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?)

Additional resources:

Stranger than Fiction: The Events Inspiring Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto

I wanted to share a little tidbit I learned about Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto in my post-read-research-frenzy. (Do you also read you can get your hands on about a book after you’ve finished reading it?) If you don’t want to know anything more about the plot, please skip the rest of this post – I won’t be offended! Sometimes it’s nice to go into a book not knowing anything that happens. But knowing the plot also won’t necessarily spoil the book for you, because the writing is so divine.

I briefly mentioned the plot of the book in one of the previous posts, but to expand a little more: this book takes place at the home of the Vice President of an unnamed South American country. The country is hosting a birthday party for an important Japanese company’s CEO in hopes of enticing him to build factories in their country, when the mansion is stormed by rebels and everyone is taken hostage, both the important international guests and the caterers and staff.

Interestingly, the plot was loosely inspired by a real event which occurred between 1996-1997 in Lima, Peru. This is often referred to as the Japanese embassy hostage crisis or the Lima Crisis. On December 17, 1996, the Japanese ambassador of Peru threw a birthday party in celebration of Emperor Akihito’s 63rd birthday. The party took place in the ambassador’s private home and was stormed by 14 members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). There were hundreds of people at the party, and while most of them were freed shortly after the takeover, the remaining guests were held hostage for 126 days, which is a little over four months!

Image Credit: Corbis Images

A note about the ambassador’s home: the Japanese government outfitted the home to be like a fortress, ideal for keeping people out, which may be a little ironic in this situation. The house was surrounded by a 12 foot high wall, had bomb-proof doors, bullet-proof windows, and grates covering almost all the windows. This definitely isn’t the luxurious mansion I was imagining in Ann Patchett’s novel – although it is still palatial.

While I don’t know anything a lot about MRTA and their demands, we don’t really know much about the demands of the rebels in Ann Patchett’s novel either. I don’t think it really matters for the enjoyment of the book, as it’s not meant to be a political thriller. However, if you’re interested, I’ve included some additional reading below:

 

This Week in Review – 08/07/2015

This Week in Review

Hello, August! The weather has been superb here in New York, and I have been spending all of my free time out and about. We have been trying to become more politically aware, especially with the upcoming elections. Here are some things that we’ve been reading this week.

Politics:

Jefferson believed that Natives should give up their own cultures, religions, and lifestyles to assimilate to western European culture and a European-style agriculture, which was more efficient.

Jeb Bush met up with his brother George to play a friendly game of Ping-Pong. When Jeb hit the ball, he would say “Jeb,” and when George hit the ball, he would also say “Jeb.” After Jeb explained to George that he should, in fact, be saying “George,” they laughed, posed for a photo, and said “Bush.”

Just for fun:

this ring is not nearly big enough to make up for your face

this ring is
not nearly big enough to make up for your face

hedgehog life

This week, we posted:

This weekend, I am celebrating a friend’s birthday, reading a really depressing book, and hopefully watching Fantastic Four. Wherever you are, I hope you have a good book and a great snack! What are your plans?