Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil, Crown Random House (2016)

Is Big Data Ruining Your Life?

By Alex Fine

Big data may be ruining your life is the thesis of Cathy O’Neil, a former Wall Street financier, in Weapons of Math Destruction. Big data is the buzzword for everyone in tech, which is no wonder, considering just how much data even one person generates. From your social media posts, to your emails, to your credit score, big data is simultaneously invisible yet ubiquitous. The ways these large data sets are interpreted and manipulated is seen as objective, but comes with baggage.

Weapons of Math Destruction is a selection of case studies where big data has gone awry. Areas of analysis include the college application process, online advertising, the criminal justice system, and employment. Big data, O’Neil argues, has cemented pre-existing prejudices in regards to class, gender, race in many of these cases.

For example, O’Neil examines the role that big data plays in the employment screening process, with resume reading software and personality tests. In one peculiar case, results from such tests had repeatedly barred a man from employment. The personality tests, widespread throughout large corporations, were, in practice, as exclusionary as medical tests he was failing because of his bipolar disorder.

In an age where big data analytics are heralded as ways to escape systemic issues of society, Weapons of Math Destruction offers a painful counter argument across a variety of common practices. It is accessible to those without a thorough understanding of the technology described (like, for instance, how O’Neil often uses metaphors about baseball among others to resituate complex ideas into easily graspable concepts).

For those seeking to gain an understanding of how big data functions in society, it is a must-read.