When The Tool is No Longer Neutral

We have all heard of the notion that a tool is innocent and neutral, and if someone does anything that is considered bad with it, then it is the responsibility of the person alone; it has nothing to do with the tool itself. One can use a knife to make food and also can use it to commit murder. It is entirely up to the user.

When the unprecedented tool of the Internet came into being, our society automatically applied this notion to the new tool without looking into whether it fits or not. Before reading Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, I also held the misconception that the algorithm is a neutral tool and it is the users who should be held accountable for what goes wrong with it. I think it is important for us to break down why this tool is no longer neutral and what is the difference from the more traditional tools like a knife mentioned earlier in order to better educate the public.

I think first of all, a search engine is not something an user has complete possession and control of, unlike a traditional tool. Most users share the use of a search engine but none of them really owns one, which means in this case the users are actually not the ones controlling the tool, contrary to what people commonly believe. In addition to that, a search engine is a tool for information (which did not exist in the past) and is updating every second. This makes the monopoly of information possible and undetectable. What is presented to us is very likely controlled in ways that are racist, sexist, xenophobic etc, ways that are downright toxic and we have no way of knowing this. This is why the common misconception can be so dangerous because it lets corrupted values erode our everyday life without us even knowing it.

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