Review: Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil

weapons If you haven’t been living under a rock, you will have experienced big data, whether you applied to lease an apartment or if you are a Facebook user. Generally, we see big data as a helpful way of predicting what movies we’ll like on Netflix and streamlining processes like applying for a mortgage. There are apps now to track your budget, your steps, your caloric intake, and we generally welcome it. More data is always helpful, right? Unfortunately, Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy sheds light on some of the darker implications of our reliance on big data.

Cathy O’Neil has a PhD in mathematics from Harvard University and worked as a quant for a hedge fund, before becoming disillusioned with the world of finance and taking up with the Occupy Wall Street movement. She also runs a math blog (mathbabe.org) where she explores all of the newest developments in big data. So, what exactly is big data?

Define Big Data: extremely large data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions

Normally, when we see things becoming automated, we would generally assume things become less biased and more fair and predictable. O’Neil shows us all of the reasons why this presumption is flawed. She calls these automated/big data driven algorithms “weapons of math destructions” when they meet three criteria: opacity, scale, and damage. O’Neil makes a compelling argument and walks us through how WMD are with us every step of our lives – getting a job, applying for college, and even car insurance. WMDs do not impact us all the same – some people are impacted more than others, namely the poor and minorities.

O’Neil writes about math and complex systems in a way that anyone can understand, even if you slept through every math class in high school. However, nothing is perfect, and I wish that the “and threatens democracy” portion of the book was a little more fleshed out. O’Neil mentions her work with Occupy Wall Street in passing, but I think this should have been a full chapter of her book.

***

I’d recommend this book to people who are interested in social policy, nonfiction books written in plain language, and people who listen to Planet Money. But be warned, after reading this book, you’ll begin to see big data traps everywhere (does the Congressional repeal of internet privacy rules sound familiar?)

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