So you read So You Want to Talk About Race and now you have more questions. Specifically, you’re wondering how privilege affects your life online. Surely the Internet is the libertarian cyber-utopia we were all promised, right? It’s totally free of bias and discrimina—sorry, I can’t even write that with a straight face.
Of course the Internet is a flaming cesspool of racism and misogyny. We can’t have good things.
What Safiya Umoja Noble sets out to do in Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism is explore exactly what it is that Google and related companies are doing that does or does not reinforce discriminatory attitudes and perspectives in our society. Thanks to NetGalley and New York UP for the eARC (although the formatting was a bit messed up, argh). Noble eloquently lays out the argument for why technology, and in this case, the algorithms that determine what websites show up in your search results, is not a neutral force.
This is a topic that has interested me for quite some time. I took a Philosophy of the Internet course in university even—because I liked philosophy and I liked the Internet, so it seemed like a no-brainer. We are encouraged, especially those of us with white and/or male privilege, to view the Internet as this neutral, free, public space. But it’s not, really. It’s carved up by corporations. Think about how often you’re accessing the Internet mediated through a company: you read your email courtesy of Microsoft or Google or maybe Apple, and ditto for your device; your connection is controlled by an ISP, which is not a neutral player; the website you visit is perhaps owned by a corporation or serves ads from corporations trying to make money … this is a dirty, mucky pond we are playing around in, folks. The least we can do as a start is to recognize this.
Noble points out that the truly insidious perspective, however, is how we’ve normalized Google as this public search tool. It is a generic search term—just google it—and, yes, Google is my default search engine. I use it in Firefox, in Chrome, on my Android phone … I am really hooked into Google’s ecosystem—or should I say, it’s hooked into me. But Google’s search algorithms did not spring forth fully coded from the head of Zeus. They were designed (mostly by men), moderated (again by men), tweaked, on occasion, for the interests of the companies and shareholders who pay Google’s way. They can have biases. And that is the problem.
Noble, as a Black feminist and scholar, writes with a particular interest in how this affects Black women and girls. Her paradigm case is the search results she turned up, in 2010 and 2011, for “black girls”—mostly pornography or other sex-related hits, on the first page, for what should have been an innocuous term. Noble’s point is that the algorithms were influenced by society’s perceptions of black girls, but that in turn, our perceptions will be influenced by the results we see in search engines. It is a vicious cycle of racism, and it is no one person’s fault—there is no Chief Racist Officer at Google, cackling with glee as they rig the search results (James Damore got fired, remember). It’s a systemic problem and must therefore be addressed systemically, first by acknowledging it (see above) and now by acting on it.
It’s this last part that really makes Algorithms of Oppression a good read. I found parts of this book dry and somewhat repetitive. For example, Noble keeps returning to the “black girls” search example—returning to it is not a problem, mind you, but she keeps re-explaining it, as if we hadn’t already read the first chapter of the book. Aside from these stylistic quibbles, though, I love the message that she lays out here. She is not just trying to educating us about the perils of algorithms of oppression: she is advocating that we actively design algorithms with restorative and social justice frameworks in mind.
Let me say it louder for those in the back: there is no such thing as a neutral algorithm. If you read this book and walk away from it persuaded that we need to do better at designing so-called “objective” search algorithms, then you’ve read it wrong. Algorithms are products of human engineering, as much as science or medicine, and therefore they will always be biased. Hence, the question is not if the algorithm will be biased, but how can we bias it for the better? How can we put pressure on companies like Google to take responsibility for what their algorithms produce and ensure that they reflect the society we want, not the society we currently have? That’s what I took away from this book.
I’m having trouble critiquing or discussing more specific, salient parts of this book, simply because a lot of what Noble says is stuff I’ve already read, in slightly different ways, elsewhere—just because I’ve been reading and learning about this for a while. For a newcomer to this topic, I think this book is going to be an eye-opening boon. In particular, Noble just writes about it so well, and so clearly, and she has grounded her work in research and work of other feminists (and in particular, Black feminists). This book is so clearly a labour of academic love and research, built upon the work of other Black women, and that is something worth pointing out and celebrating. We shouldn’t point to books by Black women as if they are these rare unicorns, because Black women have always been here, writing science fiction and non-fiction, science and culture and prose and poetry, and it’s worthwhile considering why we aren’t constantly aware of this fact.
Algorithms of Oppression is a smart book about how colonialism and racism are not over. They aren’t even sleeping. They’ve just transformed, rebranded for the 21st century. They are no longer monsters under the bed or slave-owners on the plantation or schoolteachers; they are the assumptions we build into the algorithms and services and products that power every part of our digital lives. Just as we have for centuries before this, we continue to encode racism into the very structures of our society. Online is no different from offline in this respect. Noble demonstrates this emphatically, beyond the shadow of a doubt, and I encourage you to check out her work to understand how deep this goes and what we need to do to change it.