Epistemology is defined as ‘the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity’ but the epistemology of the digital is not primarily the theory of knowledge or the mutation in knowledge. It is a social change. So much egalitarian rhetoric permeates our conversations on the digital. It is “open source”, a “community”, a system constructed democratically, by the people, for the people. Noble reminds us that nothing exists in a vacuum, that the human hand – the white hand – is built in the image of its creator, and that all it touches is endowed with structural racism, prejudice, and built into machines, are the racist biases and its creators. The internet is no different, and the epistemological creation of knowledge on the internet – by the internet- is saturated with the same, if not amplified racism as our everyday interpersonal interactions and the deeply embedded racism of institutional structures.
Algorithms of Oppression challenges the idea that search engines like Google offer an “equal playing field” for all forms of ideas, identities, and activities. Noble asserts that digital discrimination is a real social problem; and argues that the combination of private interests in promoting certain sites, along with what she asserts is 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.
Noble proves this through an analysis of textual and media searches as well as extensive research on paid online advertising, where she draws on her background in advertising and marketing. She talks about exposing a “culture of racism and sexism” in the way the act of discoverability is created online. As search engines and their related companies grow (first operating as a source for email, now a major vehicle for primary and secondary school learning) understanding and reversing the discriminatory practices of the digital landscape is of utmost importance.
Noble deals with one of my personal favorite ideas – the concept that machines have the gift of being this wholly unbiased, random engine without morality and without the ingrained bias and prejudices of a human consciousness. I wonder often – what is it in our humanity that is manifested in our desire for some sort of pure, unbiased, appliance into regulate and balance us – to temper the otherwise racialized, colonized interactions of our daily lives. I think we often think of the internet as an object that collects and disperses racist, radicalized notions, because of those on it – not because of the very form and structure itself.
She also pushes back on this kind of idealized notion of the internet as a meritocracy – Google as something that “belongs to the people” – she argues that search engines don’t decide to be racist, but that they are programmed by and learn from people who pass on their own biases, they are not simply imperfect machines, but systems designed by humans in ways that replicate the power structures of the western countries where they are built, complete with all the sexism and racism that are built into those structures.
One of the ideas I found fascinating in this text was pointing out where structural racism and injustice occur, but that we “must press the boundaries of public policy, so the understanding of the complex ways that marginalization is maintained can substantially shift.” She discusses the efforts of Google to fund organizations like ‘Black Girls Code’ to help structure the ‘talent pipeline’ for Silicone Valley, which Noble asserts is holding “future” Black women programmers responsible for solving the problems of racist exclusion and misrepresentation in Silicon Valley or in biased product development. This reminds me of the push for so many companies to implement Diversity and Inclusion programs and departments in their hiring process, but remain unaware of their current biases, and of the challenges and unique situational ethics that a push for “diversity and inclusion” impose on people of color.