Guys! Exciting changes are afoot.
I’m extremely happy to say that I finished my first draft of my book, and although it’s not the end of that story, it’s still rather exhilarating. As of now the publication date is May 2016. My editor is reading it this week. Fingers crossed, everyone.
In the meantime, I’ve also recently heard that a grant proposal that I was on came through. This will have me working on interesting data questions from the Department of Justice out of the GovLab, which is run by Beth Noveck. It’ll be part time for now, at least until my book is done and until the Occupy Summer School is over, which is taking place more or less across the street from GovLab in downtown Brooklyn.
One thing that’s particularly great about being almost done with the book is that I’m looking forward to getting back to short-form writing. I’ve been so involved in the book, but as you can imagine it’s a very different mindset than a blogpost. When you write a book you have to carry around in your head an enormous amount of context, but when you write a blogpost you just need to have one idea and to say it well. It also helps if you’re annoyed (right, Eugene?).
Anyhoo, I’m pretty good at being annoyed, and I love and miss being mathbabe, so I’m more or less psyched to be coming back more consistently to this format soon. Although the life of a book writer is pretty awesome too, and I will definitely miss it. My favorite part has been the magical ability to connect with people who are experts on subjects I’m trying to learn about. Turns out people are extremely generous with their time and expertise, and I am grateful for that!
Please go read the article in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant entitled China rates its own citizens – including online behavior (hat tip Ernie Davis).
In the article, it describes China’s plan to use big data techniques to score all of its citizens – with the help of China internet giants Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent – in a kind of expanded credit score that includes behavior and reputation. So what you buy, who you’re friends with, and whether you seem sufficiently “socialist” are factors that affect your overall score.
Here’s a quote from a person working on the model, from Chinese Academy of Social Science, that is incredibly creepy:
When people’s behavior isn’t bound by their morality, a system must be used to restrict their actions
And here’s another quote from Rogier Creemers, an academic at Oxford who specializes in China:
Government and big internet companies in China can exploit ‘Big Data’ together in a way that is unimaginable in the West
I guess I’m wondering whether that’s really true. Given my research over the past couple of years, I see this kind of “social credit scoring” being widely implemented here in the United States.
I have been told by my editor to take a look at the books already out there on big data to make sure my book hasn’t already been written. For example, today I’m set to read Robert Scheer’s They Know Everything About You: how data-collecting corporations and snooping government agencies are destroying democracy.
This book, like others I’ve already read and written about (Bruce Schneier’s Data and Goliath, Frank Pasquale’s Black Box Society, and Julia Angwin’s Dragnet Nation) are all primarily concerned with individual freedom and privacy, whereas my book is primarily concerned with social justice issues, and each chapter gives an example of how big data is being used a tool against the poor, against minorities, against the mentally ill, or against public school teachers.
Not that my book is entirely different from the above books, but the relationship is something like what I spelled out last week when I discussed the four political camps in the big data world. So far the books I’ve found are focused on the corporate angle or the privacy angle. There may also be books focused on the open data angle, but I’m guessing they have even less in common with my book, which focuses on the ways big data increase inequality and further alienate already alienated populations.
If any of you know of a book I should be looking at, please tell me!
I’m on record complaining about how journalists dumb down stories in blind pursuit of “naming the victim” or otherwise putting a picture on the story.
But then again, sometimes that’s exactly what you need to do, especially when the story is super complicated. Case in point: the Snowden revelations story.
In the past 2 weeks I’ve seen the Academy Award winning feature length film CitizenFour, I’ve read Bruce Schneier’s recent book, Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles To Collect Your Data And Control Your World, and finally I watched John Oliver’s recent Snowden episode.
They were all great in their own way. I liked Schneier’s book, it was a quick read, and I’d recommend it to people who want to know more than Oliver’s interview shows us. He’s very very smart, incredibly well informed, and almost completely reasonable (unlike this review).
To be honest, though, when I recommend something to other people, I pick John Oliver’s approach; he cleverly puts the dick pic on the story (you have to reset it to the beginning):
Here’s the thing that I absolutely love about Oliver’s interview. He’s not absolutely smitten by Snowden, but he recognizes Snowden’s goal, and makes it absolutely clear what it means to people using the handy use case of how nude pictures get captured in the NSA dragnets. It is really brilliant.
Compared to Schneier’s book, Oliver is obviously not as informational. Schneier is a world-wide expert on security, and gives us real details on which governmental programs know what and how. But honestly, unless you’re interested in becoming a security expert, that isn’t so important. I’m a tech nerd and even for me the details were sometimes overwhelming.
Here’s what I want to concentrate on. In the last part of the book, Schneier suggests all sorts of ways that people can protect their own privacy, using all sorts of encryption tools and so on. He frames it as a form of protest, but it seems like a LOT of work to me.
Compare that to my favorite part of the Oliver interview, when Oliver asks Snowden (starting at minute 30:28 in the above interview) if we should “just stop taking dick pics.” Snowden’s answer is no: changing what we normally do because of surveillance is a loss of liberty, even if it’s dumb.
I agree, which is why I’m not going to stop blabbing my mouth off everywhere (I don’t actually send naked pictures of myself to people, I think that’s a generational thing).
One last thing I can’t resist saying, and which Schneier discusses at length: almost every piece of data collected about us by our government is more or less for sale anyway. Just think about that. It is more meaningful for people worried about large scale discrimination, like me, than it is for people worried about case-by-case pinpointed governmental acts of power and suppression.
Or, put it this way: when we are up in arms about the government having our dick pics, we forget that so do our phones, and so does Facebook, or Snapchat, not to mention all the backups on the cloud somewhere.
There’s a frightening article in the Wall Street Journal by Lauren Weber about personality tests people are now forced to take to get shitty jobs in customer calling centers and the like. Some statistics from the article include: 8 out of 10 of the top private employers use such tests, and 57% of employers overall in 2013, a steep rise from previous years.
The questions are meant to be ambiguous so you can’t game them if you are an applicant. For example, yes or no: “I have never understood why some people find abstract art appealing.”
At the end of the test, you get a red light, a yellow light, or a green light. Red lighted people never get an interview, and yellow lighted may or may not. Companies cited in the article use the tests to disqualify more than half their applicants without ever talking to them in person.
The argument for these tests is that, after deploying them, turnover has gone down by 25% since 2000. The people who make and sell personality tests say this is because they’re controlling for personality type and “company fit.”
I have another theory about why people no longer leave shitty jobs, though. First of all, the recession has made people’s economic lives extremely precarious. Nobody wants to lose a job. Second of all, now that everyone is using arbitrary personality tests, the power of the worker to walk off the job and get another job the next week has gone down. By the way, the usage of personality tests seems to correlate with a longer waiting period between applying and starting work, so there’s that disincentive as well.
Workplace personality tests are nothing more than voodoo management tools that empower employers. In fact I’ve compared them in the past to modern day phrenology, and I haven’t seen any reason to change my mind since then. The real “metric of success” for these models is the fact that employers who use them can fire a good portion of their HR teams.
As it turns out, it takes a while to write a book, and then another few months to publish it.
I’m very excited today to tentatively announce that my book, which is tentatively entitled Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, will be published in May 2016, in time to appear on summer reading lists and well before the election.
Fuck yeah! I’m so excited.
p.s. Fight for 15 is happening now.
I’m excited to be involved with an interesting and important conference this coming Friday at UC Berkeley, held by the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology as well as the student-run journal, the Berkeley Technology Law Journal.
It’s a one day event, entitled Open Data: Addressing Privacy, Security, and Civil Rights Challenges, and it’s got the following blurb:
How can open data promote trust in government without creating a transparent citizenry? Governments at all levels are releasing large datasets for analysis by anyone for any purpose—“Open Data.” Using Open Data, entrepreneurs may create new products and services, and citizens may use it to gain insight into the government. A plethora of time saving and other useful applications have emerged from Open Data feeds, including more accurate traffic information, real-time arrival of public transportation, and information about crimes in neighborhoods.
The program is here, and as you’ll see I’m participating in two ways. First, I’m giving a tutorial first thing in the morning on “doing data science,” which is to say I’m doing my best to explain to a room full of lawyers, in 40 minutes, what it is that modelers actually do with data, and how there might be ethical concerns. Feel free to give me advice on this talk!
Then at the end of the day, I’m in charge of “responding” to Panel 3. Since this is something we don’t have in academic math conferences or talks, I had to ask my lawyer friend what it means to respond, and his answer was that I just take notes during the panel discussion and then I get to comment on stuff I’ve heard. This will be my chance to talk about whether the laws they are talking about, or the proposed changes in the laws, make sense to the world of modeling.
I’m a bit concerned that I simply won’t understand what they’re talking about, since they are experts in this field of security and privacy law which I know very little about, but in any case I’m looking forward to learning a lot on Friday.