Data, Your New Best Friend

I read the other day that Google processes about a petabyte of information every hour. A petabyte, for those of you mulling over whether to get the 1 or 1.5 terabyte external hard drive,  is 1,125,899,906,842,624 bytes, or about a fifth of all the information delivered in letter form by the postal service in a year. In search alone, Google processes 35,000 queries every second. A fair number are mine since I use it for everything from spell -checking to research to finding new pictures of Candice Swanepoel in some state of undress. But the larger point here is that Google, although the 800-pound gorilla for sure, is only one of thousands of entities on and offline that are collecting data about you and me.

Now there are a couple of ways to look at this. You can take a big Wall Street Journal What They Know-sized crap in your pants because you are learning all of this just now, or you can look forward to the day when all of this data is harnessed to not only deliver you ads for products and services you want to buy (across every platform from mobile to TV) but presents you with entertainment choices that your history proves you will like -- from movies to TV shows, from books to individual magazine article or blog posts, from music (hello Beatles) to pictures of Candice Swanepoel in some state of undress.

Imagine your DVR self-programming itself to tape everything it knows you will like (and maybe would be smart enough to tape all of the Eagles' thrashing of the Redskins so you didn't miss any of Michael Vick's record setting performance by bailing when you saw it was a blow-out, like me).

But data will not stop there. Think of the improvements in health care when a supercomputer can look at the anonymized records of 3 or 4 hundred million others with your same symptoms, so your primary-care physician doesn't have to go into his private office and flip a coin to decide your diagnosis. Or say it's 3 o'clock in the morning, you are baked and have only sardines, Captain Crunch and leftover Chinese food in your apartment. Whip out your handheld, enter the three "ingredients" -- and based on 365,000 people who in the past have found themselves with the bare-cupboard munchies, return not one, but 17 different recipes that will taste like Bobby Flay had been sitting across the bong from you.

Have one of those arguments with your girlfriend where she is JUST ahead in style points and you need a close that will send the jury to deliberation in tears? Enter your girlfriend's last two statements - and, based on 5.5 billion similar disagreements from couples just like you, in seconds you will have a slam the factual humiliation of which  will not only shut her up for the moment, but with luck, she won't speak to you for about a week.

Standing on the auto lot in the winter wind listening to more wind, a little hotter, from a sales guy who seems to know all about the other model you are also thinking about and has stats you are hard-pressed to refute? Excuse yourself to the restroom, whip out your iPad and check the facts. Based on 8.5 million centralized repair reports from a database mandated as part of the bailout of Detroit, see what really goes wrong most often with BOTH models. Now armed with the facts, go back out and hammer the guy with neck tats down another $1,500 or so.

Your gray-haired mom, on whom over the many years you have exhausted every reasonable (and many stupid) ideas for gifts, have yet another birthday looming like the SATs on your calendar? You have two choices. With a single query, you can ask every retailer in America what they recommend for her birthday based on age, health, interests, location and general temperament  -- and see what others have bought the 1.2 million others who are remarkably like her. Or, you can enter all of the gifts you have given her in the last five years, and a panel of 1.2 million grannies remarkably similar to her, will tell you just how far off the mark you have been five out of five times in a row. Then take their recommendations.

See, data can be your friend. Learn to use it, not fear it.



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