Safiya Noble Speaks on "Algorithms of Oppression" at Year of Data Keynote

In 2011, Safiya Umoja Noble was searching online for a gift for her niece, and Googled “black girls.” She was shocked by the results.

Noble, who now teaches at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, turned her investigation of Google and its biased search algorithms into a best-selling book, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. On December 6, Noble came to Princeton and spoke to a standing-room-only crowd as the keynote speaker for Year of Data, a year-long initiative led by the Center for Digital Humanities (CDH) to encourage critical thinking about how data shapes our research, teaching, and daily lives.

Noble’s study of Google takes a critical look at the economic and social culture of the modern tech industry. While tech is often characterized as transparent and objective, Noble exposes the complex interplay of algorithms, operating systems, human input, and market pressures that lead to the technical design of today’s most prevalent online tools. The general public may believe that the information we consume online is “democratic,” but in fact online platforms are commercial enterprises whose results are driven largely by advertising profit. This situation poses a serious threat to democracy, Noble argues, citing the 2016 election and the role played by Google and social media platforms in influencing voting. Unlike libraries -- where information is collected, curated and evaluated -- search engine results are the product of proprietary algorithms and market forces that often promote inaccurate, inflammatory, and discriminatory information.

“We have more data and technology than ever in our daily lives and more social, political and economic inequality and injustice to go with it.”

Noble discussed how search engines such as Google amplify many of the negative stereotypes, especially for people of color and women, that have plagued the American media landscape since well before the Internet age. She cited cases where racist and prejudiced search results have motivated real-life violence, such as the “manifesto” published by the white supremacist Dylann Roof after his 2015 killing spree at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to Noble, the persistent lack of racial diversity in the tech sector will only lead to greater inequality in the design and implementation of new technologies. Noble notes how many innovations are “tested” on the poor and vulnerable; facial recognition technology, for instance, has been deployed for predictive policing that affects largely low-income communities. This situation has resulted in what Noble calls a new class of the “data disposable,” the bodies upon which “new technologies can be practiced and perfected.”

The lack of Internet regulation is one of Noble’s main concerns. Drawing parallels with the field of environmentalism, Noble observes that while we expect our government to pass regulations to protect air and water, we don’t demand the safeguarding of “clean” information. Noble argues that, in its ubiquity, Google has functionally become a public utility, and should be regulated as such. When funding for education and social services is routinely slashed, we increasingly turn to the Internet as a source of knowledge and a proxy for more traditional instruction. Furthermore, as private citizens, businesses and even educational institutions allow commercial platforms such as Google to infiltrate online life - not just as a search engine, but for email, document sharing and storage, calendaring, and photo management - there has been shockingly little critical discussion about the social implications. With her work, and a call to action, Noble aims to change that.

Noble closed her thought-provoking discussion by urging the Princeton community to put our own intellectual and social energy into addressing the inequality that is perpetuated by technological advancement. “This should be a wake-up call,” Noble writes, “for people living in the margins, and people aligned with them, to engage in thinking through the interventions we need.”

Ruha Benjamin, CDH Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor in the Department of African American Studies, noted the timeliness of Noble’s talk, which: “underscores the urgent need for more accountable structures and stewards of tech development that are not motivated primarily by profit, but a wider commitment to justice, equity, and the common good.”

Noble's visit was made possible through generous support of many departments and centers on campus, including: Princeton University Library, Humanities Council, Center for Collaborative History, Department of African American Studies, University Center for Human Values, Center for Information and Technology Policy, Department of Computer Science, Center for Statistics and Machine Learning, Department of Sociology, Department of Politics, Department of Anthropology, Department of Mathematics, Woodrow Wilson School, and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM).

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