Weapons of Math Destruction

Warnings against More Dehumanized/Undemocratic Technological Advancement—Cathy O’Neal’s Weapons of Math Destruction

Cathy O’Neal’s Weapons of Math Destruction evokes an air of freshness and wonder. It is about how someone who would have remained a scholar for the rest of her life has gotten herself into the messy world of business and finance, thinking that her own specialty of mathematics will be used for the good of humanity, only to witness how it works against so many people out there, particularly the weak and marginalized. Owing to her contribution, readers like myself who cannot be farther away from the world of math have gotten to know the vicious power of math working only for the advantage of the elite few. It is not an easy thing for a member of any expert groups to reveal what is happening behind the scenes, yet O’Neal was courageous enough to do exactly that in order for many to benefit from her account of what she calls the WMD(weapons of math destruction), so I am grateful to O’Neal’s honesty and courage, her willingness to castigate math as the culprit of dehumanization and un-democratization. Had it not been for O’Neal, stories in this book would have been buried, and many other victims would have produced, not knowing why and how they end up victims. (It is O’Neal’s diagnosis that WMD is still at work in many ways.)

Those who encounter this book for the first time might be piqued in curiosity for the title of the book. It derives from the George Bush administration’s attempt to preemptively strike the nation of Iraq in early 2000s, for the classified information that Iraq has massive weapons of mass destruction deep in their inland. O’Neal means to emphasize that math can be as destructive as Iraq’s WMD (which ended up to be nonexistent). The book is not focused on one particular topic; rather, it crosses over many sectors of society, examining how math comes up with algorithms reading and interpreting big data, leaned toward the favor of the elite few. O’Neal makes herself a whistle-blower against the world of algorithm developers and their clients.  While O’Neal deals with a wide range of social sectors from education to politics to labor to finance to police to insurance to advertisement, I abstain from going into all of them. Instead, I will focus on three sectors—education, labor, and police & security, in order to highlight the three characteristics of WMD—1. opacity, 2. expansion, and 3. harm.

Opaque Algorithm: The Illusion of Teacher-Effectiveness Model

The one thing we have to keep in mind while reading Weapons of Math Destruction is that every WMD is a model. In particular, WMD is a model attempting to interpret and understand reality. As every other model is, this model is also unavoidably biased and partial. However, the problem is that to whom is it biased? The answer is the elite few with power, money, and authority. What’s worse is that such elite few has no concerns for guaranteeing objectivity in their reading of realities. Thus, WMD is unavoidably biased towards the benefit of the few, yet the expansive power of WMD is amazingly broad, working as the arbiter and creator of what is real. This is so manifest in the field of education.

Back in 2007, Adrian Fenty, Washington’s new mayor, was determined to turn around Washington’s underperforming schools. For “back then the graduation rate of high school students barely goes over 50%, and in the case of eighth graders only 8% were able to pass the standard passing score for math” (17). The Washington department of education ascribed such failure (without much evidence!) to the teachers, which caused them to bring in an assessment model for teacher effectiveness, called “Impact.” The head of the department of education in Washington, Michelle Lee immediately applied this model to all the teachers under her charge, and she laid off those below those teachers estimated to be in the bottom 2%. Afterwards, those occupying the bottom 5%, numerically 206 teachers, were laid off.

This seems fair and just so far. However, the question lies in whether the Impact model’s criteria of assessment is fair. O’Neal gives an account of someone who was laid off because of the model. Her name is Sarah Wysocki, and she is a teacher at Washington’s MacFarland junior high school. The conflict comes from the fact that Wysocki was broadly praised among all her peer teachers, parents, and even principals in her school, yet the Impact model assessed her score to be in the bottom low, as a result of which she was fired. Whose assessment is fairer? Did the Impact model give a fair estimation for Wysocki?

What’s even worse (and this is the first characteristic of WMD, its opacity), is that the rational follow-up would be to collect the opinions and thoughts on the other side, yet no WMD has ever done this, nor will it be able to do this in the future, at least for now. Let’s hear O’Neal more.

“Once the assessment system labeled Wysocki and other 205 teachers failures, the dept of education in Washington laid all of them off. But is there any post-learning process whether it can take into account any feedback? No. Once the system gives the verdict, that’s it. Those bad teachers had to leave their work. The effectiveness of the WMD seemed to be proved only through laying them off. As is shown here, the WMD creates reality instead of pursuing it” (23).
What does this mean? WMDs take no feedback. The only people entitled to such privilege are its developers. Teachers such as Wysocki has no say to the process of creating the Impact model, nor do they have any participation in the feedback process. This is very undemocratic.

 Indiscriminately Expanding Monster: Starbuck’s Clopening Controversies

The second characteristics of WMD is its ruthless expansion, without any regard for the humanity of people. While the first characteristic of WMD was undemocratic, the second one is dehumanization. That WMDs have no regard for people means that it treats people as if they were parts of a big machine, and nothing more. This is more pronounced in the business world, seeking profits and profits only. One particular example comes from the newly coined word “clopening,” referring to workers working back to back between night shift and morning shift (208). Why has this word become a vogue of its own? It is because when businesses organize their employees’ working schedule, they do it through WMD, which has as their focal concerns the benefits of companies only. There is no place for the human, so the scheduling is according to the criterion of effectiveness, and this is why clopening is possible, seeing the human person as being able to constantly work night and morning without rest. Let’s hear from O’Neal once again.

“The victims most hurt in the businesses operating this way are the low-income workers in Starbucks, MacDonalds, and Walmart. Since their schedules are not notified in due time, the negative effects they have to endure becomes bigger and bigger. Many employees work night time, or Friday’s peak hours, and they are notified of this schedule only before a day or two. This makes their lives messy and unorganized, especially for those with children, their lives fall into disastrous situations” (209).

What was shocking to me personally was O’Neal’s account of how such scheduling WMD affects my neighbor, like a single mom college student working for Starbucks O’Neal recounts. Her name is Janet Nabaro. Nabaro works at Starbucks while attending college, and raising her four-year old daughter. With the introduction of clopening, Nabaro ended up doing nothing else but working for Starbucks. What’s surprising is that this becomes more and more ordinary. What is fortunate (or unfortunate) is that the New York Times sent out a report of her story back in 2014, and Starbucks, alongside many other businesses, promised to revoke the practice of clopening.  One year later, however, NY Times did a follow-up report, accusing Starbucks of not changing a bit (213). This is not just true of Starbucks, but of many other businesses. Not just true of scheduling, but of our private lives, our relationships, and our personal inclinations. Arguably speaking, the WMDs are indiscriminately expanding, and O’Neal confesses that no one among us can properly defend ourselves against the overwhelming effects of WMDs.

Unfairness of Harm: Poverty Criminalized, and Partial Crime Prediction Model

The weak and poor will be the main victims of WMDS. That is what O’Neal tries to make a case for throughout her book. It is not necessarily that before WMDs the poor and marginalized were not unfairly treated, but such tendency will be much more reinforced through the invasion of WMDs in our lives.

This is the third characteristic of WMDs. WMDs only takes into account whether it is effective or not, so it has no regard for such human notion as justice or fairness. But when it comes to effectiveness, it always belongs to someone, missing out on fairness to everyone. Notions such as justice and fairness are not easy to quantify, so WMDs don’t understand what is just or fair. This means that we humans should insert into the data of WMDs justice and fairness.  O’Neal goes,

“Just like many other WMDs, the scheduling model is problematic at its core for the goal its developers choose to opt for. The scheduling model is optimized in accordance with effectiveness and prospects of benefit earning. This is what capitalism is all about. Benefits are to companies what oxygen is to a living organism. From the standpoint of companies, it is foolish to refuse opportunities for potential saving of expenses. That is why we need forces of resistance, revealing the abuse and misuse of effectiveness and rebuking businesses so that they will do the right thing” (219).

Since no concern for justice and fairness is reflected in the process of developing WMDs, they are naturally for the rich and the powerful. O’Neal showcases this tendency through the security activities of police. Today’s algorithm developers introduce WMDs related to crime prediction. One of them is PredPol, adopted and used by the police in a small city called Reading, west of Philadelphia. It is a crime prediction software. This is such a welcome for police, for it helps police to assign the ever shrinking police forces to the right places, effectively patrolling where they are most needed. Nonetheless, it is a PREDICTION software, and this is a problem. Why? Because prediction needs its objects. That is to say, police has to input what crimes will be predicted, and most police consider crimes those committed by the poor and weak, rather than those by the rich and powerful.  Let’s hear from O’Neal.

“But what about the crimes happening far away from where PredPol characterizes as the most frequency with crimes area? In other words, what about the crimes by the rich and the white collar class? The rich and the powerful have committed as much crime as the poor and the weak, yet police activities are focused almost exclusively upon the poor… Data scientists instilled in this inclination of police into the development of WMDs” (157-159). Opacity, expansion, and harm. These three characteristics of WMDs will be more and more influential upon our lives. What should we do then?

Where Hope Lies: Moral Imagination and Monitoring

The only weapon against the poisonous mushrooming of WMDs is, according to O’Neal, to cultivate forces of resistance. They will monitor algorithms. They will assess the criteria for developing them. What is needed is moral imagination. We need people who will contextualize the changing moral needs of society, including the fast-paced WMDs. O’Neal exemplifies Paul Wilmott’s Hippocratic Manifesto for Algorithm developers.  I am excerpting a portion of it below.

  • I will keep in mind that I am not the creator of the world, nor will be the world follow my own equation.
  • I will keep in mind that those who use my model will not be relieved of false comfort. Instead, I will bring to light all my assumptions and neglected things in my development of models.
  • I will keep in mind that my work can affect society and people in an immeasurable way, which might surpass my own comprehensive power.

O’Neal also encourages governments to come up with agencies focusing on monitoring WMDs. Even with all these, we will not be able to fully deal with the harmful effects of WMDs. Still, we should hasten to do the work, even now.

Overall Assessment and Potential Weaknesses

Overall, O’Neal’s book is written to accuse what is happening in the business and finance world. This makes O’Neal lean toward the negative effects of WMDs, which might be a potential weakness. Amazon’s book reviewers have reported of this potential weakness multiple times. For example, the wellness program adopted by many businesses, which O’Neal speaks of, has been helpful in many ways for many employees. Of course this should not be forced upon them, as O’Neal suggests. More favorably speaking, since the book is focused upon the harmful effects of WMDs, providing alternatives might be a bit of hopeful thing, but I am looking forward to O’Neal’s next book detailing the alternatives with more concrete cases and specific examples. I will do a review of Willie Jennings’ The Christian Imagination next time. Thanks.

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