can do.

The short answer is: A whole hell of a lot.

Sure, some of Rudder's stories have been told before. Target's famous pregnancy prediction and the ability of Google Trends to predict flu incidence aren't exactly revelations. Rudder, however, goes far beyond retelling these anecdotes. Because of his role, he has access to a swath of user data--and he's not shy about using it to ask very penetrating questions about who we are and what we want.

Dataclysm uses OKC's data to confirm that men never grow up. We like women in their early twenties--and that doesn't change when we hit our forties. Women's taste in partners, however, changes with time. They're much more reasonable. Maybe you knew that, but Rudder offers plenty of new insights into what we want. His breakdown of the specific words and phrases used by whites, blacks, Latinos, and Asians in their profiles makes for a compelling read.

Most people who work with numbers don't write good. Rudder's writing style is remarkable for a statistician. His use of data visualizations buttress his larger points and the book's overall theme. They tell stories in ways that words simply cannot. And I'd be remiss if I didn't compliment Crown on the book's design. The graphs and charts would be much less clearer if done in black and white. A tinge of color makes a world of difference.

This is the best book that I've read on data in years, perhaps ever. If you want to understand how data is affecting the present and what it portends for the future, buy it now.

Disclaimer: The publisher sent me a copy gratis with no further obligation.