Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

242 pages, $27.


In “Big Data,” their illuminating and timely book, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier argue that the nature of surveillance has changed.

Cukier, the data editor for the Economist, and Mayer-Schönberger, a professor at Oxford University, argue that big data analytics are revolutionizing the way we see and process the world. And in this volume they give readers a fascinating survey of big data’s growing effect on just about everything: business, government, science and medicine, privacy and even on the way we think.

Big data has given birth to an array of new companies and has helped existing ones boost customer service and find new synergies. Before a hurricane, Wal-Mart learned, sales of Pop-Tarts increased, along with sales of flashlights, and so stores began stocking boxes of Pop-Tarts next to the hurricane supplies “to make life easier for customers.”

There is, of course, a dark side to big data, and the authors provide an astute analysis of the dangers. Privacy has become much more difficult to protect, especially as old strategies — “individual notice and consent, opting out and anonymization” — lose effectiveness or become completely beside the point.

To their credit, Cukier and Mayer-­Schönberger recognize the limitations of numbers. Though their book leaves the reader with a keen appreciation of the tools that big data can provide in helping us “quantify and understand the world,” it also warns us about falling prey to the “dictatorship of data.”

“We must guard against overreliance on data,” they write, “rather than repeat the error of Icarus, who adored his technical power of flight but used it improperly and tumbled into the sea.”