‘Everybody Lies’, a book on Big Data: Benefits of Digital Truth Serum
Posted on April 20th, 2019

By Rohana R. Wasala Courtesy The Island

Everybody Lies – What the Internet Can Tell Us about Who We Really Are’ (Seth Stephens – Davidowitz, London, Bloomsbury Publishing, Paperback edition, 2018, 338 pp, ISBN 978 – 1- 4088 – 9473 – 6) is a book on Big Data (a term explained below), which introduces a still evolving subject in an informal, entertaining manner. It was first published in Great Britain in 2017. Though the book is primarily addressed to an American audience, the author being an American (a New Yorker) and the basic subjects of his study being Americans, it is also intended for a much more global readership, which, in my opinion, it well deserves. I am left with the impression that it would be of great appeal to interested general readers like me as well as internet data experts or data scientists like the author Stephens-Davidowitz himself; it will also be of special interest to young college students who are looking forward to a career in Data Science. (Incidentally, it was while I was contemplating writing this review after reading the book a week or two ago that I came across a media news report from Sri Lanka about some student agitators from the Sabaragamuwa University there demonstrating near the Parliament roundabout, demanding an increase in the number of admissions to the Social Sciences and Languages Faculty in their university. The relevance of this piece of news here is that the development and illustration of Stephens-Davidowitz’s ideas in this book are almost entirely in relation to the broad subject domains of social sciences and languages usually covered at university level anywhere in the world.)

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a New York Times journalist, a former visiting lecturer at the Wharton School of Pennsylvania University, and a former data scientist at Google. He holds a BA Phi Beta Kappa in philosophy from Stanford and a PhD in economics from Harvard.

That everybody lies is Seth’s unflattering discovery about us common humans.  But he seems to have made an extra effort to reveal the truth about himself as a person, researcher and writer. His wish to be candid about himself is evident throughout the text, which  incorporates personal details that touch on his interactions with his family, friends, his tutors and colleagues, etc, particularly in the beginning and the concluding  chapters, and in addition, in the ‘Acknowledgements’ section. He does not claim all the credit for this product of  rigorous intellectual discipline and labour. He describes the book as ‘a team effort’. It was obviously a large team. His parents are imlicitly included in that team. His mother Esther Davidowitz read the entire manuscript a number of times, we are told, and helped ‘dramatically improve it’. During a job interview, a professor grilled him: ‘What does your mother think of  this work you do?’ Seth explains why the professor asked him this: ‘The idea was that my mom would be embarrassed that I was researching sex and other taboo topics. But I always knew that she was proud of me for following my curiosity, wherever it led’ (as she always advised him to do). His father Mitchell Stephens’ involvement was perhaps even more important, for without him, Seth gratefully acknowledges, he could not have finished the book. This was because, at one point, Seth felt ‘deeply stuck, lost, and close to abandoning the project’. So, the old man took his son to the country, and did what he could to restore his spirits. He discussed things such as love, death, success, happiness, and writing with his son.The point Seth is making by this is that he is a normal imperfect human being who is very close to one or another of us. But with the special insights we netizens gain from reading his book, we would hardly allow ourselves to be unsuspecting guinea pigs of his experiments!

Seth adopts an easy, chatty, informal style of writing, enlivened with a pleasant sense of humour, which makes his extremelycomplicated and complex subject accessible to most readers. He launches into his task with a short description of a certain family Thanksgiving dinner table conversation in which the subject of choosing a suitable bride for him, at thirty-three years of age already, crops up. Seth’s sister, brother and father believe that he is crazy, but his mother doesn’t think so. The sister proposes that they look for a girl who is crazy like him to match his craziness, while the brother’s suggestion is for a normal young woman ‘to balance him out’. It is obvious that they are all passing judgement on Seth based on what information (data) they possess about him. At this point, it is his soft-spoken  eighty-eight year old grandmother who joins in with: ‘Seth, you need a nice girl. Not too pretty. Very smart. Good with people. Social, so you will do things. Sense of humour, because you have a good sense of humour.’ 

Why does this old woman’s advice command such respectful attention in his family?, Seth asks, and he answers his own question: Having observed many marriages, some of which worked and some didn’t, she has catalogued, over a long time, the personal qualities of marriage partners that contribute to successful relationships. She has had access to the largest number of data points about the subject. In view of this, Seth says, his grandmother is Big Data. The grandmother analogy is in keeping with his declared intention in this book, which is to ‘demystify’ data science.

 A data scientist mines the big data on the internet/web for four unique powers that, Seth claims, Big Data has. (It is good to remember that the internet and the web are not identical, as we all know; here, we are more concerned with the internet, which really is the virtually limitless ever growing, ever renewing ocean of information.) He illustrates these characteristic strengths of big data through his analytical comment on Sigmund Freud in Chapter 2 titled ‘Was Freud Right?’ Big data analysis gives a more reliable method to understand the secretive human mind and the social reality than our intuition (‘our faulty gut’, as Seth calls it) or conventional wisdom The powers of big data, according to Seth, are fourfold: i) it offers new types of data, e.g., pornographic material, ii) it provides honest data; for example, porn data is not only new, but undisguised, iii) big data enables us to zoom in on small subsets of people, and iv) big data allows data scientists to do many causal experiments, that is, it makes it possible for them to carry out rapid controlled experiments that focus on causality, not on mere correlation.

Data science is the same concept as Big Data. As it is a fast evolving field, it is not easy to find a comprehensive definition of big data that is accessible to the general reader. The following is a satisfactory enough explanation of Big Data adapted from the Wikipedia (as of March 7, 2019): ‘Big data refers to datasets that are too large or complex for traditional data processing application software to adequately deal with…. Big data challenges include capturing data, data storage, data analysis, search, sharing, transfer, visualization, querying, and updating information privacy and data source’. What Seth offers us in the book is data science in practice, so we experience a more concrete sense of the abstract notions involved.

Seth starts his introduction  with an explanation of what led to Donald Trump’s surprise win at the 2016 US presidential election in terms of data science. Most polling experts had predicted that Donald Trump was going to lose. Seth, as a data scientist, maintains that Trump’s superior performance, both at the primaries and the general election, was reflected in the internet data at the time. He concluded that racism played a significant part in the Trump victory.  Seth arrived at this conclusion by scientifically analyzing the large number of Google searches that Americans carried out privately during the relevant period. Seth implies that the pollsters went wrong about the presidential election results because they missed lots of information that are available in the internet that would have helped them understand many subjects including elections.

What Seth claims to have discovered is that everybody lies. People lie about everything. Parents lie to children and vice versa, lovers lie to each other, husbands lie to wives, and wives to husbands, and so on. Why do people do that? It’s because they want to look good. That is why they lie about their own embarrassing behaviours and thoughts. This is called social desirability bias. Seth suggests that the pollsters’ failure to correctly predict Donald Trump’s 2016 victory was probably due to social desirability bias on the part of the voters surveyed; that is, they lied in order to hide their racist prejudice against Barak Obama. Not only do people lie to others, they lie to themselves! People say they don’t want to stalk their friends. But the truth is that they always want to keep up with their friends and judge them, a fact that Mark Zuckerberg, cofounder of Facebook, made use of  to become a multi-billionaire.

The second power of big data already mentioned above is that it provides honest data. Certain online sources get people to admit things that they would not reveal anywhere else. Similarly, there is a tendency for them to be truthful in their private Google searches and responses. They provide an incentive for people to tell the truth.  For example, if someone is suffering from depression they may be unwilling to reveal this to a survey, but they will have an incentive to make Google searches for symptoms of depression and suitable remedies for it with no fear of being exposed to possible social stigma on this account.  Datasets consisting of such searches and responses provide a good source of information for data experts to explore in order to reveal the inner nature of the human mind and the hidden reasons that account for inexplicable social realities.

Stephens-Davidowitz holds that, on the average, ‘digital truth serum’ tells us that the world is worse than we think it is. However, according to him, this knowledge can improve our lives in three ways: 1) it can be comforting to know that you are not alone in your insecurities and embarrassing behaviours; he updates the well known self-help quote ‘Never compare your insides to everyone else’s outsides’ thus: ‘Never compare your Google searches to everyone else’s social media posts’; 2) it alerts us to people who are suffering; the Human Rights Campaign has asked Seth to work with them in helping them to educate men in certain states to come out of the closet (this is a reference to gay men); child-abuse victims can also be helped through Big Data; and 3) its ability to lead us from problems to solutions is perhaps the most powerful value in the digital truth serum: ‘With more understanding, we might find ways to reduce the world’s supply of nasty attitudes’.

The lankacnews.com online journal carried news about two scandalous episodes involving some members of the Sri Lankan FB community. The later report was about a YouTube video that showed a wife-beating incident that had taken place some seven months ago, but that the victim had remained passive about at the time; now, however, she feels bitterly aggrieved at it, while the offending male contemptuously dismisses the concerns expressed on her behalf by the ‘avajaathakayin’ (ill-bred busybodies) who, allegedly, are raising a hue and cry about it in the social media. It is shocking that this young man who not only beat up his wife or living together partner while allegedly videoing it calls the critics of his actions ill-bed”. I, for one, wish the local no-violence-against-women campaigners took immediate action. Both of these young people seem to be in need of help. Violence against women is a global problem, and it figures in Big Data activity. Readers of ‘Everybody Lies’ will find much to read about the subject and countless other problems that afflict the modern world.

The earlier reported incident was datelined the same day it happened or it had happened the day before. The news was published in the lankacnews website on April 7, 2019. It is about a celebratory event held to mark the Sinhala Aluth Avurudda, a traditional cultural festival of great antiquity, at Campbell Park, Colombo. The activity had been organized by some young Facebookers. Traditional games, trials of strength for fun, and other forms of recreation, especially among young men and women,  that go on for days sometimes, are part and parcel of the celebrations connected with the Aluth Avurudda. The young Facebook activists reportedly introduced a new, previously unheard of, item named ‘kukkubeeme tharangaya’ or a ‘suckling match’ during which, as a photo shows, two young men were sucking at bottles, seemingly containing milk, held by two young women in their armpits close to their breasts, as if they were ‘suckling’ those two ‘babies’, (something, needless to say, that would have been outrageously offensive to the traditional cultural sensitivities of the Sinhalese, who are the principal celebrants of the festival,  had it been staged in the more conservative rural areas; it has triggered a lot of adverse comments within the Facebook community itself).

The ‘suckling match’ novelty resonates with, or even confirms, something unexpected that Stephens-Davidowitz has encountered through Big Data analysis. He says that he sometimes hits upon a new dataset that reveals a behavior, desire or a concern that he would have never even considered. There are many sexual propensities that fall into this category. For example, in India, the number one Google search beginning my husband wants….” is my husband wants me to breastfeed him”! According to Seth, this comment is far more common in India than in other countries. He further says that ‘porn searches for depictions of women breastfeeding men are four times higher in India and Bangladesh than in any other country in the world’. The same observation might apply to Sri Lanka. I don’t know whether the ‘suckling match’ reveals an existing sexual aberration, diversion, perversion, psychotic condition, or some other diseased state among young Sri Lankans. But there is no doubt that it is culturally unacceptable behaviour for most Sri Lankans irrespective of ethnicity.

Big Data analysis has infinite potential to help us improve our private and social lives, and the country as a whole by revealing strange but powerful hidden truths about ourselves and our society. However, as Stephens-Davidowitz cautions us, Big Data must be handled with care. For there are dangers too, intrinsically associated with it. Of these, two are prominent. These he characterizes as empowered corporations and empowered governments. The terms are self-explanatory, and Sri Lankans are too familiar with the harmful consequences of both to need any explicit elaboration.  

4 Responses to “‘Everybody Lies’, a book on Big Data: Benefits of Digital Truth Serum”

  1. aloy Says:

    He should have first explained how he got the Indian name. He claims to have worked in google as a Data scientist. The CEO of that entity that tries to dominate the world on tech matters is Sundar Pichai an Indian from Chennai.

  2. Vaisrawana Says:

    Fellow commenter alloy, please excuse me for having to contradict you. I am sorry. Seth may be an Indian name as you say. I know it is also an Egyptian name. Isn’t ‘seth’ a Sinhalese word as well, although it is not used as a name. The Sinhalese seth means blessing, or wellbeing, as we all know. But Seth is best known as a Hebrew name. It occurs in a conspicuous context very early in the Bible, Genesis 4:25, where Seth is the third son of Adam and Eve. Their first born son was Cain, and the second Abel. Cain kills Abel. Eve conceives a third time and delivers Seth. She considers Seth as the divine compensation for the dead Abel. ‘Compensation’ is in fact the meaning of the Hebrew name Seth.

    Actually, in the book, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz describes himself as a ‘white’. Stephens is the name of his father, I think he is English. The Davidowitz part is obviously Hebrew. That’s the name of his mother, she is apparently of German Jew origin; David is a well known biblical name.

    What you are saying about a South Indian in the Google company is not relevant to this book.

  3. aloy Says:

    Dear Vaisrawana, thank you for correcting me.
    I knew the meaning of Seth which perhaps is a common name in North India. In fact I worked under one Sethya in an African country and I respect him very much. However I never knew the Hebrew connection to that name.
    I have known that they use all sort of data analyses with AI and also uses Sigmund Freud’s way of thinking about social behavior in aggressive marketing campaigns. Multibillion Dollar company, Nvidia does it with a nephew of Sigmund Freud. That must be the Digital Truth Rohana is speaking about.

  4. Vaisrawana Says:

    Dear @aloy,

    Thank you for the kind reply. I would like to further contribute to the discussion by adding another comment. The name ‘Sethya’ you refer to seems to be an abbreviation of certain Tamil names such as Sathyasundaram, Sathyanandan, Sathyamurthi, etc. where ‘sathya’ in Sanskrit, as we know, means truth. So it cannot be equated with ‘Seth’.

    There certainly is an Indian family name ‘Seth’, as I remembered after posting my first comment above. The author of the 1993 Indian novel ‘A Suitable Boy’ is Vikram Seth. I am sorry it didn’t come to my mind earlier.

    The meaning of the phrase ‘digital truth serum’ comes out clearly in this article, as it does in the book. ‘Truth serum’ is the key part. The Wikipedia explains: ‘“Truth serum” is a colloquial name for any of a range of psychoactive drugs used in an effort to obtain information from subjects who are unable or unwilling to provide it otherwise.’ ‘Digital truth serum’ has to be understood metaphorically.

    By the way, the legendary Indian-American billionaire business executive Pichai Sundararajan (47) (popularly known as Sundar Pichai) who is the CEO of Google migrated to America from Chennai with his parents as a child. He studied at the Wharton School of the Pennsylvania University; Wharton is said to be the No 1 business studies school in USA. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz (35) lectured at this centre of learning years later. But Sundar Pichai is out of the ambit of Seth’s remarkable book.

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