cover image The Shame Machine: Who Profits in the New Age of Humiliation

The Shame Machine: Who Profits in the New Age of Humiliation

Cathy O’Neil. Crown, $27 (272p) ISBN 978-1-984825-45-2

Data scientist O’Neil (Weapons of Math Destruction) takes a thought-provoking look at shame in contemporary America. Typically understood as the feeling derived from a conflict between the individual’s desires and society’s norms, shame in the digital age is “manufactured and mined” by “giant sectors of the economy” that want to “harvest something of value from us,” O’Neil argues. These “shame machines” include social media platforms, the health and wellness industry, and programs ostensibly created to help the poor that require drug testing or immense bureaucratic burdens, and only serve to perpetuate dysfunctional status quos. O’Neil explains that when shame is used properly—by punching up instead of down—it can help to ensure fairness and justice. Online shaming, however, tends to be counterproductive. Interwoven with illuminating case studies of teenage girls in Manhattan private schools, the hikikomori movement of shut-ins in Japan, and incels on Reddit are O’Neil’s reflections on the experience of being conditioned to feel bad about her weight. She tells these and other stories with grace and wit, and effectively disputes the “phony science, cognitive dissonance, and self-preserving flattery” often used to justify shaming others. This is a unique and riveting look at a crucial yet little understood aspect of modern life. (Mar.)