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Summary

A revealing look at how negative biases against women of color are embedded in search engine results and algorithms. 

Run a Google search for “black girls” - what will you find? “Big Booty” and other sexually explicit terms are likely to come up as top search terms. But, if you type in “white girls”, the results are radically different. The suggested porn sites and un-moderated discussions about “why black women are so sassy” or “why black women are so angry” presents a disturbing portrait of black womanhood in modern society. 

In Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble challenges the idea that search engines like Google offer an equal playing field for all forms of ideas, identities, and activities. Data discrimination is a real social problem; Noble argues that the combination of private interests in promoting certain sites, along with 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. 

Through an analysis of textual and media searches as well as extensive research on paid online advertising, Noble exposes a culture of racism and sexism in the way discoverability is created online. As search engines and their related companies grow in importance - operating as a source for email, a major vehicle for primary and secondary school learning, and beyond - understanding and reversing these disquieting trends and discriminatory practices is of utmost importance. 

An original, surprising and, at times, disturbing account of bias on the internet, Algorithms of Oppression contributes to our understanding of how racism is created, maintained, and disseminated in the 21st century. 

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying reference material will be available in your Library section along with the audio.

©2018 New York University (P)2018 Audible, Inc.

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It seems that it has been read by a robot

I had a lot of interest on this book, however the reader managed to sound like a robot.
I was really disappointed with the delivery, which made a difficult "listen".

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Profile Image for John Abdul-Masih
  • John Abdul-Masih
  • 21-03-19

Real issues, misdirected solutions / anger

I'm a person of color (although personally I don't care for that term) that read this book along with others in an attempt to understand current trends in the social justice movement.

The author of this book was forward thinking, even saying at the beginning that by the time readers get to this book, Google will have likely fixed the issues she discusses. And for the most part she's right. I checked some of her basic examples and they're no longer issues. So in a way, we can see how things have improved using this book as a snapshot in time.

The very first thing I want to point out about this book is that it in no way actually criticizes algorithms. With so many headlines telling me how algorithms are racist, I had gone into this book hoping for an insightful view of how algorithms are inherently racist. The book never approaches anything like that. It makes sense because an algorithm is just a set of instructions, if an algorithm is racist then race has to be a component in the instructions themselves or in the data. But again nothing like this is in the book. It's mostly about implications of search engines and recommendation engine results. The distinction may seem thin but it's important. One deals with the core structure of computing, the other deals with unintended consequences.

This book is at its strongest when it's pointing out real problems. For example, the author points out that searching for "black girls" used to get pornographic results. It's understandable that pornography shouldn't be the primary result for such an innocent search. As someone who searched for bananas for a project in jr high and had it go extremely wrong, I understand this. Other issues of what exactly comes back for a given search is certainly something to be explored. Indeed it is explored by every major search engine.

At the same time though, the software that causes these kinds of things to happen needs to be understood. Google uses both keywords and result clicks to determine what the user is likely to want. That people use a certain term to find pornography is not something that can be directly placed on Google's shoulders, their system found a pattern and used it. It's an unintended consequence, and it was corrected. And I think it's commonly known that these shortcomings are out there. There is a radio commercial that pokes fun at the concept by having a father search for "nice young boys" to find a date for his daughter, only to immediately say "nevermind". Society, at some level, knows this happens.

What the book extrapolates from the search results is probably its weakest point. The author seems to think these issues have a unique racial slant, and puts too much emphasis on Google as source of truth. Google is no more a source of truth than the dewey decimal system is at a library. It just sends you in the direction of information, it does not regard the truthfulness of information in any way. In fact, I'd be worried if they tried to do anything like that considering it would put Google in charge of dictating what is factual.

If the author had said that we need to make sure that people know how Google works and left it at that, I would've been fine with the assessment (although I would've wanted data to back up the claim) but the emphasis is instead on making sure Google only returns certain results. While this is a great way to get immediate results, I would rather see people taught how to use the wealth of information correctly rather than trying to add safety padding to our information.

The book also brings up neutrality, and how we need to re-evaluate it. I agree that the goal of neutrality in information and research is a permanent, ongoing thing. However the author seemed to suggested that the concept of neutrality is used more to cover up or oppress. That's fine to make that claim, however more data on it should be presented instead of just a history of bias that the book cites. Put another way, if we're going to say something isn't neutral, it should be clear how it isn't. But in general terms I agree with true neutrality being a good thing, and something that needs to be evaluated.

In short, the book is an interesting read but not that modern and not timeless enough to recommend. Search engines and computers are always improving and the issues raised by this book needed to be called out. But now that they're resolved or close to it, it's just a snapshot of the past. Kind of like looking over a receipt from a car repair you had done a year ago.

In terms of the performance, it's good! The author reads everything clearly and has enough emotion to have you engaged, like a friend telling you something they're passionate about. It allowed me to take in the concepts being presented without even really paying attention to the performance, making for a seamless experience.

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  • Joshua Daniel-Wariya
  • 06-06-19

Read this book. Tell everyone you know about it.

This is perhaps the single most important and consequential book I have ever read. Noble frames this discussion specifically around how women and people of color have their identities put into a kind of "default mode" online through search algorithms that are not in their best interest, much less represent them in ways they choose. At the same time, she argues persuasively how the infiltration and monopolization of search by the neoliberal capitalist project is a critical issue for everyone. The audiobook for this is quite well done, and it is written with a precision and clarity that will make it accessible to anyone.

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  • Saiya
  • 09-04-21

a must read if you're in the tech field.

This is an informative book with good points. good real world examples and very relevant for today.

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  • Power Man
  • 14-02-21

It's good information

This is great information for everyone 6-96. The permanence of racism and bigotry is now flowing through the veins of our search engines. Knowledge is power.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Chicagomom
  • 04-01-21

Fantastic book

Timely and relevant work. I wish I had listened to it earlier. Great narration of book

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  • Eric P Ross
  • 01-12-20

This book changed my perception of technology.

This book was one of the most well documented and engaging discussions on the issues of technologies role in perpetuating systematic racism while feigning impartiality. I was riveted from the beginning to the epilogue. A great read.

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  • JANICE V KENNEDY
  • 15-10-20

Wow, I was totally shocked by what Google does.

This book at first was hard to get into because I am not technical at all. But it was very educational in opening my eyes on Google rolls in the internet. I am recommending this book to everybody.

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  • Richard Grillotti
  • 20-02-19

A Very Important Book

This research ought to be required reading/listening for all internet users. Corporations as the intentional and/or irresponsible filters of online information has incredibly detrimental results in real life.

Knowing how, why & what results come up when we search is crucial to understand, lest we believe the top ranking searches are the most relevant & useful results out there, and that the results we do get are neutral & unbiased.

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  • "byrd2
  • 23-11-21

Audio really bad-excellent topic

A fascinating and timely topic, but the production seems to fade in and out of stereo and analog. The narrator is excellent, I heard several of her narration, but the production is awful about half way through the book.
Dr. Noble is brilliant, poignant and a MacArthur Fellow! More of these books, please.

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  • Dads Dad
  • 24-10-21

Informative and relevant in today's societies.

I enjoyed the resources from professor and researchers provided as it is difficult to engage anyone in who does not understand the responsibilities of humane and ethical implications they own in the technological industries today.