THE FORMULA by Luke Dormehl


How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems—and Create More
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The story of the myriad ways that algorithms are impacting our lives, from Fast Company senior writer Dormehl.

An algorithm is a series of step-by-step instructions, these days typically carried out by a computer for speed in regard to the abundance of data being considered. The author zeroes in on the metadata and how to navigate through all the information available to arrive at an actionable conclusion. So can a reductive formula provide answers for complex, multifaceted questions? Set aside objectivity and techno-rationality and take the formulation of algorithms as a given, the inputs chosen for all sorts of reasons. Concentrate instead on the algorithms that Dormehl presents for our deliberation. One involves reading key biomarkers to preventatively track bodily health, especially in those instances where the problem is discernable only in blood work. Another may track your clothes-buying preferences on the Internet. One feels like Big Brother, the other like your mother. There is no sense that Dormehl is trying to sell you anything. He chooses his anecdotes wisely, and he is mindful of the innate distrust experienced when talking about the “quantifiable self” and its zealots, with all their techno-determinism and statistical inferences. The author is in search of patterns, and he takes into account the “unmeasurable” (“personality traits, emotional attributes, sociability”), chaos theory, cultural conditions and existential crises, as well as Steven Pinker’s humanistic counteralgorithm regarding marriage: “[Y]ou’re in love because you can’t help it.” Still, Dormehl tenders a good number of useful algorithms, including predictive policing (which requires significant oversight to avoid discrimination of all types) and algorithmic sampling for the tedium of legal discovery. To avoid our yearning for easy answers and belief in skin-deep objectivity, the author suggests ways to avoid manipulation and explores the problems of transparency and taming unchecked governmental policymaking.

The algorithmization of life reveals both good and dark sides, and in this lucid book, Dormehl, a good-sider, rightly cautions to never lose a measure of control.

Pub Date: Nov. 4th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0399170539
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Perigee/Penguin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2014


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