I am intimately aware of the peculiar (and by that I mean horrifying) rabbit holes that my students sometimes fall down via YouTube and Google. At least once a week I will have a particularly historically inclined student approach me with a hot take they would like to bounce off of me. In many instances these takes are at the very least tangentially related to various far-right talking points, and sometimes they do have a racial tinge. It depresses me to no end that this content is so prevalent, but Algorithms of Oppression made one thing that I always knew in the back of my mind take center stage: Racism on the internet is prevalent specifically because it is profitable.
I myself have been guilty of the assumption that the internet is a hive of racism largely because American society as a whole is a hive of racism, but Noble’s arguments really made clear the extent to which tech companies like Google are not just passively monetizing racists sentiment In fact, they are actively introducing it, reinforcing it, and tweaking their profit models to make as much money from it as possible. Of course given that the proprietary algorithm that Google uses was designed by a relatively homogenous white group of white people whose biases and ignorance have been baked into the technology and that these attention merchants are especially tuned into the degree to which users are engaged and that that engagement is largely driven by negative emotions, it is unsurprising that these are the outcomes. What is truly horrifying though is the degree to which these private entities seem to embrace bigoted thinking as an income stream, given their tendency to have relatively lax standards when it comes to bigoted content.
I had to lead a workshop on microaggressions for some students at my school last week. Reading this book, I was struck by the way in which Google search is the algorithmic embodiment of the concept of microaggressions. The algorithm has both consciously and subconsciously absorbed stereotypes and implicit biases and expresses them in ways that, much like a person would, tell us so much about its / their understanding of the world. The Google search’s biases, like microaggressions, illustrate to us the way in which racism is in many ways the default mode in our society. All one must do to say racist things or engage is racist acts is nothing (i.e. parrot the mainstream). One simply has to go with the flow, and the “natural” currents of societal thought will carry one into racist beliefs and ideology. That is a very scary thought, and it is doubly scary that this subtle pressure to conform has now been duplicated and in many ways weaponized by the tech sector, all in the interest of profit. Regulating and even nationalizing certain parts of Silicon Valley seems more imperative than ever.