Peace in Your Pocket
When did our personal information become a commodity manipulated by algorithms? How did marketing become so intrusive? Why does every transaction add another piece to our digital trail? Wiggins, a professor of applied mathematics at Columbia and chief data scientist at the New York Times, and Jones, a Guggenheim fellow and history professor at Columbia, track the process over several centuries, reiterating and expanding a course they teach. Governments have always wanted to know how many people they ruled, but near the end of the 18th century, the idea took hold that statistics could reveal rich detail about a society, including averages and deviations from norms. Military and industrial applications evolved, and the first computers were designed to turn raw figures into useful outcomes. When the internet and e-commerce arrived, there was a quantum leap in data collection, with new math techniques to underpin the concept of “data science.” Government-run surveillance systems collected vast amounts of personal material, manifested in customized, targeted advertising. Wiggins and Jones point out that all this happened without much public discussion, and they worry about the impact on privacy and democracy. “We don’t have to use algorithmic decision systems, even in contexts where their use may be technically feasible,” they write. “Ads based on mass surveillance are not necessary elements of our society. We don’t need to build systems that learn the stratifications of the past and present and reinforce them in the future.” The authors propose remedies, including the revision of the legal provisions that give platforms immunity from the effect of user-generated content, but they admit that reining in the tech giants will be difficult. The real value of the book, however, is that it provides important background for understanding the road behind and the path ahead.An informative dive into the history of statistics and data, providing context for the debate over information and who controls it.