REVIEW ~ Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

Front cover image of the book

Frohes Neues!

Tech Policy Tidbits (TPT) is my re-branded blog. In an attempt to commit to blogging about the things I tweet about, TPT is a series of reviews, opinion and analysis on anything to do with technology policy  —  books, legislation, articles, or events.

The first book I read this year was Cathy O’Neil’s “Weapons of Math Destruction” (WMD). It’d been sitting on my Kindle for about five months, and I finally decided to crack it open on January 2nd.

If you have the know-how of how algorithms/machine learning/data science work, it’s of my opinion that WMD was not written for you.

WMD is a high-level account of mathematical models, algorithms and big data, and how they are used to make decisions, often operating as the efficient robot replacements. O’Neil outlines how and why they are dangerous, and how WMDs perpetuate inequalities and end up harming poor and minority people.

Cathy provides various examples of WMDs and breaks down why they qualify as one against her taxonomy. To Cathy, a WMD is anything that damages or destroys lives – i.e. its unfair-, scaleable and opaque.

The one problem I had with WMD is the last chapter. The final chapter is O’Neil’s attempt to provide a balanced argument — that not all WMDs are bad. However, it feels rushed. Her idea of the Hippocratic Oath for data scientists feels incomplete and lacking thought. WMD’s aren’t the fault of data scientists only — its bigger than that. It’s the mass tracking of people and collection of data that has ushered in this era of surveillance capitalism that powers the models themselves. To imply that data scientists have the power to stop the misuse of algorithms is to minimise the scope and scale of the problem.

Overall, I found myself nodding along to O’Neil’s analysis, but I wasn’t really engaged. I already understood her core thesis, and so I found myself wanting more. When I first heard about WMD and subsequently Cathy, I expected it to get into the detail of the math behind some of the WMDs she lists in the book. Disappointingly, that’s not the case here. To be fair, Cathy does outline this in the first chapter:

“…this book will focus…on the damage inflicted by WMDs and the injustice they perpetuate. We will explore harmful examples that affect people at critical life moments: going to college, borrowing money, getting sentenced to prison, or finding and holding a job. All of these life domains are increasingly controlled by secret models wielding arbitrary punishments.”

Weapons of Math Destruction, page 19.

It’s for this reason that I think WMD would be useful for anyone who finds themselves overwhelmed when it comes to AI & algorithms, and wants a better understanding. Heck, even if you don’t have the desire to learn about this stuff, this is an excellent place to start. The WMDs examples O’Neil provides are already in situ, so anyone participating in the digital economy (i.e. everyone) should read this book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.