What We’re Reading: Algorithms of Oppression

illustration by Clare Reid

We may be a bit late to the party, but Safiya U. Noble’s 2018 book Algorithms of Oppression is a must-read, particularly for those concerned with student digital literacy and fluency. Her research adds to a growing body of literature (including Chris Gillard’s and others’ work on digital redlining and Virginia Eubanks’ recent book Automating Inequality, among many others) on how inequality is maintained and even exacerbated through digital means. 

Noble begins by demystifying algorithms and illustrating how, instead of being unbiased, fair, and neutral (and in the case of Google, providing the “best” results), they are in fact deeply flawed and reflect the prevailing racist and sexist values of our society. These biases thus become invisible (because, ALGORITHM!), reinforcing and even increasing inequality. 

For example, when African-American victims are shown on the news, often images are chosen with the individual dressed in baggy clothing or informally, while white victims are shown in professional dress. These images live forever on the internet, and, as they are used in news articles, show up first on image search results. Over time, these become the only images one can find through Google search. Similarly, a search for, for example, things like “professor” or “doctor” produces overwhelmingly white, male results. What we see (and don’t see) ends up once again marginalizing and erasing those who are already in the margins. 

Government funding for public education, libraries, archives, and museums is declining, and in its place, private companies and corporations are providing educational and data-storing services, which are not subject to the same regulations and standards. This means that private companies like Google have greater control over information, education, and learning. Couple this with “free” services like Google Classroom, and one wonders what kinds of safeguards are being provided for our students. If we are to increasingly tout approaches like “self-directed learning” or using the Internet to teach us whatever we need, are we properly equipping our students to be able to critically use and engage with these digital resources? 

As educators, we need to do a better job of understanding the impact of digital media as a driver of our students’ base of knowledge and how they perform research. “Just don’t use Google” won’t solve the issues; instead we need to focus on helping them develop critical digital literacy. 

 

This article was co-written by Esther Brandon (Brandeis University).