Weapons of Math Destruction

by Cathy O'Neil

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 403

O’Neil harnesses the power of her analogy to organize the contents of her book. The analogy, of course, is the famous phrase “weapons of mass destruction,” coined during the George W. Bush administration. The original phrase was used to refer to nuclear missiles and the like that posed a threat to national security. Seizing on this allusion, O’Neil changes the phrase to “weapons of math destruction” to indicate how Big Data is the most tangible threat to our national security. While she does not refer to military threats in her book, she does focus on the integrity of our democracy when referring to national security.

Each chapter of the text bears a title that alludes to this analogy. In “Bomb Parts,” O’Neil explains how mathematical models are created as the foundation for data analysis, much like the individual components of an explosive WMD.

In “Shell Shocked,” O’Neil describes her personal relationship to the topic and how she became disillusioned with Big Data. Much like what happens when someone is victim to an explosive attack, O’Neil was dismayed, after working in the finance and e-commerce industries, to realize how math was being used to manipulate and harm people.

In “Arms Race,” O’Neil likens the competition for higher rankings on the US News college list to a nuclear arms race. The rankings encourage schools to improve their scores rapidly by whatever means necessary, even if that means sacrificing integrity, making this an apt metaphor.

“Propaganda Machine” and “Civilian Casualties” relate the ways in which individuals are at the mercy of a much more powerful system.

“Ineligible to Serve,” “Sweating Bullets,” and “Collateral Damage” continue the militaristic theme. In each of these chapters, O’Neil explains how data is used to restrict individuals in the job market, thereby affecting their ability to improve their socioeconomic status. This motif is particularly effective because individual soldiers in the military are often mere cogs in a much larger machine that benefits from their sacrifices and views them as disposable.

Her final chapters, “No Safe Zone” and “The Targeted Citizen,” suggest via their titles that no one is safe from the devastating effects of WMDs, just as nuclear weapons of mass destruction can mercilessly decimate entire populations.

Overall, O’Neil’s use of terminology that alludes to nuclear war underscores the gravity with which she believes the danger of Big Data should be treated.

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