Saturday, February 10, 2018

Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Umoja Noble

Hardcover, Expected pub: Feb 20th 2018 by New York Univ Press, ISBN13: 9781479849949

Noble began collecting information in 2010 after noticing the way Google Search and other internet sites collect and display information about non-white communities. Her results dovetail with other work (e.g., Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil) positing that algorithms are flawed by their very nature: choosing & weighting only some variables to define or capture a phenomenon will deliver a flawed result. Noble wrote this book to explore reasons why Google couldn’t, or wouldn’t, address concerns over search results that channel, shape, distort the search itself, i.e., the search “black girls” yielded only pornographic results, beginning a cascade of increasingly disturbing and irrelevant options for further search.

In her conclusion Noble tells us that she wrote an article about these observations in 2012 for a national women’s magazine, Bitch, and within six weeks the Google Search for “black girls” turned up an entire page of results like “Black Girls Code,” Black Girls Rock,” “7-Year-Old Writes Book to Show Black Girls They Are Princesses.” While Noble declines to take credit for these changes, she continued her research into the way non-white communities are sidelined in the digital universe.

We must keep several things in mind at once if the digital environment is to work for all of us. We must recognize the way the digital universe reflects and perpetuates the white male patriarchy from which it was developed. In order for the internet to live up to the promise of allowing unheard and disenfranchised populations some voice and access to information they can use to enhance their world, we must monitor the creation and use of the algorithms that control the processes by which we add to and search the internet. This is one reason it is so critical to have diversity in tech. Below find just a few of Noble's more salient points:
We are the product that Google sells to advertisers.

The digital interface is a material reality structuring a discourse, embedded with historical relations...Search does not merely present pages but structures knowledge...

Google & other search engines have been enlisted to make decisions about the proper balance between personal privacy and access to information. The vast majority of these decisions face no public scrutiny, though they shape public discourse.

Those who have the power to design systems--classification or technical [like library, museum, & information professionals]--hold the ability to prioritize hierarchical schemes that privilege certain types of information over others.

The search arena is consolidated under the control of only a few companies.

Algorithms that rank & prioritize for profits compromise our ability to engage with complicated ideas. There is no counterposition, nor is there a disclaimer or framework for contextualizing what we get.

Access to high quality information, from journalism to research, is essential to a healthy and viable democracy...In some cases, journalists are facing screens that deliver real-time analytics about the virality of their stories. Under these circumstances, journalists are encouraged to modify headlines and keywords within a news story to promote greater traction and sharing among readers.
An early e-version of this manuscript obtained through Netgalley had formatting and linking issues that were a hindrance to understanding. Noble writes here for an academic audience I presume, and as such her jargon and complicated sentences are appropriate for communicating the most precise information in the least space. However, for a general audience this book would be a slog, something not true if one listens to Noble (as in the attached TED talk linked below). Surely one of the best things this book offers is a collection of references to others who are working on these problems around the country.

The other best thing about this book is an affecting story Noble includes in the final pages of her Epilogue about Kandis, a long-established black hairdresser in a college town trying to keep her business going by registering online with the ratings site, Yelp. Noble writes in the woman’s voice, simply and forthrightly, without jargon, and the clarity and moral force of the story is so hard-hitting, it is worth picking up the book for this story alone. At the very least I would recommend a TED talk on this story, and suggest placing the story closer to the front of this book in subsequent editions. For those familiar with Harvard Business Review case studies, this is a perfect one.

Basically, the story is as follows: Kandis's shop became an established business in the 1980s, before the fall off of black scholars attending the university "when the campus stopped admitting so many Blacks." To keep those fewer students aware that her business provided an exclusive and necessary service in the town, she spent many hours to find a way to have her business come up when “black hair” was typed in as a search term within a specified radius of the school. The difficulties she experienced illustrate the algorithm problems clearly.
“To be a Black woman and to need hair care can be an isolating experience. The quality of service I provide touches more than just the external part of someone. It’s not just about their hair.”
I do not want to get off the subject Noble has concentrated on with such eloquence in her treatise, but I can’t resist noting that we are talking about black women’s hair again…Readers of my reviews will know I am concerned that black women have experienced violence in their attitudes about their hair. If I am misinterpreting what I perceive to be hatred of something so integral to their beings, I would be happy to know it. If black hair were perceived instead as an extension of one’s personality and sexuality without the almost universal animus for it when undressed, I would not worry about this obsession as much. But I think we need also to work on making black women recognize their hair is beautiful. Period.

By the time we get to Noble’s Epilogue, she has raised a huge number of discussion points and questions which grew from her legitimate concerns that Google Search seemed to perpetuate the status quo or service a select group rather than break new ground for enabling the previously disenfranchised. This is critically important, urgent, and complicated work and Noble has the energy and intellectual fortitude needed to work with others to address these issues. This book would be especially useful for those looking for an area in the digital arena to piggyback her work to try and make a difference.

Below please find a 12-minute TED talk with Ms. Noble:

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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