Chapters 3–5 Summary

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Last Reviewed on April 2, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1224

Chapter 3: Arms Race: Going to College

O’Neil compares the operation of WMDs on a vast scale to the effects of everyone in the country eating exactly the same diet, which would cause a loss of diversity, along with hugely inflated prices for popular foods. She then says that when a formula that works on a small scale grows to become a national or global standard, “it creates its own distorted and dystopian economy.”

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One example is the U.S. News and World Report ranking of universities and colleges. There is no single clear way to measure a value such as “educational excellence,” so the journalists measure things that can be quantified: SAT scores of students, acceptance rates, and the percentage of students who graduate. After the rankings became influential, however, they initiated a feedback loop. Colleges which fared badly would fail to attract talented students and professors, causing their rankings to decline further. University administrators are therefore forced to dedicate themselves to boosting their ranking in arbitrarily defined categories by manipulating the fifteen proxies selected by U.S. News instead of focusing on education. Some have even submitted false data to inflate their scores.

The factors U.S. News leaves out of their assessment have been as important as what they include. One is the cost of attending any given university. The rankings give universities no incentive to keep fees low; perhaps not coincidentally, the cost of going to college increased by 500% in the years between 1985 and 2013. The rankings cannot be held entirely responsible for this, but O’Neil argues that they have contributed to the problem and have encouraged universities to “manage their student populations almost like an investment portfolio.” Big Data has also allowed universities to select students who are predicted to do the most to maximize their future rankings. In this atmosphere, a culture of attempting to “game the system” has grown, along with an industry of coaches and tutors who study colleges’ admissions models closely. Poorer students are at a disadvantage, since their families cannot afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars on these services.

The Obama administration attempted to reform the ranking system, but failed. O’Neil says that this may be just as well, since any system can be gamed. Instead, the Department of Education released extensive data about colleges on its website, with the hopes that students can use this to make informed decisions without reference to rankings. O’Neil regards this transparent approach as “the opposite of a WMD.”

Chapter 4: Propaganda Machine: Online Advertising

While the U.S. News rankings have made life difficult for even wealthy students and their families, for-profit colleges (also known as “diploma mills”) target the poor “with the bait of upward mobility.” Mathematical modeling has made it easy for such predatory institutions to pinpoint those who are most vulnerable to their message. Recruiters find what is known as the “pain point” in each consumer, the area in which they suffer most and have least confidence. This might be low self-esteem, drug addiction, bereavement, a history of abuse, or any one of many other factors, often unwittingly disclosed in Google searches or questionnaires.

The internet provides the opportunity for data analysis on a scale that was previously unimaginable. The “quadrillions of words” produced by internet users have been particularly valuable in the development of natural-language machines and linguistic analysis. An advertising program can quickly build up a sophisticated picture of the people it targets and make relatively accurate predictions about their behavior.

For-profit colleges use WMDs to find and target the poorest...

(The entire section contains 1224 words.)

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