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

I first came across Cathy O’Neil’s concept of Weapons of Math Destruction on a philosophy podcast. I was spellbound and horrified of how math was used carelessly (cursed are the poorly made proxies) to shape our societies and tamper with people’s lives. She spoke of broken window programs and how lopsided they are, and she spoke lengthily about the data economy and consequences of it. I had to read the book and hear what else she, as a mathematician and insider from finance, had to say how data was used for profit and efficiency (and truth) damned the consequences (and if it even holds true like the example of how scoring teachers is all messed up.)

At first, I was disappointed with the book; she had gone over most of the ideas in her opening chapters in the podcast, but then as I read on, she went more in depth with the examples how data and proxies were used to draw huge lines and policies that worsened people’s lives. I was giddy. Not that such a word should be ever described of what I read, livid is a better word because the consequences of seemingly simple ideas of using a computer (program) to calculate the best shifts for a café or a more unbiased hiring aid can and will destroy lives, and without afterthought, without repercussions, and without the program and its masters ever seeing how wrong it might be because the program doesn’t learn from its failures. The thing is, there are “worse” examples in the book (if you can even say that; people have lost their lives because they optimize shifts for profit; a student might drop out from their studies because of it and lose their future, or a single working mom might not only struggle with her child being looked after, not to mention spending time with her children, but also taking a shortcut to work or irregular hours might cost her money with uncalculated consequences with things like insurances and their black boxes) for example people’s lives are lost and fall victim to the racial prejudice of the system and be discriminated and jailed for the color of their skin and the neighborhood they live in, having no way out, because of police is watching procedures, or insurances are higher, or they are targeted with predatory loans.

Cathy O’Neil paints a dark picture of what consequences data usage as policy-making, as a business guideline, as a way to make money, as a clairvoyant into the future, and as a shrink to understand/organize people can cause. This is a grim book and can and will cause agony, and should cause it, but the book’s purpose is not to dwell in the bad and make money out of it. It is to enlighten and make people see what the future might hold if we don’t stop to think and reconsider how we do business. Now the poor and unprivileged suffer most in the hands of poorly made mathematical calculations and systems because they cannot buy or don’t have the voice to require personal attention to their worries and troubles. That should be enough to look into the weapons of math destruction as Cathy O’Neil calls them. Still, to those with it is about how we act and conduct our affairs attitude, that the poor are poor because of their own misgivings, the shit has already hit your fan with economic models used in hedge funds, Wall Street, insurances, loans, school ranking, how and where your data is sold and how it is used, and so on. This book is eye-opening, and I would say everyone needs to read it.

But the book has its downfall. It is very superficial. It is the doomsayer book that points out the errors of our ways, never going deep enough to start the real argumentation, or fix what it says. Yet, I would argue on its behalf, saying that the book’s target audience is people like me, who need to be enlightened about what is going on and then maybe dive deeper into the matter. Good book handling important subjects people should be aware of.

Thank you for reading! Have a glorious day!

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