»  Claremont Review of Books

Spring 2017

  Doesn't Add Up

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy
        by Cathy O'Neil


The age we live in, which is of course the Information Age, has presented us with great boons but also many problems. As an old I.T. grunt — I wrote my first program in 1969 using the ALGOL language, now defunct — I habitually think of Information Age issues in a binary way, as pertaining either to data or to code.

In social and political commentary it is data that gets most of the attention. What is the point of balance between privacy and national security in the collection of data? When a private corporation (Google, say) gathers data about me (from my internet searches, perhaps), what may they lawfully do with it? If a U.S. company stores data on servers abroad, can they be compelled to repatriate it? (That is the gravamen of Microsoft Corp. v. United States, currently being litigated.)

Mathematician Cathy O'Neil's new book offers a welcome change of viewpoint, from data to code, that is, to the computer programs — she prefers "algorithms" — that analyze the great floods of data now washing over the world. These algorithms are the "weapons of math destruction" in her book's title.

Once they've analyzed the data, algorithms suggest decisions. The impact of those decisions may be trivial: which ads should appear on my Facebook page, perhaps. It may be middling: whether or not I should be given a loan. It may be life-changing: the sentence a convicted criminal should receive. It may even be historic: how many people in demographic X can be persuaded to vote for candidate A. Far too often, O'Neil tells us, these algorithms deliver unfairness, especially to poor and disadvantaged citizens.

She tackles her subject as a Social Justice Warrior … … …

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[Complete review in the Spring 2017 issue of Claremont Review of Books]