A Review Of Cathy O’Neil’s “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy”

(There are exceptions, of course, like the writings of Cory Doctorow.)

But in “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy,”  Cathy O’Neil presents a concise case about the perils of Big Data through the examples she offers over decades of technological development, and this text will remain critically relevant in the years ahead. She addresses the pattern of fundamental flaws at the core of many of these systems and her cautionary remarks about increasing surveillance are perhaps the most pertinent points of the entire book.

Big_Bang_Data_exhibit_at_CCCB_17

Details of Big Bang Data exhibit at CCCB (Photo Credit: By Kippelboy (Own work) CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons)

Each of the examples of Weapons of Math Destruction are characterized by intrinsic flaws. To identify these traits, she poses three questions to ask when examining any Big Data system:

First – Even if the participant is aware of being modeled, or what the model is used for, is the model opaque, or even invisible?

Second – Does the model work against the subject’s interest? In short, is it unfair? Does it damage or destroy lives?

And finally –  [has] the model the capacity to grow exponentially? As a statistician would put it, can it scale?

Throughout the book, O’Neil explores several examples of WMDs and their socio-economic consequences. The introduction presents how IMPACT scoring unfairly resulted in the termination of good teachers, and how WMDs routinely target the poor where they hurt the most. The first chapter outlines her work as a hedge fund quantitative analyst leading up to the collapse of the housing market. Predatory lending is a key example of a WMD. Next, she examines the feedback loop created by the U.S. News college ranking report, and the resulting skyrocketing of college tuition, as well as the predatory nature of enrollment marketing campaigns.

From there, she dives into UCLA’s PredPol system, designed to optimize police patrol of areas where crime is statistically most likely to occur, and how the system inherently targets impoverished neighborhoods, creating yet another feedback loop of increased incarceration. Another chapter outlines the negative consequences of automated resume analysis and job performance metrics, and how the “optimization” of work shifts negatively impacts the middle class and the working poor. The final chapters present similar flaws in data systems determining insurance rates and credit eligibility, as well as Big Data’s Orwellian impact on the political process of voter targeting.

While the world painted by these flawed systems may appear dour, the text is not without hope. Scott Galloway’s book, “The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google” painted the apocalyptic near-future where Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook serve as the four horsemen of the end times. But O’Neil’s concluding chapter offers a number of proposed solutions to implement checks and balances into these systems to prevent that sort of abuse and exploitation. O’Neil presents the informed insight of a woman in a field severely dominated by men, and her perspective of big data through the lens of moral conscience. She humanizes and personalizes the societal effect of these systems and makes the subject of algorithms engaging and impactful.

“Weapons of Math Destruction” effectively outlines the characteristic flaws shared by many Big Data systems throughout history, and presents practical measures to reign in these unchecked operations. It’s a sharp and relevant text for anyone interested in the way these technologies shape our culture.

Leaving the Cloud for my own Private Island

I spent the last two years fully-embracing the cloud. And why not? Cloud computing offers many wonderful features. Google’s suite of apps create a seamless user experience from one personal device to another. Sites like Discogs.com empower users to access and share their record catalogs everywhere they go. Goodreads.com networks book-lovers from all around the world and democratized the used book market by facilitating the search and purchase of titles. It created a market where even the tiniest, tucked-away bookshops could compete directly with bookselling giants like Barnes & Noble.

I use Google Docs for drafts of articles I’m writing and really enjoy the flexibility of calling them up on my phone, tablet, or my media workstation throughout my day. And I’ve absolutely lived on Google Calendar for many years now.

Cloud-based archival storage services offer users data redundancy and reliable sync-and-forget-it backup systems with a 99.9% recovery rate – far more reliable that entrusting all your precious data to a single external disk.

But recently, I’ve been rethinking the cloud, particularly about the amount of control and privacy a user relinquishes when their content is no longer stored locally. iTunes was the worst atrocity to come of the cloud, as many users are starting to understand. The DRM fiasco crippled the usability of the software, and as users learned from the U2 incident, their music libraries were really at the mercy of Apple.  Spotify and streaming services are not much better, with drastically-limited media selections and, again, the content is never really yours.

iPod DRM

The entire era of cloud-computing was less about empowering the user and more of an exercise is usury. Let’s face it – storage has become incredibly inexpensive. And the popularity of lossy-compression for casual listening has only made it easier and cheaper for users to have it all. There was no longer a need to up-sell a customer base to a bigger and better device every six months, because the average smartphone suits most users just fine as an all-around media player.

For those with more discerning tastes, a simple and inexpensive home server is sufficient to grant instant-access to terabytes of lossless audio and HD video libraries from our tablets and phones anywhere with 4G service.

The industry had to invent a new way to maintain a steady influx of customer revenue. Enter the streaming service and world of online backups. These subscription-based services keep the customer paying month after month for storage and instant-access. Adobe was perhaps the most curious company to go this route, releasing the latest version of its software suite rebranded as the Creative Cloud. The customer scenario was much the same for Adobe – previous versions were everything their customers needed, so why would they need to upgrade ever again? The solution was clear – monthly subscription fees.

Adobe-survey-CC-pricingCNET Adobe CC Pricing Survey (2012)

The elephant in the room of cloud computing is the compromise of one’s privacy and security. Facebook users know all too well that every minute detail of their publicly-broadcasted lives is being sold and re-sold to advertisers banking on hyper-targeted marketing.

But you know all this – you don’t buy in to cloud archive services. You’ve implemented all the standard privacy tools and ad-blocking plugins and your web experience is fairly secure and advert-free. But what about those who don’t have the luxury of their own media server or truly unlimited data plans for their portable devices? How should they freely access their large libraries of media anywhere they go?

There is a solution. Seagate manufactures a device specifically tailored to meet the needs of this particular niche of customers and to resolve their unique problem. The Wireless Plus 2TB portable HDD (STCV2000100) is surprisingly compact and lightweight. It features an internal 10-hour battery and its own personal WiFi network. Pair it with each of your personal devices and you’ve got 2TB of content with you EVERYWHERE – on or off the grid, with no monthly fees.

Seagate Wireless Plus 1

Currently priced at ~$190, the Wireless Plus offers an incredible amount of freedom for its price point. For users like myself with our own media servers, there really isn’t an urgent need, (save perhaps for taking your entire library with you on a camping trip.) But for those tired of shelling out monthly fees for remotely hosted content – this is the device you’ve been waiting for.

Seagate Wireless Plus 2

So I sandboxed, poked and prodded at iTunes for the first time… and ended up with a manifesto.

iTunes-Logo

You know what’s coming, but if you delight in watching me writhe and convulse in the corner, read on.  I’d never once connected to itunes.apple.com as I knew in advance that it had nothing to offer.

But a 17 year old kid assured me that they provide various masters of each recording for the listener to sample to help them identify which they should purchase.

This was, of course, completely false.  By “various masters” he meant that Dark Side of the Moon was available in TWO formats –

 The 2011 CD remaster
ooooooor….
The 2011 CD remaster (with bonus tracks).

So there you are.

But I was already deep in the filth so I said, “what the hell” and started throwing artists at its ‘search’ box.

I figured I’d start out with the easiest of pitches – the 2010 EMI Beatles Box Set.

iTunes ONLY offers the stereo edition and doesn’t even HINT that the Mono Box even exists!

Beginning to sweat, I looked up their page for Captain Beefheart…

NO MENTION OF TROUT MASK REPLICA.  But that’s okay, it’s only one of the most important and critically acclaimed records of its decade.

The 49 awesome albums recorded by Ash Ra Tempel and Manuel Gottsching?  Not today, sorry.

Pete Namlooks’ monumental Fax +49-69450464 record label – not a single word of any one of the 238 legendary albums.

So I tried another approach – searching for Deutsche Grammophon classical releases.

Lo and behold – iTunes offers NO MEANS of searching by record label!

Want to peruse the Ninja Tune catalog?  Forget about it if you’re on iTunes.

Warp Records?  Ohr?  Brain?  Mute?  Mo-Fi?  Too bad.

And the 94 albums produced and recorded by LTJ Bukem on Good Looking Records and its various sub-labels?  You’re going to have to search for them one at a time. (Psst – don’t bother… they aren’t there anyway.)

Salvador Dali’s notorious opera, Être Dieu?  Not so much as an artist entry for the man.

Dig Nurse With Wound?  Only the 26 CD releases of their ~100 disc catalog are available for purchase.

The same applies to Tangerine Dream.  Beside an all-too-small sampling of their most popular early albums, iTunes is overrun with 80s-2000s compilations and soundtracks.  The pink years were easily their best work, but they never happened according to this marketplace.

Independent artists?  Not a single one I searched for produced any results.

Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity – arguably his best free jazz work – doesn’t exist.

The original German master of Stockhausen’s Kontakte?  Forget about it.

Wordless Music Orchestra’s historical live recording of William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops?  Never happened.

Spacemind’s 62 hours of psybient works?  Not a one.

Raymond Scott’s Manhattan Research Inc. collection?  Issued in the Netherlands, but nowhere on iTunes.

The Electronic Music series produced by Turnabout records throughout the mid-60s?  Nope.

The popular Franklin Mint 100-disc Classical Collection?  Nadda.

NASA’s majestic Symphonies Of The Planets series?  The cat’s eaten it.

What It Is: Funky Soul & Rare Grooves Box Set?  Not a scrap.

(This one killed me) Kraftwerk’s three critical early albums – Kraftwerk I, Kraftwerk II, and Ralf und Florian?  No, no, and no.

Max & Dima’s 131 releases?  0 on iTunes.

Alban Berg?  Not even an artist page.

Anton Webern?  Zilch.  (However Shoenberg gets some unfair attention.)

Throbbing Gristle has 137 albums and singles.  Six of them are on iTunes.

The hundred-odd crazy moog/bachelor pad/and early synth records which defined the age of futurama in the 50s and 60s?  If not for iTunes’ lonely copy of Perrey & Kingsley’s The In Sound From Way Out, you’d never know they happened.

The mash up craze popularized by 2ManyDJs “As Heard on Radio Soulwax” series?  You’ll have to settle for Girl Talk.

Well done, iTunes.  At least we can say you’re consistent.

 ·                  ·                  ·

The world’s most popular public tracker currently offers over 6.2 million torrents, ranging from single albums to massive discographic archives.  And the top 168 active private trackers host an additional 1.6 billion torrents collectively.  Suddenly, iTunes’ measly 37 million individual songs seems rather inconsequential.

The audiophile community has built a tremendous archive of analog-only issued recordings which cannot be purchased digitally anywhere on the web.  This community remains the simplest and most informative resource for discovering rare music.  It inspires an average of $1200 in vinyl purchases annually for this user, alone… and there are many more like me.

I will not publicly endorse file sharing, but it clearly demonstrates the dire need for a change in the fundamental operation of the music market today.

#anythingbutitunes