weapons of math destruction


new job with lots of commuting time so romping through a few books, latest is “weapons of math destruction” – showing the role that mathematical modeling now plays in society, with examples of how Big Data and complex algorithms actually effect us in practice, like

  • The effect of the US News and World Report algorithm for college ranking, as colleges try and game the algorithm, while well-off families are at work gaming the complexities of elite college admissions systems.
  • The effects of targeted advertising, especially the way it allows predatory advertisers (some for profit educational institutions, payday lenders, etc.) to very efficiently go after those most vulnerable to the scam.
  • The effects of predictive policing, with equality before the law replaced by an algorithm that sends different degrees of law enforcement into different communities.
  • The effects of automated algorithms sorting and rejecting job applications, with indirect consequences of discrimination against classes of people.
  • The effects of poorly thought-out algorithms for evaluating teachers, sometimes driving excellent teachers from their jobs .
  • The effects of algorithms that score credit, determine access to mortgages and to insurance, often with the effect of making sure that those deemed losers stay that way.

The end chapter is on Facebook and the way political interests are taking advantage of the detailed information it provides to target their messages, to the detriment of democracy and reality.

Facebook is the most worrisome of all the Big Data concerns in the book. It exercises an incredible amount of influence over what information people see, with this influence sometimes being sold to the highest bidder. Together with Amazon, Google and Apple, our economy and society have become controlled by monopolies who also monitor our every move. In the context of government surveillance, Edward Snowden remarked that we are now “tagged animals, the primary difference being that we paid for the tags and they’re in our pockets.” A very small number of huge extremely wealthy corporations have even greater access to those tags than the government does, recording every movement, communication, and even every train of thought as we interact with the web.

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