THE EYE TEST

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Do the math. Crunch the numbers. Follow the model. Analytics has become the secret machinery of the modern world, grinding away behind the curtain. Once hailed as the answer to any number of social ills, analytics has become a pathway to dislocation, inequality, and outright weirdness. Jones, a former writer at large for Esquire and winner of two National Magazine Awards, began his journalistic career as a sportswriter in the era when quantitative analysis was taking over professional sports. While providing plenty of useful information, the method also took away much of what made a game interesting, including tension, surprise, excitement, and even joy. Once the idea of the math model was established, it infected everything, from the making of movies to the stock market. Algorithms appear to be based on impartial science, but they seek to predict the future by looking only at the past and are unable to handle variation, complexity, and outliers. Jones has a good time recounting examples of things going wrong, and he does so with a dry sense of humor. However, the topic becomes far more serious when analytics is applied to government and law enforcement. Facial recognition software, for example, has great difficulty reading Black faces (women even more than men), and the picture gets even darker when data is used to fit a narrative rather than reveal the truth. The author makes a convincing case that we should trust our intuition and creativity and treat others as individuals instead of mere aggregations of information. Yes, analytics and algorithms are useful in many ways, but ultimately, they should remain subordinate to a person with a stock of lived experience, empathy, and wisdom.

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