Cathy O’Neill’s book Weapons of Mass Destruction is a must read if you have ever wondered how mathematics, specifically algorithms, is completely in control of your life.
Big data is here, and the people who control it are the ones who control our lives. O’Neill writes as one who used to write the kinds of algorithms that are behind big data, before she, well, basically developed a conscience. She could no longer take part it what she saw as “math destruction.”
An algorithm is just a procedure, or set of instructions that a computer follows. Well, algorithms are not just the province of computers-we all have rules we have set for us. Many NBA players have free throw routines. That’s an algorithm. Maybe you have set up your morning a certain way- I have- up at 5, read Twitter, shower, go to work on my projects, go to work. That’s an algorithm.
We think of algorithms as purely objective, but they are not. They can be used to manipulate and distort reality. At worst, they are used as tools of oppression- against the poor, and against minorities, for example.
Try and think about the hidden algorithms in your lives.
How is your credit rating determined?
Why do you see certain ads on your web browser, that your friend doesn’t see?
Does Netflix “know” you when it recommends things to you? How about Amazon?
How does Facebook decide what reaches your eyeballs? Can you manipulate that algorithm to your benefit?
Did Twitter bot accounts help a certain candidate get elected?
Algorithms have benefitted humanity in many ways. They have made our lives easier in many ways. But they also have the power to hurt us. Algorithmic literacy is a must in the 21st century. Reading this book is a good start at being algorithmically literate.