Weapons of Math Destruction
Author: Cathy O’Neil
Length: 383 minutes / 6.38 hours
I love data. I love what it can show us as individuals and what it can show as society changes from year to year. Being able to trend my spending is just as useful to me as knowing how many people are participating in my National Novel Writing Month region. Because I’m always interested in seeing what pure numbers can show me about the world, I was intrigued to find this book, Weapons of Math Destruction. While I had already heard many of this book’s conclusions, it was interesting to read about the algorithms that work silently behind the scenes of our society and how nobody can really control or change them.
I’ll agree that it’s terrifying to have decision-making boiled down to a number popped out of an algorithm that decision-makers just blindly trust without understanding the rules of causality or correlation. People are messy, so I understand how finding a single aggregating number to represent an individual is a simple solution. However, I agree with the author’s outrage that these numbers are putting the disenfranchised into a toxic and harmful feedback loop. It’s difficult enough to survive out there without an arbitrary number determining your fate and you having little to no ability to change it. Of course, this point is pounded home about one or two times too many in this book.
From personal experience, I have received a brief glimpse behind the curtain into how these algorithms work. When I got married, I moved from one zip code to another in the same town. At that point, my car insurance premiums suddenly went up. Why? Because I was in a zip code filled with people who were “bad drivers.” Despite nothing about me or my car changing, now I was suddenly a bad driver. I do think there are some substantial reforms needed in these algorithmic systems. Still, I don’t necessarily think the solutions provided by the author are the right answer (they seem mostly based on the author’s personal opinions and biases).
A repetitive look into the dangers of blindly trusting algorithms, I give Weapons of Math Destruction 3.5 stars out of 5.