Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil

Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil – How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy is a book I bought for my husband but that I was very eager to read it too. He read it and enjoyed it. For me the message was important and the stories and examples she gives were very important and interesting. I gave the book 4.5 stars and not 5 because I wasn’t very keen on her writing style. She tended to be repetitive, for example, the “birds of a feather” is used dozens of times (or it feels like it). The book is written for the public and it is commercial in tone, which is good, as this is a problem that affects all of us and Zuboff’s style is not for everyone (I prefer it though).

Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil

O’Neil makes a stark presentation of how much algorithms dictate the lives of Americans and it starts to get more and more power in Europe too. The problem is, as she emphasises again and again, that we, the consumers, have no idea how these algorithms are made in the first place. Not even the institutions using these know everything about the algorithms as programmers are the ones making the decisions. It is very true that, in theory, algorithms do not discriminate, but in reality it depends on how these are thought and populated with data. For example, a police officer might discriminate against a black teenager due to his bias, but a police algorithm can discriminate too, by targeting people who are from a neighbourhood with a history of troubles with the police and high crime rate, and, of course, by crime it is included everything, even stop and search (stop and frisk in US). In both cases, the black teenager is targeted, overtly or covertly, for how he looks like or where he lives instead of what he did. She points out that for the same crime – e.g. drink and disorderly – someone from a poor neighbourhood might get into trouble with the police while a student in a good part of the city would be told off and that would be it.

Another very important point she makes is about feedback loops or, more precisely, the lack of feedback. Without knowing how the algorithms work and without checking for the results, these have much more power than they should and without any scrutiny.

I highly recommend the book because it touches on things that are so important to our lives and the impact of algorithms will only increase in the future.

Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil

Details about the picture: –
My rating: 4.5/5 Stars
Would I recommend it: yes
Published by: Penguin
Year it was published: 2017 (first published in 2016)
Format: Paperback
Genre(s): IT
Pages: 259

About the author: Catherine (“Cathy”) Helen O’Neil is an American mathematician and the author of the blog mathbabe.org and several books on data science, including Weapons of Math Destruction. She was the former Director of the Lede Program in Data Practices at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Tow Center and was employed as Data Science Consultant at Johnson Research Labs.

She lives in New York City and is active in the Occupy movement.
Website & Social Media Links: –

4 thoughts on “Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil”

  • This is one I should probably read, but I’m not sure I’m interested enough to do so. I’ve not read nearly enough non-fiction this year. I do have Noise on my list since both you and one of my brothers recommended it.
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    • If you don’t feel like you are in the right sort of mood for these books, then postpone them for a later period. Although Noise is interesting because it makes one think of how they think, and paying attention to these small things can make a difference.

  • I would have said that this is a book Dave would enjoy, however just lately I think that even he has become very disillusioned with the state not only of our own government and big business institutions, but also those of the wider world, to the point where he even turns off some of the news and current affairs programmes he would usually have watched so avidly. We did watch a Channel 4 expose, back when the US elections were on last year, where they were showing the inside machinations of the algorithms being used to influence potential voters, it was enough to turn your stomach, especially as you just know that it is happening in pretty much every country, including our own, in much the same way!
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    • It gets hard to continue to read on different topics and watch the news. The issues with US elections are as far back as Obama’s campaign of 2008 and social media it wasn’t even as big as it is today. It goes on for years and, more worryingly, is on both sides of the political spectrum. It’s crazy that politicians use memes and funny pictures to entice voters instead of actually talking and engaging with the electorate. She points out in the book to so many other problems, from banks to getting a job.

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