algos of oppression

algos of oppression.png

by Safiya Umjoja Noble




1 – a society searching


at summit w white house and nyu for academics, industry and activists concerned w social impact o ai in society: Julia Angwin, Cathy O’Neil

julia.. cathy


at the core of my argument is the way in which google biases search to its own economic interests.. for it profitability and to bolster its market dominance at any expense..


it is the persistent normalization of black people as aberrant and undeserving of human rights and dignity under the banners of public safety, tech innovation, and the emerging creative econ that i am directly challenging by showing the egregious (appallingways that dehumanization is rendered a legit free market tech project..t

i keep my eye on complicating the notion that info assumed to be ‘fact’ (by virtue of its legitimation at the top of the info pile) exists because racism and sexism are profitable under our system of racialized capitalismt


the black feminist scholar bell hooks has written extensively on the ways that neoliberal capitalism is explicitly implicated in misrepresentations and hyper serialization of black women..


i intend to meaningfully articulate the ways that commercialization is the source of power that drives the consumption of black women’s and girls’ representative id on the web


most people surveyed could not tell the diff between paid advertising and ‘genuine’ (search) results..


google’s monopoly status, coupled w its algo practices of biasing info toward the interests o the neolib capital and social elites in the us, has resulted in a provision of info that purports to be credible but is actually a reflection of advertising interests..  yet.. google’s users think of it as a public resource, generally free from commercial interest..


google search is in fact an ad platform, not intended to solely serve as a public info resource in the way that, say, a library might. google creates advertising algos, not info algos..t


in germany and france, for ie, it is illegal to sell nazi memorabilia, and google has had to put in place filters that ensure online retailers of such are not visible in search results..  indicates that google can in fact remove objectionable hits..  equally troubling.. the co provided search results w/o informing searchers that info was being deleted


the issue of unlawfulness over the harm caused by derogatory results is a question of considerable debate.. ie: in the us where free speech protections are afforded to all kinds of speech, including hate speech and racist or sexist depiction of people and communities, there is a higher standard of proof required to show harm toward disenfranchised or oppressed people..


search engine optimization is a major factor in findability on the web. what is important to note is that search engine optimization is a multibillion dollar industry that impacts the value of specific keywords; that is, marketers are invested in using particular keywords, and keyword combos, to optimize their rankings..t 


despite the widespread beliefs in the intent as a democratic space where people have the power to dynamically participate as equals, the internet is in fact org’d to the benefit of powerful elites, including corporations that can afford to purchase and redirect searches to their own sites…t


mounting evidence shows that automated decision making systems are disproportionately harmful to the most vulnerable and the least powerful, who have little ability to intervene in them – from misrepresentation to prison sentencing to accessing credit and their life impacting formulas..t


info is a new commodity and search engines can function as private info enclosures.. t.. (shift from public institutions such as libraries and schools as brokers of info to the private sector).. we need to make more visible the commercial interests that overdetermine what we can find online

these shifts of resources that were once considered public have been impacted by increased ip rights, licensing, and publishing agreements for co’s and private individuals in the domain of copyrights, patents and other legal protections.. the move of community based assets and culture to private hands is arguably a crisis that has rolled back the common good,

commercial control over the internet, often considered a ‘commons’ has moved it further away from the public thru a series of national/international regulations and intellectual and commercial borders that exist in the management of the network..t


personalization is not simply a service to users but rather a mech for better matching consumer w advertisers and that google’s personalization or aggregation is about actively matching people to groups, that is, categorizing individuals.. (feuz & fuller)


at the same time result are generally quite similar, and complete search personalization – customized to very specific id’s, wants and desires – has yet to be developed. for now, this level of personal-id personalization has less impact on the variation in results than is generally believed by the public


traffic report by consumer watch dog jun 2010.. highlights the process by which universal search is not a neutral and therefore universal process but rather a commercial one that moves sites that buy paid advertising to the top of the pile..  google has right to run business in any way sees fit.. arguably .. so true.. that the public should be thoroughly informed about the ways google biases info – toward largely stereotypic and decontextualized results.. at least when it comes to certain groups of people..


processes by which content is already being screened.. largely reflect us based social norms.. that reflect a number of racist and stereotypical ideas that make screening racism and sexism and the abuse of humans in radicalized ways ‘in’ and perfectly acceptable


research by roberts.. suggest that people and policies are put in place to navigate and moderate content on web. egregious and racist content, content that is highly profitable, proliferated because many tech platforms are interested in attracting the interests and attention of the majority in the us, not of racialized minorities..t

john berger (ways of seeing): ‘women are depicted in a quite diff way from men – not because the feminine is diff from the masculine – but because the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him’..  even though women constitute slightly over half of internet users..t

balance w laurie’s words

pornification of women on web is an expression of racist and sexist hierarchies.. white women are norm, black women are over rep’d, while latinos are under rep’d

2 – searching for black girls


filling the pipeline and holding ‘future’ black women programmers responsible for solving the problems of racist exclusion and misrep in sv or in biased product development is not the answer..t


this is only exacerbated by framing the problems as ‘pipeline’ issues instead of as an issue of racism and sexism, which extends from employment practices to product design.. ‘black girls need to learn how to code’ is an excuse for not addressing the persistent marginalization ..t.. of black women in silicon valley.


one cannot know about the history of media stereotyping or the nuances of structural oppression in any formal, scholarly way thru the traditional engineering curriculum of the large research unis from which tech co’s hire across the us..

i can say that when i teach engineering students at ucla about the histories of racial stereotyping in the us and how these are encoded in computer programming projects, my students leave the class stunned that no on has ever spoken of these things in their courses..


the goal of studying representation of black girls as a social id is not to use such research to legitimize essentializing or naturalizing characterization of people by biological construction of race or gender..   i do this (uncover new ways of thinking about search results and power) by illuminating the case of black girls, but undoubtedly, much could be written about specific histories/contexts of various id’s of women and girls of color..


it does not matter whether one believes in race or not, because it is a governing paradigm that structures social logics (vilna bashi treitler): ‘ racial id’s are obtained not because one is unaware of th choice of ethnic labels w which to call oneself, but because one is not allowed to be w/o a race in a *racialized society.. race is a sociocultural hierarchy, and racial categories are social spaces, or positions, that are carved out of that racial hierarchy. ‘

*spell check doesn’t even offer me the word racialized


daniels argues that using racial formation theory to explain phenomena related to race online has been detrimental to our ability to parse how power online maps to oppression rooted in the history of white dominance over people of color

in this work i am claiming that you cannot have social justice and a politics of recognition w/o an acknowledgement of how power – often exercised simultaneously thru white supremacy and sexism – can skew the delivery of credible and representative info..


google’s enviable position as the monopoly leader in the provision of info has allowed its org of info and customization to be driven by its econ imperatives and has influenced broad swaths of society to see it as the creator/keeper of info culture online, which i am arguing is another form of american imperialism that manifests itself as a ‘gatekeeper’ on the web..


may say to me.. ‘but tech co’s don’t mean to be racist’.. intent is not particularly important.. outcomes and results are..

warf & grimes: ‘much of the internet’s use, for commercialism, academic and military purposes, reinforces entrenched ideologies of individualism and a definition of the self thru consumption.. existing ideos/politics as normal, necessary, natural’..t


what is important about new (informationalized) capitalism in the context of the web is that it is radically transforming previously public territories and spaces.. this expansion of capitalism into the web has been a significant part of the neoliberal justification for the commodification of info and id..t


during slavery, stereotypes were used to justify the sexual victimization of black women by their property owners, given that under the law, black women were property and therefore could not be considered victims of rape.. t

this tweet next day

Democracy Now! (@democracynow) tweeted at 6:50 AM – 25 May 2018 :
“Rape was the linchpin of colonization and the slavery that sustained the colonization,” notes @LiliBernard, who recounts being drugged & raped by Bill Cosby. “It’s actually against the status quo for black women to speak out against their rapists” #DNlive

also white women accusing black men of rape causing lynchings galore


pornography is a specific type of representation that denotes male power, female powerlessness, and sexual violence

curious how laurie would add


some people argue that pornography has been understudied given its commercial viability and persistence. certainly, the tech needs of the porn industry have contributed to many development on the web, including the credit card payment protocol; advertising and promotion; video, audio and streaming techs

tremendous focus on pron as a legit info resource (or not) to be filtered out of schools, public libraries, and the reach of children has been a driving element of the discussion about the role of regulation of the internet..


there is a robust political econ of porn which is an important site of commerce and tech innovation that includes file sharing networks, video streaming, e-commerce and payment processing, data compression, search and transmission


arial dines: ‘porn is embedded in an increasingly complex and extensive value chain, linking not just producers and distributors but also bankers, software, hotel chains, cell phone and internet co’s..

dines’s research particularly underscores the ways in which black women are more racialized and stereotyped in porn

miller-yong: ‘porn business has exploited new media tech in the creation of a range of specialized sexual commodities that are consumed in the privacy of the home..  empowered by tech: video, cable, satellite, broadband, dvds..


jean kilbourne: advertising corrupts relationships and then offers us products, both as solace and as substitutes for the intimate human connection we all long for and need..  violence becomes inevitable..t

2 needs

3 – searching for people and communities


what is compelling about the alleged info that roof accessed is how his search terms (black on white crimes) did not lead him to fbi crime stats on violence in the us.. most violence against white american is committed by white americans as most violence against african americans is largely committed by other african americans… white on white is number one cause of homicides against white americans… search does not point any info to dispel stereotypes trafficked by white supremacist orgs.. ..


the power of search engines to lead people to breadth and depth of info cannot be more powerfully illustrated than by looking at dylann roof’s own alleged words about using google to find info about the trayvon martin murder.. which led to his racial id development


search results can reframe our thinking and deny us the ability to engage deeply w essential info and knowledge we need, knowledge that has traditionally been learned thru teachers, books, history and experience..t

traditional means messed up as well.. in fact.. how we got here..


algos that rank and prioritize for profits compromise our ability to engage w complicated ideas..  search results are not tied to a multiplicity of perspectives..

could be.. if we focused on ie: hlb via 2 convos that io dance..

4 – searching for protections from search engines


in 2009 the french govt signed the ‘charter of good practices on the right to be forgotten on social networks and search engines’ which stands as a marker of the importance of personal control over info on the web.. since then pushback from google has ensued.. over .. kinds of records google keeps


the right to be forgotten is an incredibly important mech for thinking thru whether instances of misrep can be impeded or stopped

mug shots.. disproportionately impact people of color.. who are overarrested in the us for crimes that they may not be convicted of in court..


how do we reconcile the fact that ethnic and cultural communities have little to no control over being indexed in ways that they may not want..


recording of human activity is not new. in the digital era, the recordings of human digital engagement are a matter o permanent record, whether known to people or not..  memory making and forgetting thru our digital traces is not a choice..  as info and recoding of human activities thru digital software, hardware, and infra are necessary and vital components of the design and profit schemes of such actions..

blanchette and johnson suggest capture and storage of data w/o plans for data disposal undermine our social forgetfulness a necessary new beginning of ‘fresh start’ that should be afforded people in the matter of their privacy record keeping ..t

equity – everyone getting a new go everyday


these rights to become anonymous (start over) include our rights to become who we want to be, .. rather than be locked into traces and totalizing effect of a personal history that dictates thru the record, a matter of truth about who we are and potentially can become..

begs a do over.. everyday.. for all of us.. and w/in means of the recorded data not mattering.. ie: gershenfeld sel

in case of google, though not an archive .. it functions as one of the most ubiquitous and powerful record keepers of digital engagement. it records our searches or inquires, our curiosities and thoughts..t

if just that.. we’d be fine (ie: via 2 convos)

deeper problem.. we’re not free..  begs gershenfeld sel

(aka: eudaimoniative surplus)


(after google policy of safeguarding and deleting data).. personal info at the level of device and infra is not forgotten and can be circulated w ease

again.. begs gershenfeld sel.. where everyone is so busy doing the thin they can’t not do.. privacy and security et al.. become irrelevant.. (meaning both maxed and absent)

‘achieving the appropriate degree of social forgetfulness is a complex balancing act, ever in tension between the need to hold accountable, and the need to grant a ‘fresh start’.. t

2 convos

as it could be.. everyday


google’s power is only buttressed by its work on behalf of the us govt.. which has outsourced its data collection and unconstitutional privacy invasions to the company

more reason for gershenfeld sel.. sans money/govt/et-al


july 2015 the guardian reported that ‘less than 5% of nearly 220 000 individual requests made to google to remove links to on line info concern criminals, politicians and high profile public figures.. w more than 95% of requests coming from everyday members of the publics..


we cannot ignore the long term consequences of what it means to have everything subject to public scrutiny, out of context, out of control..t

ultimately what i am calling for is increase regulation

i don’t think that would work.. i think we need to go the other way.. ie: r gershenfeld sel..

5 – the future of knowledge in the public


the struggle over reclassifying undocumented immigrants was part of a long history of naming members of society as problem people.. t

in may ways, this effort to eliminate ‘illegal alien’ was similar to the way that jewish people were once classified by library of congress as the ‘jewish question’.. later to be reclassified in 1984 as ‘jews’

the battle over how people are conceptualized and rep’d is ongoing and extends beyond the boundaries of institution such as the library of congress or corps such as alphabet, which own an manages google search


jonathan furner: ‘legitimizing the ideology of dominant groups’ to the detriment of people of color..t

marsh label law

the idea of classification as a social construct is not new..

nicholas hudson suggests that during the enlightenment, europeans began to construct ‘imagined communities’.. this mental image of a community of like-minded individuals, sharing a ‘general will’ or a common national ‘soul’ was made possible by the expansion of *print culture.. which stabilized national languages and gave wide access to common literary tradition..t

*and too.. killed the spontaneity of being human


classification systems then are part of the sci approach to understanding people and societies, and they hold the power biases of those who are able to propagate such systems..t

marsh label law

fromm spontaneity law

the invention of print culture accelerated the need for info classification schemes, .. t.. which were often developed in tandem w the expansion of popular, scholarly and sci works.. traces of previous works  defining the sci classification of native people as ‘savage’ and claims about europeans as the ‘superior race’ based on prior notions of peoples and nations, began to emerge and be codified in the 18th cent

graeber values law.. if can codify.. then not values..

by 19th cent.. processes involved in development of racial classification marked bio rather than cultural diff and were codified to legally deny right to property ownership and citizenship..

these historical practices undergird the formation of racial classification, which is both assumed and legitimated in classification system..

the field of library science has been implicated in the organization of people and critiqued for practices that perpetuate power by privileging some sectors of society at the expense of others..t

graeber values law..people shouldn’t be classified/categorized/codified..

traditional library and info science organization system (lis) such as subject cataloging and classification are an important part of understanding the landscape of how info science has inherited and continues biases practices in current system designs esp on the web

opps for interdisciplinary of lis to extend more deeply into cultural and feminist studies.. can help frame how that *info is org’d and made available..

times beg diff *info.. we should just be labeling people via daily curiosities..  in order to connect daily.. but not in order to classify/codify them.. beyond the day.. otherwise we lose our essence of humanity/values.. ie: spontaneity


(on examining beliefs about entire field of lis) such a stance would be a major contribution that could have impact on the development of new approaches to organizing and access knowledge about marginalized groups

let’s do that do over.. and then let  2 convos be our infra


this is the value of using critical race theory – considering that free speech may in fact not be a neutral notion but, rather, a conception that when implemented in particular ways silences many people in the interests of a few..t

free speech.. let’s try 2 convos as free speech


a web based commercial search engine does not entirely ‘know’ who a user is, and it is not customizing everything to our personal and political tastes, although it is aggregating us to people it thinks are similar to us on the basis of what is known thru our digital traces


it is my goal thru this research to ensure that traditionally underrep’d ideas and perspectives are included in the shaping of the field – to surface counternarratives that would allow for questioning of the normalization of such practices..t

let’s’ try a mech to listen to all the voices.. everyday.. as it could be..

6 – the future of info culture


the practices nicole cohen details are precisely the kind of algorithmically driven analytics that place pressure on journalists to modify their content for the express purposes of increasing advertising traffic..

similarly.. the move of the internet from a publicly funded, military-academic projet to a full blown commercial endeavor has also impacted how info is made available on the web

agree.. but military-academic project ness.. was no truth haven.. again.. how we got here


focus on content prioritization processes should enter the debates over net neutrality and the openness of the web when mediated by search engines, esp google..


commercial search engines, at present, have been able to hide behind disclaimers asserting that they are not responsible for what happens in their search engine techs


the context for discussing the digital divide in the us is too narrow a framework that focuses on the skills and capabilities of people of color and women, rather than questioning the historical and cultural development of sci and tech and representation prioritizee thru digi techs, as well as the uneven and exploitive global distribution of resources and labor in the info and communication ecosystem..

certainly the digital divide was an important conceptual framework to deeper engagement for poor people and people of color, but it also created new sites of profit for multinational corps.. much like the provisioning of other tech goods such as the telephone it has not altered the landscape of power relations by race and gender..t


search needs to be reconciled w the critical necessity of closing the digital divide, since search is such a significant part of mediating the online experience..

the thrust of the neolib project of ‘uplift’ and empowerment’ – by closing the skill based gaps in computer programming for ie.. these approaches do not account for the political econ and corp mechs at play and we must ask how communities can intervene to directly shape the practices of market dominant and well established tech platforms that are mediating most of our web interaction..

they also often underexamine the diaspora labor condition facing black women who are engaged in the raw mineral extraction process to facil the manufacture of computer and mobile phone hardware..  i raise this issue because research on the global digital divide, and google’s role in it, must continue to expand to include a look at the way that black people in the us and abroad are participating and in the case of the us, not participating to a significant degree in info and communication tech industries..  this makes calls for ‘prosumer’ participation as a way of conceptualizing how black people can move beyond being simple consumers of digi techs to producers of tech output, a far more complex discussion..


google – profits generated from both unpaid labor from users and the delivery of audiences to advertisers..  we are the product google sells to advertisers..


the notion that google/alphabet has the potential to be a democratizing force is certainly laudable, but the contradiction inherent in its projects must be conceptualized in the historical conditions that both create it and are created by it.. ie: google glass as surveil; exploiting workings, including child and forced laborers in such places as congo mining ore..


to review, in the ecosystem, black people provide the most gruelling labor for blood minerals and they do the dangerous toxic work fo dismantling e-waste in places such as ghana.. in the us.. black labor is for the most part bypassed in the manufacturing sector, due to electronics and it outsourcing to asia.. african american id’s are often a commodity, exploited as titillating fodder in a network that traffics racism, sexism and homophobia for profit.. meanwhile, the onus for change is placed on the backs of black people black women in thus in particular.. to play a more meaningful role in the production of new images and ideas about black people by learning to code.. t.. as if that alone could shift the tide of sv’s vast exclusionary practices in its products and hiring..


discussions of institutional discrimination and systemic marginalization of whole classes and sectors of society have been shunted from public discourse for remediation ..t..  society is also moving toward greater acceptance of tech processes that are seemingly benign and decontextualized..

i am trying to make the case that unregulated digital platform cause serious harm

but more reg won’t cut it.. we have the means now for something completely diff.. we have to give it a go.. ie: as it could be.. sans regs

an enduring feature of the american experience is gross systemic poverty, whereby the largest percentage of people living below the poverty line suffering from un- and underemployment are women and children of color..


whites 5x richer than blacks in the us.. this is not the result of moral superiority; this is directly linked to the gamification of financial markets thru algorithmic decision making.. t

and the fact that we need to let go of money

linked to exclusion of blacks, latinos, native americans from high paying jobs in tech sectors.. redlining and reseg of housing and ed markets..

actually .. it’s that we need to let go of money..  and school .. and regs..  and labels..


making race the problem of those who are racially objectified, particularly when seeking remedy for discriminatory practices, obscure the role of govt and the public in solving systemic issues..t

in the midst of reenergizing the effort to connect every american .. the real lives of those who are on the margin are being reengineered w new terms and ideologies that make a discussion about such conditions problematic, if not impossible, and that place the onus of discriminatory actions on the individual rather than situating problems affecting racialized groups in social structures..



we have more data and tech than ever in our daily lives and more social, political and economic ineq and injustice to go with it..t


what is needed is a decoupling of advertising and commercial interests from the ability to access high quality info on the internet, esp given its increasing prominence as the common medium in the us.. t

perhaps..a decoupling of money/measure from humans

as it could be..

ie: hlb via 2 convos that io dance.. as the day..[aka: not part\ial.. for (blank)’s sake…]..  a nother way



Janus Cassandra  (@zenalbatross) tweeted at 6:24 AM – 26 Jun 2018 :
This is wild. All of us tech researchers are sitting here warning about the small, subtle ways algorithmic bias can support fascism — and meanwhile ICE has essentially created a button that prints “detain immigrant” when pressed (



automating ineq

weapons of math

justify – steppling