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The Formula: How Algorithms Solve all our Problems … and Create More

3.58  ·  Rating details ·  556 ratings  ·  88 reviews
What if everything in life could be reduced to a simple formula? What if numbers were able to tell us which partners we were best matched with – not just in terms of attractiveness, but for a long-term committed marriage? Or if they could say which films would be the biggest hits at the box office, and what changes could be made to those films to make them even more succes ...more
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published April 3rd 2014 by WH Allen
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Rob Kitchin
Dec 20, 2014 rated it liked it
The Formula provides an overarching account of how algorithms are increasingly being used to mediate, augment and regulate everyday life. There’s much to like about the book -- it’s an engaging read, full of interesting examples, there’s an attempt to go beyond the hyperbole of many popular books about technology and society, and it draws on the ideas of a range of critical theorists (including Baudrillard, Deleuze, Marx, Virilio, Foucault, Descartes, Sennett, Turkle, etc). It’s clear that the d ...more
Nov 20, 2014 rated it did not like it
First of all, this is not a book about algorithms. The author does not spend any space talking about what algorithms are, how they work, or their history. Rather, he merely uses them as a stand-in for technology, listing example after exhausting example of things that computers and technology can do. Algorithms are given credit for (or blamed for) big data, data mining, statistics, social networking, the internet... the list goes on. Many of these things have algorithms in common, but the author ...more
Stan Lanier
My interest stayed low but steady until the penultimate and ultimate chapters where Dormehl raised philosophical interests.
Gary  Beauregard Bottomley
Algorithms are a systematic set of rules for handling complex processes often using a recursive methodology (the routine calls itself). The author doesn't really define algorithm this way but he mostly appeals to examples that involve pattern recognition or some kind of sorting of subsets into their most common elements and associates the correlations between those subsets.

He gives good examples on the state of algorithms in use today and how they aid us in our decision making (just think Google
Terry Pearce
There's some good content in here, and some good writing, but it gets hopelessly lost in poor structure and unevenness. One minute it's talking about algorithms that are possible, maybe, in the future, the next talking about ones in use. One minute talking about algorithms that don't work, the next about ones that are misused or support poor policy. There's no clarity about the term algorithm or formula, no real message beyond 'they can be good and bad'... It reads like a book written by somebod ...more
Prabhu R.
Mar 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
Very interesting and thought-provoking book about the internet-age where everything that surrounds the humans in the form of computer one way or the other is an algorithm that changes the way we have been interacting with the world, right from shopping to day-day activities. These algorithms have permeated to the depths of everyone's lives and has become mostly inseparable or essential. These algorithms that have become the inevitable have also shown their problematic face. Where many are landed ...more
The highlight of the book was the chapter about online dating. Fantastic.

I cannot say the same for the rest of this book. While the author did seem to understand some of the biases inherent to algorithms, he seemed wholly unaware of the biases in criminology research. His chapter on predicting crime was horrible, truly horrible. His critical thinking ability seemed to have been on hold. In a different section, he wrote about the biases of judges when sentencing but never quite seemed to connect
Mar 04, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I glowingly recommend The Formula. This book is for people who are concerned about the philosophical implications of computer algorithms being applied to those most human endeavors as love, law, art and autonomy of self. It is well written and researched. If you are interested in human rights, future work, and your shrinking sphere of information despite the information revolution then read this book. Certainly the potentials for systemic inadvertent discrimination should be widely, openly and p ...more
Kirsten Zirngibl
Sep 29, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
This was a good overview for people wondering about the implications of Big Data in our society, especially how formulas for prediction can become self-fulfilling prophesies and about what it means to find meaning.

However, I found it disappointing that the author didn't even try to properly describe algorithms beyond "a series of step by step instructions" or categorize them in any meaningful way. Yes, he warned that this is not "a computer science textbook" but the basics could still be explai
Jan 28, 2015 rated it it was ok
It reads like someone took an undergraduate statistics class and drew some obvious comparisons. The phenomena of data mining and data analysis isn't shocking or surprising to anyone involved with that sort of thing. Sure, it can be done faster with computers and sure, there are a lot of practical applications. It's like the author was one of those people who thought math class was a waste of time and became shocked. SHOCKED! that it was everywhere. Also, the author's attempt to make "The Formula ...more
Dec 10, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: math
This is one of those rare longread magazine pieces expanded into a book that doesn't lose out in the expansion. The author is a tech journalist with a crateful of sociocultural concerns about the uses to which we put useful technologies. Way more questions than answers here, but they're the right questions. ...more
Jan 15, 2015 rated it liked it
It is not really a technical book and does not describe how algorithms work. Instead, the writer gives brief examples, and explains what impact algorithms are having in society; both in a negative and positive way.
The writer quotes many scientists, philosophers, politicians, and academics, so it is a useful source of references.
Feb 18, 2015 rated it liked it
TO be fair, the author did provide a disclaimer in the foreword/introduction that its not a technical book on algorithm. Nevertheless, even discounting this, this book had nothing new in store with me. Felt like a collage of magazine articles to me.
Jun 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Some reviewers are concerned by the use of the word "algorithm," but if you ignore that, this is a fascinating book could provoke thousands of discussions ethical, historical, theoretical, and mathematical. ...more
mix between algorithms, data science, internet of things, ethics and interesting applications: movie hit predictor, face recognition, medical diagnosis software, etc...
Lloyd Downey
May 09, 2019 rated it liked it
I've found that this is not an easy book to review. It is fairly dense with much so that I've found it a bit difficult to draw out the main ideas. I guess the main ideas are that Algorithms are being used extensively already ...some of them with remarkable accuracy.......but they are not foolproof and individuals who don't fit the algorithmic profile might be greatly disadvantaged. Steven J Gould, in his book "The Mismeasure of Man" warned about the dangers of converting concep ...more
Fuzzy Cow
Feb 09, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: entertainment
Algorithms have gained increased importance in our lives. With advances in big data, it seems like there is a race to find the "solution" to macro and micro problems. This book talks about all the different people trying to discover something, using... technology in general.

Was that last sentence a little non-committal? Well that's how I feel about this book. It is fairly pessimistic about a future ruled by algorithms, though Luke is pretty certain it's going to happen. Also, there's no clear di
Aug 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ebooks, 2017
I finished reading this non-fiction book about algorithms last night. It is about how algorithms are now being used for all kinds of uses, and how some of those uses are very problematical, and I very much enjoyed reading the book.

An algorithm is defined as "a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer". As such, an algorithm is neither good or bad; it is the use made of them that can aid our lives immensely, or cause prob
Jim Razinha
Seems like a lifetime ago, but there used to be a computer language called ALGOL...short for Algorithm Language (language names meant something back then). And mearly a lifetime ago, programmers - that's what coders where called, in the day - had to develop algorithms to generate pseudo-random numbers, quickly sort lists, compile programs (code) into the most efficient space given memory and operations per second limitations. This is not about those kinds of algorithms.

What Dormehl does do is p
Aug 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
Given I was reading this book in 2017 I felt most topics are a bit dated. Coming from a computer science background, I had come to believe programmed or automated solutions lead to a more objective solution to real life problems. However, this book provided strong evidence to the contrary. From the very first chapter which talks about quantified self systems to the last chapter which talks about govt. systems using rule based systems to automate clerical work, the author spends a lot of time exp ...more
2.5 stars, almost 3. I love the cover because it's a Birdlett. But the book was just alright.


The 3rd week of January is the most depressing week of the year.

A thing that can't be measured can't be improved. Maybe this is why spirituality is so tricky. Or we just need to try harder.

As a person invests more psychic energy in an object, they attach more meaning to it. Thus making the object more important to them. Which makes their attachment grow all the stronger. Disclosure is both fast act
Jim Beilstein
Algorithms and Implications

A solid read on how pervasive algorithms are becoming in our lives and the broad implications to society. I found the author to be very balanced in his view, showing both pros and cons of our society is becoming more and more algorithm-based over time. There are real and sometimes unpredictable implications of trusting our information to search algorithms and the author has done a very nice job exploring this space and what is seemingly an increased reliance on "black
Sep 24, 2018 rated it it was ok
A work of pop sociology. Easy to read and digest. It consists of the author pointing out examples of scientific materialism and listing algorithms which influence/have the potential to influence the modern world. It's at its best when describing these algorithms, many of which are quite interesting, though not very in-depth. The between the author himself contributes little commentary of value. Here's an example of something he says:

"In a post-9/11 age in which our own sense of impermanence is h
Alexander Hult
Mar 31, 2019 rated it really liked it
A great signal to noise ratio if you're looking for a plethora of short anecdotes and stories about how algorithms (mostly statistics with some basic coding in these scenarios) have altered areas as wide-ranging as crime, medicine, dating, and so forth. It's 100% philosophy and ethics, no math involved. Structurally, it could've been organized better, but it's an understandable challenge to organize this field. Don't be disheartened from the lower reviews, unless you're looking for a book that d ...more
Tushant Mittal
Aug 01, 2020 rated it liked it
Tldr - Recommended if you're looking to learn some cool anecdotes/interesting (disturbing) applications of algorithms. Skip if looking for any sort of detail or nuance.

The book provides examples of applications of algorithms to 4 areas - health, dating, law and art. It's mostly a collection of examples without a lot of detail either into technical details or into the social ramifications. Though certain sections might evoke the similar kind of disgust that Elon musk's tweets do ( what i call the
Justin Blount
Jun 04, 2021 rated it really liked it
Great book: this gives a good landscape overview of algorithms and methods mostly in data mining and machine learning concerning big data. While he explains a little about how the methods work, his main intentions are to give examples of real world applications using these methods: familiar and more obscure stories within data tech are given. Dormehl attempts to get into a large number of anecdotes, while he is sufficient in his explanations, he gives little advanced information beyond one or tw ...more
Edward B.
Not great, but not bad.
I didn't find the writing compelling, but it was fine, and the subject matter is reasonably important.
The book looks at the idea of algorithmic solutions to questions/problems, historically and into the future. Where they are appropriate and where they aren't - and what can happen if applied where they aren't. Deep-learning AI as a Black Box that humans can't deconstruct in order to evaluate for errors, for example. Technical, legal, social implications of that.
Craig Wanderer
Sep 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I tend to read boring non fiction books and I thought yesterday I would take a break and read a fictional book "Blade Runner" I had the Audio Version and it honestly was terrible.
I had also downloaded this book so I instantly switched to it.
Well there you have it, in two days I finished it, to make it even more interesting I learned of Female Companion Programs similar to those in Blade Runner! How crazy is that right?
Lots of great info in this book on how search engines work, buying online w
Jerrod Carter
Mar 08, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
2nd time through. This book really does a good job articulating how computer algorithms regulate us by determining what and when we see things. Not sure this is a lot different than how our opinions were shaped by the human algorithms that used to determine what we saw on the nightly news or newspaper headlines. We've always relied on filters, and now they're just automated. It's important that we understand them, that we work to make them fair and non-discriminatory, but it's also important tha ...more
Apr 07, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Sociocultural approach to algorithms and their past, present, and potential future effects on human beings. The questions are more along the lines of “What does it mean that humans are the kind of being who create algorithms and what does that tell us about ourselves” rather than “how does this specific algorithm work.” The critical theorists and philosophers invoked are done so in ways that are applicable and useful to the overall questions, and there’s a wide range involved (more than what I w ...more
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Luke Dormehl is a journalist and author, with a background working in documentary film. His writing has appeared in Wired, Digital Trends, The Guardian, Fast Company, Empire, Cult of Mac, Politico, The Huffington Post, and Techmeme.

He is the author of Thinking Machines, The Formula: How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems (And Create More), The Apple Revolution: Steve Jobs, The Counterculture, and H

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“It is the gulf between the idea of the autonomous individual, and the algorithmic tendency to view the individual as one categorisable node in an aggregate mass that can result in The Formula’s equivalent of a crisis of self.” 1 likes
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