Pepe Escobar is both a polymath and highly insightful. This is a must read, about Cathy (mathbabe) O'Neil on mathematical modeling and computer algorithms as fashioning "weapons of math destruction." Here are some highlights, but the whole thing is worth a read. It's pretty short and engaging.
… a book such as Weapons of Math Destruction, by Cathy O’Neil (Crown Publishing) becomes as essential as the air that we breathe.
O’Neil is the real deal; PhD in Math in Harvard, former professor at Barnard College, former quant at a hedge fund before reconverting as a data scientist, and a blogger at mathbabe.org.
Mathematical models are the engines of our digital economy. That propels O’Neil to formulate her two critical insights – which may startle legions who regard machines as simply ‘neutral’.
1) “Math-powered applications powering the data economy [are] based on choices made by fallible human beings”.
2) “These mathematical models [are] opaque, their workings invisible to all but the highest priests in their domain: mathematicians and computer scientists. Their verdicts, even when wrong or harmful, [are] beyond dispute or appeal. And they tend to punish the poor and the oppressed in our society, while making the rich richer”.
Thus, O’Neil’s concept of Weapons of Math Destruction (WMDs); or how destructive math models are accelerating a social earthquake.
O’Neil extensively details how destructive math models now micromanage vast swathes of the real economy, from advertising to the prison system, not to mention the finance industry (as in all the after effects of the never-ending 2008 crisis).
These math models are essentially opaque; unaccountable; and target above all “optimization” of the (consuming) masses.
A golden rule is – what else – to follow the money. As O’Neil puts it,
for “the people running the WMDs”, their “feedback is money”; “the systems are engineered to gobble up more data and fine-tune their analytics so more money will pour in».
Victims – as in Obama administration drone strikes – are mere “collateral damage”.…Two maxims of math modeling, which sum up most of political economy:
- Cui bono? "To whose benefit?" with respect to modeling assumptions.
- GIGO with respect to data.
It's not just about money but also power:
Most Americans – not to mention most of Facebook’s 1.7 billion users around the world – ignore that Facebook tinkers with the news feed; people actually believe that the system instantly shares anything that is posted with their community of friends.
Which brings us, once again, to the key question in the news front. By tweaking its algorithm to model the news people see, Facebook now has all it takes to game the whole political system. As O’Neil notes, “Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon have vast information on much of humanity – and the means to steer us in any way they choose”.
Their algorithms, of course, are strategically priceless; ultimate, non-transparent, trade secrets; “They carry out their business in the dark”.Counterpunch
Playing Algorithm ’n Blues