Book Review: Weapons of Math Destruction

I recently finished Weapons of Math Destruction (subtitled, How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy) by Cathy O’Neil.

The one-sentence summary version: It’s a quick and easy read for those looking to understand how algorithms are being used with inappropriate or non-existent feedback loops to affect people’s everyday lives, while especially compounding problems for those on the lower end of the socioeconomic totem pole.

Overall, I agree with the author’s message. The examples given in the book, while occasionally oversimplified, were tangible and easily understood. However, at times I became distracted by the way opinion and description were woven together.

In some cases, it’s clear that an algorithmic method of decision making was broken, because it was flawed and did not actually accomplish the public policy goal it was supposed to accomplish. In other cases, though, the algorithm was described as broken even if it accomplished exactly what it set out to do. You can easily argue that people were harmed in the process, and that in order to prevent people from being harmed, we must regulate the ways in which certain data may be used, but you have to make that argument. You have to show evidence why the rights of the consumers (witting or unwitting) of the algorithm trump the rights of the algorithm’s creators to use it in that way. I think the case is often easy to make, but I feel like there were several times when the author assumed that this was implicit and then left out that argument.

In any case, it’s a fast read, so if this is a topic that interests you, it may be worth your time.