At the beginning of last night's Reading Through It Book Club at Third Place Books Seward Park, one of the members of the book club had to ask a question that really should have been answered in the text: What, exactly, is an algorithm? Given that Cathy O'Neil's Weapons of Math Destruction — is subtitled "How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy", you'd think that an explanation of what, exactly, an algorithm is would be addressed in the book. But it wasn't.
Don't get me wrong: O'Neil generally does a good job of introducing tech-innocent readers to the many ways that data companies are manipulating their daily lives. But she fails to establish a baseline understanding of the tools Facebook, Google, and other companies use to control the user experience, and the book suffers for it.
So for the record, an algorithm is just a process — often a tedious repetition of a formula — that plays out in a fraction of a second. It's often used as a filter, or an interpreter, or a solution to a problem. But like any tool, algorithms can be used for good and bad purposes. And algorithms are always the creation of humans, and they always contain some very human flaws.
O'Neil does an excellent job in Math of establishing how the biases of software developers play out in the real world. Big data is biased against the poor, and people of color, and other humans that software developers — traditionally white, upper class men — are traditionally biased against.
In education, in the criminal justice system, in credit histories and bank loans, the algorithms and software created by Silicon Valley is conforming to — and in many cases exacerbating — the preexisting prejudices that mainstream American conventional wisdom has always held. And because computers carry with them an air of impartiality, of logic, we often don't think twice when those results reflect our own biases.
With Math, O'Neil is performing a valuable service: she's letting readers know that we've given over many if not most of our major life events — school, employment, health care, everyday purchases — to systems that are just as messy and wrong-headed as any human. The face behind the computer is a human one, and it is not always a friendly face.
So what do we do? The book has very few answers. At this point, it's probably best to just understand how deep these problems run, and to observe how we are affected by the sites and algorithms around us. In that respect, O'Neil's book is a perfect first step toward fighting back against the damaged systems being constructed around us every day.
The next Reading Through It meets at Third Place Books Seward Park on Wednesday, February 7th at 7 pm. We'll be discussing Robert Reich's book Economics in Wonderland: A Cartoon Guide to a Political World Gone Mad and Mean. The book, which is published by Seattle's own Fantagraphics Books, is now 20% off at Third Place Books. I hope to see you there.