Books

With my PhD in English Literature at Edinburgh University about to begin, I will be reading lots of stuff this year. Do not expect weekly reviews, I do not read quickly. But I will share with you anything interesting I do read, whether it’s a novel that’s in vogue, or something from my course that I think is worth knowing that broadened my horizon. I’ll be reading a lot of things about transgender discourse, but hopefully, a lot of things which aren’t, as well.

Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Umoja Noble

Algorithms-II

 Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Umoja Noble

Should the Internet be regulated? It's a question I've never thought about, until recently, and the reading of this book. Here is my review of a book about a topic I can barely talk about without looking like those aged politicians trying to grill Mark Zuckerberg in that Senate Committee, like a Retirement Home ensemble unable to use the remote control.

It's a word you often hear, its meaning quite innocuous, but the impact on the world profound. Algorithm, to those like me who use the Internet but don't really know how it works, is an all-knowing cyber-oracle that takes us where we want to go, or from working out our profile, suggests things we might like. To be technical, by quoting an online definition, algorithm is:

'a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.'

So far, so innocent. Yet in her study Algorithms of Oppression (2018), Safiya Umoja Noble investigates, with considerable technical expertise and experience in the field, the illusion of this 'neutral technology.' The result is the exposure of algorithms as reinforcing the neoliberal, and patriarchal, white Western ideology of its creators, the Silicon Valley set of Zuckerbergs and Musks. Noble's book reveals that our Internet-funnelled choices are weighted towards particular cultural and commercial interests, presented with the veneer of omniscient impartiality.

To give one example: 'Google Search,' says Noble, is 'an advertising platform, not intended to solely serve as a public information resource in the way that, say, a library might. Google creates advertising algorithms, not information algorithms' (38).

The hegemony of the white male gaze, and the popular and lucrative accessing of pornography, means particular representations of the female will be favoured. More egregiously are the consequences for people of colour. Noble's research started with an online search for 'black girls,' resulting in proliferations of sexualised and dehumanized imagery. Search engines would prioritize moneyed representations that distorted black women according to a series of mainstream, male-driven caricatures: 'Women, particularly of color, are represented in search queries against the backdrop of a White male gaze that functions as the dominant paradigm on the Internet in the United States.' Noble's message throughout the book is that we have to regulate the search engines more effectively, to ensure that representations of the disempowered don't become the domain of myths and caricatures of the empowered majority culture.

Relating to this is arguably the most directly damaging impact of Google's algorithms: the Charleston church shooting in 2015, in which white supremacist Dylann Roof entered a prayer service with a handgun and murdered nine people, all African Americans. As Noble says of Roof's movements prior to the killing, 'Roof allegedly typed "black on White crime" in a Google search . . . What Roof found was information that confirmed a patently false notion that Black violence on White Americans is an American crisis. Roof reportedly reached the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) when he searched Google for real information . . . For Roof, CCC was a legitimate information resource purporting to be a conservative news media organization.' The CCC is apparently a slightly more respectable version of the KKK, a segregationist movement presenting objectivity.

Noble questions how Google could prioritize, for a search of 'black on white crime,' a fact-checked-free site of white segregationists like the CCC's, instead of a source of fact-checked information like the FBI's crime statistics; in the latter case, the statistics demonstrate 'how crime against White Americans is largely an intraracial phenomenon,' of white-against-white violence being the commonality. The Charleston Church shooting arguably was caused by the way a search engine that guides inquiries to skewed racist websites, purporting to be factual.

What Noble's revelations provide is further evidence of the need for regulating the Internet, including the use of algorithms and search engines, with their dangerous presentation of white male mythologies on the front pages of our searches. With 'fake news' contaminating fact-checked information on a daily basis like never before, white supremacist ideology in particular appears to be shaping the news, and people's responding actions. How one regulates the Internet and its search engine algorithms is, of course, another issue entirely. What is clear is that the Internet is already not a site of neutrality or liberation, and our searches are not just some trip into the library. Commercially-driven manipulations are already occurring. Disempowered peoples are victimized due to it. Nobel's book is an excellent point from which to begin discussing this complex area.
The Other Slavery
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's Wrestling with the Devil: A Pr...
 

Comments

No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment
Guest
Saturday, 19 September 2020

Captcha Image

What's On This Week

My Latest Posts

July 01, 2020

Silenced by The Scotsman

​ On 11 June, The Scotsman published a deeply hostile article against transgender rights and activism in an opinion piece about the JK Rowling furore by its deputy political editor Gina Davidson. After much distress, I wrote a counter article which The Scotsman quietly ignored, after they had offered to pass it on to their Comment Editor. I experie...
May 11, 2020

The Book of Queer Prophets, curated by Ruth Hunt

in Books

  The Book of Queer Prophets: 24 Writers on Sexuality and Religion The historically fraught relationship between Abrahamic religions and LGBT+ identities provides the backdrop to The Book of Queer Prophets , a collection of twenty-four meditations by public figures who identify as both religious and LGBT+. The book's curator, the for...
May 09, 2020

Queer/Transgender short film: Mesmeralda

Joshua Matteo's short film, Mesmeralda , merging horror with esoterica, is now out on youtube . As with his previous work Metanoia , we see youthful trans actors racing through the empty streets of a moonlit New York, haunted by symbols and stalked by a masked figure of violent intentions. Mesmeralda , as described by Matteo, is the companion ...
March 08, 2020

Sterile like the moon: the joys of transgender healthcare

Sterile like the moon: the joys of transgender healthcare Summer, 2016: Gina's Big Bang, as transitioning begins A bureaucratic question in a sun-lit room. My medical practitioner asks me if I intend to have children. The question lingers, but the self-loathing is instant. No, I won't be having children. The practitioner nods. She moves on to the n...
November 10, 2019

General Election

General Election 12 December 2019 I spent the last election in an office, alone but for the company of a colleague. We watched the BBC's coverage while I drank wine, downbeat and expecting austerity and the absence of hope to triumph. Then we saw the exit poll and hung around, disbelieving at the sight of the kindled embers and lukewarm glow of a f...
Joker
October 05, 2019

Joker

October 05, 2019

Joker

Joker The trailer did its work, flashing images of anomie and fury perfectly pitched for these unstable times of precarious working conditions, grievance and institutional indifference. For these same reasons, Joker , directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix as the protagonist, has attracted pre-release criticisms like few other recen...
September 29, 2019

Resisting Whiteness event 2019

Resisting Whiteness one-day event, Edinburgh Returning for the second consecutive year, Resisting Whiteness came yesterday to the Pleasance Theatre in Edinburgh, providing an intense and inspiring series of panels, as well as a wonderful spoken word section, and a final segment based around the documentary short Invisible by internationally-acclaim...
August 21, 2019

Hearty by Emma Frankland

Hearty by Emma Frankland Raw and dripping with punk aesthetic, this one-woman-show's one-woman emerges in ripped tights and a T-shirt that paraphrases loudly the words of anti-trans theorist Germaine Greer: Lop Your Dick Off. My first impression of Emma Frankland is edgily uncertain and in awe, her Lady-Gaga-looks combined with Heath Ledger's mesme...
August 21, 2019

Pronoun, Pass, & Amnesty International

Transgender drama: Pronoun To be clear at the outset, this was the production of a youth theatre group, not a highly resourced team of experienced, professional career actors – although some of the performances left a powerful impression, and the show as a whole achieved some remarkable moments. Pronoun , written by Evan Placey, follows the transit...