Algorithms of Oppression

How Search Engines Reinforce Racism
Narrated by: Shayna Small
Length: 6 hrs and 21 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (118 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

A revealing look at how negative biases against women of color are embedded in search engine results and algorithms. 

Run a Google search for “black girls” - what will you find? “Big Booty” and other sexually explicit terms are likely to come up as top search terms. But, if you type in “white girls”, the results are radically different. The suggested porn sites and un-moderated discussions about “why black women are so sassy” or “why black women are so angry” presents a disturbing portrait of black womanhood in modern society. 

In Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble challenges the idea that search engines like Google offer an equal playing field for all forms of ideas, identities, and activities. Data discrimination is a real social problem; Noble argues that the combination of private interests in promoting certain sites, along with the monopoly status of a relatively small number of Internet search engines, leads to a biased set of search algorithms that privilege whiteness and discriminate against people of color, specifically women of color. 

Through an analysis of textual and media searches as well as extensive research on paid online advertising, Noble exposes a culture of racism and sexism in the way discoverability is created online. As search engines and their related companies grow in importance - operating as a source for email, a major vehicle for primary and secondary school learning, and beyond - understanding and reversing these disquieting trends and discriminatory practices is of utmost importance. 

An original, surprising and, at times, disturbing account of bias on the internet, Algorithms of Oppression contributes to our understanding of how racism is created, maintained, and disseminated in the 21st century.

©2018 New York University (P)2018 Audible, Inc.

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Real issues, misdirected solutions / anger

I'm a person of color (although personally I don't care for that term) that read this book along with others in an attempt to understand current trends in the social justice movement.

The author of this book was forward thinking, even saying at the beginning that by the time readers get to this book, Google will have likely fixed the issues she discusses. And for the most part she's right. I checked some of her basic examples and they're no longer issues. So in a way, we can see how things have improved using this book as a snapshot in time.

The very first thing I want to point out about this book is that it in no way actually criticizes algorithms. With so many headlines telling me how algorithms are racist, I had gone into this book hoping for an insightful view of how algorithms are inherently racist. The book never approaches anything like that. It makes sense because an algorithm is just a set of instructions, if an algorithm is racist then race has to be a component in the instructions themselves or in the data. But again nothing like this is in the book. It's mostly about implications of search engines and recommendation engine results. The distinction may seem thin but it's important. One deals with the core structure of computing, the other deals with unintended consequences.

This book is at its strongest when it's pointing out real problems. For example, the author points out that searching for "black girls" used to get pornographic results. It's understandable that pornography shouldn't be the primary result for such an innocent search. As someone who searched for bananas for a project in jr high and had it go extremely wrong, I understand this. Other issues of what exactly comes back for a given search is certainly something to be explored. Indeed it is explored by every major search engine.

At the same time though, the software that causes these kinds of things to happen needs to be understood. Google uses both keywords and result clicks to determine what the user is likely to want. That people use a certain term to find pornography is not something that can be directly placed on Google's shoulders, their system found a pattern and used it. It's an unintended consequence, and it was corrected. And I think it's commonly known that these shortcomings are out there. There is a radio commercial that pokes fun at the concept by having a father search for "nice young boys" to find a date for his daughter, only to immediately say "nevermind". Society, at some level, knows this happens.

What the book extrapolates from the search results is probably its weakest point. The author seems to think these issues have a unique racial slant, and puts too much emphasis on Google as source of truth. Google is no more a source of truth than the dewey decimal system is at a library. It just sends you in the direction of information, it does not regard the truthfulness of information in any way. In fact, I'd be worried if they tried to do anything like that considering it would put Google in charge of dictating what is factual.

If the author had said that we need to make sure that people know how Google works and left it at that, I would've been fine with the assessment (although I would've wanted data to back up the claim) but the emphasis is instead on making sure Google only returns certain results. While this is a great way to get immediate results, I would rather see people taught how to use the wealth of information correctly rather than trying to add safety padding to our information.

The book also brings up neutrality, and how we need to re-evaluate it. I agree that the goal of neutrality in information and research is a permanent, ongoing thing. However the author seemed to suggested that the concept of neutrality is used more to cover up or oppress. That's fine to make that claim, however more data on it should be presented instead of just a history of bias that the book cites. Put another way, if we're going to say something isn't neutral, it should be clear how it isn't. But in general terms I agree with true neutrality being a good thing, and something that needs to be evaluated.

In short, the book is an interesting read but not that modern and not timeless enough to recommend. Search engines and computers are always improving and the issues raised by this book needed to be called out. But now that they're resolved or close to it, it's just a snapshot of the past. Kind of like looking over a receipt from a car repair you had done a year ago.

In terms of the performance, it's good! The author reads everything clearly and has enough emotion to have you engaged, like a friend telling you something they're passionate about. It allowed me to take in the concepts being presented without even really paying attention to the performance, making for a seamless experience.

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Read this book. Tell everyone you know about it.

This is perhaps the single most important and consequential book I have ever read. Noble frames this discussion specifically around how women and people of color have their identities put into a kind of "default mode" online through search algorithms that are not in their best interest, much less represent them in ways they choose. At the same time, she argues persuasively how the infiltration and monopolization of search by the neoliberal capitalist project is a critical issue for everyone. The audiobook for this is quite well done, and it is written with a precision and clarity that will make it accessible to anyone.

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A Very Important Book

This research ought to be required reading/listening for all internet users. Corporations as the intentional and/or irresponsible filters of online information has incredibly detrimental results in real life.

Knowing how, why & what results come up when we search is crucial to understand, lest we believe the top ranking searches are the most relevant & useful results out there, and that the results we do get are neutral & unbiased.

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Excellent

Please share this incredible work! My friends raved about the recommendation, even though these aren’t easy truths to hear.

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Eye opening

Important information for the 21st century — how we search will continue to shape our view of the world.

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2 Hours of good content and the rest is filler

I was expecting to learn about Google's algorithms and how they perpetuate racism - which the author does briefly touch on - but does not develop in this book beyond a cursory examination of the original Google search engine thesis. Yes, it is well documented that at least one engineer working on the search engine was racist and sexist - which the author brings up - but how that would affect the algorithm - this idea is not developed - unfortunately. Rather, the author mostly goes off on a tangent on critical race theory and a socialist critique - which comprises most of the book's content.

The author does bring up a good example of how a search on "black girls" brings up a bunch of porn results. I did do a Google search on "black girls," and I was happy to discover that Google had greatly cleaned up its search as the results are now more appropriate than they were when the author did her critique (though there are still sponsered porn sites - however, they are put at the bottom, not at the top like they were a few years ago.) It would not surprise me if Google somewhat cleaned up their results because of this book or similar criticisms.

I do want to learn more about this subject, but it looks like I will have to wait for a more detailed book on the algorithm.