2016 National Book Award Longlist, Nonfiction

Cathy O’Neil

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy Cathy O'Neil
Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy
(Crown Publishing Group/Penguin Random House)
ISBN: 978-0553418811

National Book Foundation: Who did you write this book for?
Cathy O’Neil: “I wrote this book for the average person who alternates between being mystified and intimidated by the growing power of big data algorithms in our lives. I wanted to demystify algorithms and empower people.
The first goal of the book, then, is to survey the modern big data landscape, and to expose the many powerful, unaccountable, and destructive algorithms that are already wreaking havoc on people’s lives. The second goal is to equip the reader with sufficient knowledge to question the authority of the most influential and opaque algorithms, and to demand accountability for their decisions.
There is no math requirement here, no test to pass. This isn't a book about math at all—it's a book about power masquerading as neutral technology. Algorithms are built by humans and deployed by humans. It's up to us to demand that they are scrutinized by humans.”


We live in the age of the algorithm. Increasingly, the decisions that affect our lives—where we go to school, whether we get a car loan, how much we pay for health insurance—are being made not by humans, but by mathematical models. In theory, this should lead to greater fairness: Everyone is judged according to the same rules, and bias is eliminated.

But as Cathy O’Neil reveals in this urgent and necessary book, the opposite is true. The models being used today are opaque, unregulated, and uncontestable, even when they’re wrong. Most troubling, they reinforce discrimination: If a poor student can’t get a loan because a lending model deems him too risky (by virtue of his zip code), he’s then cut off from the kind of education that could pull him out of poverty, and a vicious spiral ensues. Models are propping up the lucky and punishing the downtrodden, creating a “toxic cocktail for democracy.” Welcome to the dark side of Big Data.

Tracing the arc of a person’s life, O’Neil exposes the black box models that shape our future, both as individuals and as a society. These “weapons of math destruction” score teachers and students, sort résumés, grant (or deny) loans, evaluate workers, target voters, set parole, and monitor our health.

O’Neil calls on modelers to take more responsibility for their algorithms and on policy makers to regulate their use. But in the end, it’s up to us to become more savvy about the models that govern our lives. This important book empowers us to ask the tough questions, uncover the truth, and demand change.

About the Author

Cathy O’Neil is a data scientist and author of the blog mathbabe.org. She earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard and taught at Barnard College before moving to the private sector, where she worked for the hedge fund D. E. Shaw. She then worked as a data scientist at various start-ups, building models that predict people’s purchases and clicks. O’Neil started the Lede Program in Data Journalism at Columbia and is the author of Doing Data Science. She appears weekly on the Slate Money podcast.


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