The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms that Control Money and Information, by Frank Pasquale

The big players in finance and technology misuse their power over our lives, says Paul Bernal

March 12, 2015

This book’s subtitle could easily have been taken further: it is not just money and information that is at stake. The algorithmic control that law scholar Frank Pasquale eloquently and intelligently details and analyses goes beyond money and information and into almost every aspect of our lives. For this reason, although it might appear merely to be a book about technology and finance, The Black Box Society, ultimately, is a radical and political work that deserves wide attention.

Pasquale’s main subjects are the internet giants such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Amazon, and the big financial players from the banks to the credit agencies. What he does particularly well is to show how all of this links together – and reaches further. The Black Box Society includes, for example, a fine explanation of the way that corporate and government surveillance work in concert, and why we should be concerned about both: to worry about the US’ National Security Agency and the UK’s Government Communication Headquarters while remaining blasé about Google, Facebook and the credit agencies is a fundamental mistake. On government surveillance Pasquale is appropriately cynical about both motives and ethics. As he puts it, “careful protection of the boundary between crime and dissent is not a high priority of the intelligence apparatus”.

He is brutal on the subject of the NSA, but devastating in his critique of Facebook, Twitter and Google, and the myths that continue to surround them: myths of neutrality, myths about the ephemeral nature of their power and more. His analysis of search is pointed and poignant, underlining that we need to understand it better and treat search results more critically and sceptically. As he points out, we need to view the internet giants in general with a much more critical eye, from their black box algorithms and market domination to their employment practices and political lobbying.

Pasquale writes with humour and mischief – referring at one point to commercial surveillance as the “Elf on the Shelf whom Santa deputizes to do his holiday watching” – but this is in many ways a book as dark as the black boxes for which it is named. The idea, for example, of marketeers plotting to send ads for beauty products to women at the moments of the day those women feel least attractive is both creepy and comes at a financial cost. But where his analysis of internet black-boxing highlights creepiness, his skewering of financial black-boxing and its impact reveals tragedy – and especially the way the blame for the financial crash and its consequences has been shifted on to the poor and needy in the past few years.

The conclusions he draws are blunt: “As Internet and finance firms exercise more influence over the rest of the economy, they set the standards by which businesses and people are judged. It’s time to set higher standards for them.”

He is right, and The Black Box Society could be a key step in finding our way to doing so. Pasquale’s detailed analyses, and his recipes not just for transparency but also for accountability, for more rigour in regulation and harder-hitting enforcement, deserve a careful read – and then action. Can we move, as he puts it, “toward an intelligible society”? For all our sakes, let’s hope so.

The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms that Control Money and Information

By Frank Pasquale
Harvard University Press, 320pp, £25.95
ISBN 97806743689
Published 29 January 2015

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