What We’re Reading: Algorithms of Oppression

by Colin Roberts, Database and Systems Administrator

Though we don’t often think about it, algorithms (automatic processes computers perform, often without any human intervention), increasingly are becoming central to our lives. When one needs to buy a product, find a place to eat or answer a question, algorithms from search engines provide curated lists of search results.

In Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble explores the impact of algorithms, as well as who has the power to influence algorithm results and who is responsible when the results of an innocuous search include hateful, incorrect or misleading information. She addresses these questions and more with research, her own powerful and revealing searches, and her experiences as an associate professor at UCLA and a woman of color living in the U.S.

Noble provides a social and historical context for Google search results. She draws parallels between misrepresentation in modern Internet searches and library searches of the past and explores whose interests historically have been represented by search results (advertisers). She also reviews what’s known about the harmful impact on people who repeatedly see biased or malicious results in searches about their identities or communities.

Though the bulk of Noble’s work focuses on search results, the questions she asks and context she provides are broader and address the future in which our scholars will build their careers and become leaders and decision makers. As algorithms are increasingly being used to automatically filter job or college applicants, decide which movies get produced and the visibility of published work, as well as use facial recognition to  inform  public services, it is important for anyone who uses technology to think critically about the potentially harmful or exclusionary impact of the tools they use.

Algorithms of Oppression also affirms the importance of retaining highly personal approaches like Rainier Scholars’. Across our entire program, scholars are encouraged to use critical thinking, challenge assumptions and envision new forms of leadership. These skills are essential in an ever more automated world.