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Catching Up with Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression

Climbing Mount To Be Read, one book at a time. This one is a keeper.

May 16, 2018
 
 

Before I get to books, one small note about the vote on net neutrality that just happened as I write this. (I’ve written about this before.) It’s more symbolic than anything for a slim majority of US senators, (including both of mine, thank you Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith) to vote to roll back the roll-back of net neutrality regulations, part of the dismantle-everything-Obama project of the current administration. The House will probably vote against it, and it won’t get the big black felt-tip signature of the president. But it’s important to stand up for a principle that a large majority of Americans approve of and to rebuke the FCC for abandoning the progress gained toward reining in the power of ISPs and telecomm companies.

Not a bad lead-in to Safiya Noble’s book, actually.

Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression is a book I waited for impatiently because I was familiar enough with her research to know it fit my reading interests and was important in my profession. (It jumped into the pages of Inside Higher Ed when a hasty Twitter questioning of the book's validity by a major tech organization’s official Twitter account based on nothing more than a quick glance at a publisher’s description led to a backlash. And many comments here at IHE, of course.) It’s the culmination of years of studying the ways algorithmic information systems – Google Algorithms of Oppression coverSearch in particular – represent people who are not white and not male. She noticed years ago, when shopping for her nieces, that black girls looking themselves up, would see lots of porn because that’s what Google thought you must be looking for. After she published an article about it, those search results changed. There’s no way of knowing what prompted the change, but every so often, when Google is called out for search results that are surprising – denial sites, for example, topping the list of results when searching for information about the Holocaust – they make some tweaks. This is not a systematic overhaul of how the algorithm works, it’s PR and brand protection, with a side of “oh heck, we didn’t expect that to happen.”

Noble unpacks the trouble with corporations that have no public accountability except to shareholders dominating our information landscape and, in particular, how problematic their systems are for women and people of color. The design of our most dominant information gateway poaches unpaid labor, imagines the world to be just like those who write the code to sell attention and adds, and gives us back a reflection of ourselves that is warped by not jumbling information together without context. Its dominance means journalists now have to make their stories more sensational to be found in the din, and that whole communities lose their connections as their own histories are crowded out. (There’s an excellent interview that shows how Yelp has affected one black woman’s business and how the system we may use casually to check out options actually demands constant payments from businesses to make their online profiles more visible while making networks of word-of-mouth less vital.)

This is a book librarians and anyone else who worries about the state of our information systems should check out. I’ll share a few of the many quotes I noted down to give you some flavor.

Algorithmic oppression is not just a glitch in the system but, rather, is fundamental to the operating system of the web (10).

Google’s enviable position as the monopoly leader in the provision of information has allowed its organization of information and customization to be driven by its economic imperatives and has influenced broad swathes of society to see it as the creator and keeper of information culture online, which I am arguing is another form of American imperialism that manifests itself as ‘gatekeeper’ on the web (86).

Algorithms are, and will continue to be, loaded with power (171).

Though in an epilogue, written after Trump’s election, Noble admits her solutions – strengthening the social institutions that are unlikely to get anything but decreased budgets and creating public options - aren't in the cards, she believes we need to change our information systems fundamentally.

Without public funding and adequate information policy that protects the rights to fair representation online, an escalation in the erosion of quality information to inform the public will continue . . . My hope is that the public will reclaim its institutions and direct our resources in service of a multiracial democracy. Now, more than ever, we need libraries, universities, schools, and information resources that will help bolster and further expand democracy for all, rather than shrink the landscape of participation along racial, religious, and gendered lines" (181, 186).

I have many more books awaiting me in Mount To Be Read, including an impulse purchase of Siva Viadhyanathan's Anti-Social Media that was released ahead of schedule and  kept me up too late last night (thanks a lot, Siva - no, really, thanks.) I hope to make some progress scaling the heights this summer. Is there anything you're looking forward to reading when the dust of the semester settles?

 

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