Book Review: Weapons of Math Destruction
I don't often start book reviews this way, but here goes: You should read this book. Yes, you, whoever you are, because it's a sure bet your personal data is part of the algorithms Cathy O'Neil talks about in Weapons of Math Destruction. You've probably heard the old adage, "Lies, damn lies, and statistics." In Weapons of Math Destruction, O'Neil takes the reader on a fairly dystopian journey to discover exactly what corporate and government entities are doing with statistics these days - statistics that often include our very personal information.
From Wall Street's "make money regardless of the consequences" attitude that brought the economy to its knees a decade ago, to the uses and misuses of police surveillance and medical information, to the ways algorithms are muddying the waters of education and failing to improve our schools, it's a scary story. The people who use this data, these computerized algorithms, often aren't aware of the biases that have been programmed into the systems (and even if they are, they frequently don't care). After all, computers are totally unbiased, right? Except they're not, because they're programmed to sort data based on instructions people give them. And often, those instructions create misleading or purely incorrect answers, but it's almost impossible to fight against them because the systems that churn the data are usually hidden and proprietary.
I've looked at the reviews of this book online and they appear to fall into two categories: People with heavy-duty math backgrounds who complain that the book didn't go into enough detail about the algorithms themselves, and ordinary people like me who found it enlightening and also chilling. I don't think you need to know how each algorithm works to understand that the whole industry is a major threat to accuracy, fairness, and privacy on many levels.
Like O'Neil, I'm not sure what the ultimate solution is to this situation. These systems are pervasive in business, education, justice, medicine - virtually every aspect of life these days. But the first step to finding a solution is to identify the problem and make as many people as possible aware of it. This book does exactly that, in language that mere mortals can understand.