804.424.1933 brad@bbbox.io

1 – Presentation on my Final Project

I recorded a 20-minute presentation about my podcast project, “GOOD IDEAS for Our Future.”

The recorded presentation is linked here.

The full slide deck is linked here.

2 –Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil (pp. 180 – 204)

In chapter 10, “The Targeted Citizen,” O’Neill explores how as tech companies grow in users, they grow in power, money, and influence. As she argues, “Facebook’s potency comes not only from its reach but also from its ability to use its own customers to influence their friends,” (p. 181). She first describes Facebook’s influence in political campaigns, and she then broadens her observations to explain how people think and feel by developing sophisticated algorithms that create and perpetuate the sentiments of groups of users. She goes on to describe research that shows were Google or some other large search engine were to intentionally skew results, could shift voter behavior by at least 20 percent. She goes on to say, “I wouldn’t yet call Facebook or Google’s algorithms political WMDs, because I have no evidence that the companies are using their networks to cause harm. Still, the potential for abuse is vast,” (p. 185). She goes further to describe the work of Carnegie Mellon-based Rayid Ghani (who I personally met) to describe his sophisticated approach to increase the desirability of President Barrack Obama in his re-election campaign. While I’m personally a fan of Ghani’s approach (likely because I voted for Obama), she describes how various other groups in following years replicated and perfected behavior-shifting techniques to lead far-right agendas, such as anti-abortion campaigns and conspiracy theories. And O’Neil describes the promise of Big Data that inspires me, that gives me hope as I pursue a career in this area: “As is often the case with WMDs, the very same models that inflict damage could be used to humanity’s benefit. Instead of targeting people in order to manipulate them, it could line them up for help,” (p. 197).

In her conclusion, O’Neil makes a final, gut-wrenching observation:

Our national motto, E Pluribus Unum, means “Out of Many, One.” But WMDs reverse the equation. Working in darkness, they carve one into many, while hiding us from the harms they inflict upon our neighbors near and far. And those harms are legion. They unfold when a single mother can’t arrange child care fast enough to adapt to her work schedule, or when a struggling young person is red-lighted for an hourly job by a workplace personality test. We see them when a poor minority teenager gets stopped, roughed up, and put on warning by the local police, or when a gas station attendant who lives in a poor zip code gets hit with a higher insurance bill. It’s a silent war that hits the poor hardest but also hammers the middle class. Its victims, for the most part, lack economic power, access to lawyers, or well-funded political organizations to fight their battles. The result is widespread damage that all too often passes for inevitability. (p. 200)

She follows this with hope: weapons of math destruction are a byproduct of historical data, while humans collectively have the power to shape a brighter future in which the same tools that have automated vicious cycles can be re-fashioned. The tools we use today, which have been built atop and sped up the consequences of historical barriers, systemic biases, and unfair practices, can be re-created to identify neeeds, develop solutions to seemingly intractable problems, and, in short, generate GOOD IDEAS for Our Future.