Differences in Effectiveness and Purposes: Nomadland and Weapons of Math Destruction

Throughout the writings of both Jessica Bruder and Cathy O’Neil, there is attention pointed toward issues whose effects and implications are crucial to the everyday lives of low-wage workers who work for an hourly wage rather than a steady salary. These individuals, often finding themselves in difficult situations financially, face even more hardships at work, battling long and unpredictable hours that are thrown upon them usually for the financial gain of their company. In the case of Weapons of Math Destruction, this problem manifests itself through the presence of algorithms which tilts wildly in the favor of corporate profit over worker well-being. In Nomadland, on the other hand, this problem shows itself through the demanding work hours of low-paying jobs, as with the case of Linda May, who worked a physically demanding job as a campground host with minimally sufficient compensation. Both of these works have separate and unique approaches to their portrayal of these issues, many of which will be explored and analyzed herein.

It is important to understand the frame of reference used in these authors’ process of writing. Accordingly, during the process of examining the differences found within these two works, there is a main facet that cannot be reasonably overlooked in the context of the situations presented in these two books. In Weapons of Math Destruction, for example, O’Neil covers an example of two different types of workers: a school teacher and a Starbucks employee. In the case of the employee at Starbucks, who performs regular clopenings and, according to O’Neil, in that way represents a large portion of minimum wage workers in the United States, is brought up during a time that algorithms, especially those used by Social Media platforms like Facebook, and also by companies looking to optimize the worker schedules like Starbucks, are under heavy criticism by the American public. This criticism has especially peaked in recent months (mid to late 2021) like Facebook, Google, and other tech companies continue to be denounced by former employees known as whistleblowers, who attempt to uncover what’s perceived as immoral, manipulative, deceptive, and sometimes privacy-invading policies and procedures. In light of these recent occurrences, O’Neil’s work proves very relevant to the context in which it is claiming a presence. Chapter 7, specifically, illustrates successfully the challenges posed to workers resulting from the further development and implementation of these algorithms, and how there is a case to be made for the reversal, or at least, reconsideration of the path down which these technological advancements are inevitably headed. In terms of context, Nomadland however, while making a clear indication of where the events are taking place, does not seem to do as well of a job of describing the context surrounding the story, such as that of the overall problem, or integrating that context into the situation that the book describes. There are occasional references to similar situations, but none of a broader picture. These examples demonstrate how the frame of reference is established by both of these authors and to what degree.

One specific way in which Weapons of Math Destructions differentiates itself from Nomadland is the way in which it uses a wide variety of statistical data in support of its claims and proposals, contrary to Chapter 1 of Nomadland which, discounting occasional outside references and stories, relies almost exclusively on the narrative of a singular individual rather than a collection of the experiences of a wide variety of people from different income levels, locations, types of work, and other factors that could have an effect on the results found by Jessica Bruder. During the construction of this book, it seems apparent that its genre takes more of the form of a documentary than does Weapons of Math Destructions, and in that way does not carry the same authority since the scope of the topics it covers is that much narrower than the alternative. These differences in approach demonstrate the overall contrast of the genre in Weapons of math Destruction from that of Nomadland.

While the differences in genre mentioned above are significant in determining the degree to which these sources are authoritative, it is also important to consider why these books were written, and what impact they were intended to have on their readers.  In the case of Nomadland, it seems clear that the purpose of this documentary is to induce the sympathy of onlookers for the story of Linda May in a way that causes them to want to help, both with this specific situation and with the overarching issue that is proposed to have led up to it. The main endeavor undergone by the author throughout chapter one of her book is not only to follow closely the story of Linda may, but also to identify other similar cases of worker mistreatment, specifically the mistreatment of low-wage workers, and to draw from such identification why it is occurring and what must be done in order to bring it to a stop.  During one of her investigations, she discovers a complaint filed by a separate worker, which says “Even field workers are provided with shade and cold water to drink. Why is this not being done for your own employees?” (Bruder 16). This being the author’s main focus throughout the chapter, it seems evident that the purpose of this book is to drive home the point that workers are often not paid the value of their work, and as such are taken advantage of by their employers,  And in doing so, to persuade the audience to take some sort of unspecified action.

Weapons of Math Destruction, on the other hand, while certainly having a persuasive element, is most definitely more focused on the informative side of the spectrum than the persuasive. O’Neal makes certain to include a large number of statistics from a wide variety of sources in order to give the reader as much context as needed in making a logical decision. Contrary to Nomadland, the effectiveness of the book does not hinge solely on the emotional appeal of a specific and singular situation. Cathay O’Neil’s more generous use of this sort of data provides the reader with the ability to make a decision based primarily on logical conclusion rather than emotional, but it provides a much larger amount of context and has Nomadland. O’Neil’s reference to World War II, for example, when she mentions how “the Twenty-first Bomber Command… managed an ‘exchange ratio’ of over 40 to 1—only 15 aircraft were lost in sinking 606 Japanese ships.” (O’Neil 102).  This statistic which, at the surface, may seem irrelevant to algorithms in the 21st century, shows the context of how mathematics taking a similar form of algorithms were used successfully by the United States in World War II. Another example of such an illustration being provided as context in the book Weapons of Math Destruction, to the problem being highlighted, is the just-in-time concept that was implemented by Amazon and other similar companies. A much larger scope of contacts provided by Cathy O’Neil in her book, especially in these two examples, where this context doesn’t necessarily support her notion that algorithms are harmful overall, shows that the intention of this book is, to provide as much information as possible, after which point the reader will be able to contentedly conclude for themselves is that the proposal of the overall harm of algorithms is one which does in fact carry weight, and needs to be addressed before it has irreversible effects on our current society.

In this way, the higher use of context by Weapons of Math Destruction illustrates, in part, why Cathy O’Neal has embarked on the journey that she has.  It is apparent that both books have the end goal to persuade the reader towards their point of view,  however, Cathy O’Neill seems to attempt to achieve the same goal by first providing as much information as can be effectively done. For this reason and others, it can be reasonably proposed that Cathy O’Neil’s book, Weapons of Math Destruction, is more effective in its goal of persuasiveness, ironically by means of reducing direct persuasiveness and increasing information, than is Jessica Bruder’s book Nomadland, whose more reliant appeal on reader sympathy has the counterproductive effect of exposing itself as a work meant to persuade rather than inform.

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