Cathy O’Neil and the virtues of honesty, justice, humility and courage

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we would need to cultivate in order to flourish as people (2016, p. 110), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

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From: https://mathbabe.org/contact/

Cathy O’Neil embodies the virtues of honesty and justice, and of humility and courage. 

Cathy O’Neil earned a Ph.D. in math from Harvard, was a postdoc at MIT, and a professor at Barnard College […] She then switched over to the private sector, working as a quant for the hedge fund D.E. Shaw in the middle of the credit crisis […]. She left finance in 2011 and started working as a data scientist in the New York start-up scene […]. She wrote “Doing Data Science” in 2013 and launched the Lede Program in Data Journalism at Columbia in 2014. She wrote the book “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy“, and recently founded ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing company.

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In this book, she provides a broad range of examples of the harms that algorithms can do–intentionally or unintentionally. Very often, poor people suffer the hardest: “Promising efficiency and fairness, [these algorithms] distort higher education, drive up debt, spur mass incarceration, pummel the poor at nearly every juncture, and undermine democracy” (p. 199). She coined the term Weapons of Math Destruction, to refer to algorithms with the following characteristics: their outcomes have large effects on people’s lives and society; they work invisible and are inaccessible for scrutiny or critique; their usage tends to spread like wildfire, e.g., affecting an entire industry; and they lack proper feedback loops and checks, so that they can all too easily derail.

Existing unfairness and injustice–which, in the US, often concur with discrimination based on race, resulting in poverty and lack of opportunities–are propagated through algorithms: “Big Data codify the past.” (p. 204) […] She argues that “we need to impose human values on these systems, even at the cost of efficiency” (p. 207).

  • Her TED Talk: “The era of blind faith in big data must end

O’Neil embodies the virtues of honesty and justice. She unveils the lies surrounding algorithms and their unwarranted promises, in order to critique the injustice and unfairness they propagate and exacerbate. For her, honesty, about what math can do, and cannot do, and advocating and striving for justice go hand in hand.

Shannon Vallor defines the technomoral virtue of honesty as “respect for truth, along with the practical expertise to express that respect appropriately” (2016, p. 122), and justice as a “reliable disposition to seek a fair and equitable distribution of the benefits and risks of … technologies” and a “characteristic concern for how … technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups” (2016, p. 128).

In addition, O’Neil embodies the virtues of humility and courage. Humility because she knows very well what math can do, and cannot do. She critiques many widespread practices: using invalid proxies, e.g., using people’s financial credit scores to assess risks related to driving a car and setting a price for car insurance; the lack of feedback loops, which are critical for putting a faulty algorithm, e.g., one that effectively creates random outputs, back on track; and focusing on those variables that can be quantified and data which are easily available, instead of deciding that algorithms make no sense, e.g., because the desired results are qualitative or hard to put into numbers. Moreover, she embodies courage in that she experiences both fear and hope in intelligent ways: she understands the dangers of algorithms, and she has hope that we can “disarm (p. 199) and “dismantle” (p. 202) these Weapons of Math Destruction.

Shannon Vallor defines the technomoral virtue of humility asa recognition of the real limits of our technosocial knowledge and ability” (2016, p. 126), and courage as a “disposition toward intelligent fear and hope with respect to moral and material dangers and opportunities presented by emerging technologies” (2016, p. 131).


Possibly, you find that Cathy O’Neill embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or contact me at: marc.steen-at-tno.nl

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Tristan Harris and the virtues of self-control, civility and humility

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we would need to cultivate in order to flourish as people (2016, p. 110), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

Tristan Harris embodies the technomoral virtue of self-control.

His mission to make us aware of the ways in which we use technologies–most notably our mobile phones and social networking services–and the ways in which we become increasingly addicted to these. He explains that these technologies are a by-product of the business models of companies like Facebook and Google–they want to grab people’s attention and sell it to advertisers; and the algorithms they use–these algorithms provide exactly that context that will pull you in and keep your eyes glued to the screen, with your index finger or thumb ready to make the ‘refresh’ swipe every couple of minutes.

Harris graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Computer Science, focused on Human Computer Interaction, behavioral economics, social psychology, behavior change and habit formation in Professor BJ Fogg’s Stanford Persuasive Technology lab. He was CEO of Apture, which Google acquired in 2011, and worked at Google, as Design Ethicist and left at 2016 to found the non-profit initiative, “Time Well Spent“. In 2018 he founded the Center for Humane Technology.

The center advocates “four levers to redefine our future: Inspire Humane Design; Apply Political Pressure; Create a Cultural Awakening; and Engage Employees”. Moreover, they provide practical suggestions to take control of your phone: “Try these simple changes to live more intentionally with your devices right now“.

Harris wants us to cultivate self-control, a virtue which Shannon Vallor defines as an “ability in technomoral contexts to choose, and ideally to desire for their own sakes, those goods and experiences that most contribute to contemporary and future human flourishing” (2016, p. 124). If we cultivate self-control, we can free ourselves from our addiction to technology and use it in ways that support human flourishing. Self-control is not a disposition against technology, but a disposition to use technology consciously and productively.

Harris also champions the technomoral virtues of civility and humility.

Civility, because he warns us that the cultivation of self-control is underneath all our social interactions and the fabric of society. When we are all glued to our screens, meekly following the algorithms’ recommendations, we are unable to have conversations–conversations with others and with our inner ourselves, about ‘the good life’, how we want to organize our societies and live our daily lives. Self-control is thus a key condition for cultivating the virtue of civility–to deliberation and collective action.

Vallor defines civility as “a sincere disposition to live well with one’s fellow citizens of a globally networked information society: to collectively and wisely deliberate about matters of local, national, and global policy and political action; to communicate, entertain, and defend our distinct conceptions of the good life; and to work cooperatively toward those goods of technosocial life that we seek and expect to share with others” (2016, p. 141)

And humility, because he stresses that technology by itself is not necessarily evil, but that we need to focus on the ends we want to realize–and then use our technologies as means to realize those ends. He warns us not to believe in technology, but to free ourselves from our addiction to technology and to be free to choose technologies in ways that support human flourishing. We need to let go of our blind faith in technology and treat it as a means, not as an end.

Vallor defines humility as a “recognition of the real limits of our technosocial knowledge and ability; … and renunciation of the blind faith that new technologies inevitably lead to human mastery and control of our environment” (2016, p. 126-7).


Possibly, you find that Tristan Harris embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or email me at:  marc.steen-at-tno.nl