Review of The Black Box Society
3 out of 5 stars
This was an interesting read with some clear insight into the problems behind big data that I think most people intuit exists. I especially found his theory that individual “reputation” is controlled and harmed by these algorithms. Because that reputation is controlled in the private sector, by finance, one’s opportunities are either helped or hindered by processes we can neither see nor control ourselves despite what the advertisements say. We criticize the Chinese for their use of reputation to control their citizens, but we achieve the same thing at the private level.
But there is one problem here. All technology has an upside and a downside. It is rarely and solely one or the other. I do agree with the author that interpreting both is up to an engaged citizenry. For me, engaged requires a citizenry that educates itself on an issue and does not tie itself to either party platform.
But here is my main problem, if the part of the title that promised insight had been better revealed, Black Box Society would’ve been a home run. Unfortunately, “the secret algorithms that control money and information” remain obscure and undefined. The author begins with a compelling premise: “even our political and legal systems, the spaces of our common life that are supposed to be the most open and transparent, are being colonized by the logic of secrecy.” Without a doubt, the lack of transparency has become endemic to all facets of life. The fact that the lives of individuals are open books but the reverse is not true of our institutions, businesses, etc. is alarming. However, the author fails to show that there is some malfeasance in the design of the algorithms. If algorithms are used to reveal patterns that are then used by some party for profit or gain, then one would have to assume that the gain is general and not directed. It would be judgement free. This is the point that frustrated me. It seemed that the author then attempted to construct some judgement upon the algorithms and the big data behind it. The argument unwound itself into poorly constructed motives and consequences that ended up, quite frankly, in a very politicized rant that followed a particular political platform. Unfortunately, the author lost his credibility before I reached his conclusion.