Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression

A review

Mark Filipowich is a PhD candidate in communications at Concordia university. His research interest is in how narratives in popular fiction treat racist history as an aberration to Enlightenment logic of self-creation as a form of eluding white guilt. His other projects include curating and coordinating games criticism for Critical Distance and maintaining his own blog. bio-blogFollow Mark on Twitter

In Vincent Mosco’s The Digital Sublime, the author describes the cult of technology as “cyperbole,” a kind of social fervor toward new methods of communication. Electricity, telegram, television, the computer and, now, the internet all had phases in their development that emphasized the utopian potential of a new and popular technology. But, according to Mosco, the real social influence of technology isn’t apparent until it becomes banal, after the utopian promises are unfulfilled and new technology has been integrated into existing power structures. A consequence of globalized industrial capitalism is that technology becomes the locus of progress that paradoxically weaves so neatly into daily life that it becomes unnoticeable. The cycles of technical promise and integration are especially present in games scholarship, where games are made exceptional (Jennings), treated as a pedagogical panacea (Arnab) or as killtriggers for middle-class teenage boys (Miletic). The development of new home consoles, online communities, virtual and augmented realities carry as many apocalyptic promises as revolutionary ones. Until they become mundane.

Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression is pointedly interested in the consequences, if not the process, of the cultural transition of digital technology from utopian fever-dream to the backdrop of everyday life. Far from revolutionizing social relations or democratic potential, information technology (infotech) provides the already powerful with the means to further dominate the already disenfranchised. Although Noble focuses mostly on Google and its parent company, Alphabet, her argument applies nearly verbatim to Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress. These monoliths make up most of the contemporary internet and possess a troubling degree of control over what users see and ultimately believe. Importantly, Noble does not romanticize earlier forms of the internet as uniformly democratic, nor does she entirely demonise the social potential offered by digital information. Rather, she investigates the current internet culture that treats artificial intelligence and algorithmic curation as apolitical forces, even as they have significant material consequences across racial, class and national boundaries:

Google’s monopoly status, coupled with its algorithmic practices of biasing information toward the interests of the neoliberal capital and social elites in the United States, has resulted in a provision of information that purports to be credible but is actually a reflection of advertising interests. (36)

The internet under corporate ownership is the latest socio-technological atmosphere to absorb public consciousness. Noble’s book is a rare piece of scholarship that effectively balances a tightly focused content analysis of how Google normalizes the treatment of black Americans with the history that made such oppression possible to begin with. It is a unique synthesis of media studies and sociology that examines the danger privatized information poses to democracy. In Algorithms of Oppression,  Noble draws upon a rich theoretical background aiming to mobilize critical race, feminist and information science theory to influence infotech policy. Ultimately, Noble argues that divesting the internet from corporate bodies and integrating more human decision-making into curating information will allow infotech to serve the public instead of capital. Her work is concise and accessible to newcomers to the field and she offers a compelling challenge to the teleological celebration of progress. As refreshing as accessible prose can be, it is because her work is a book-length project directed at the public that it is so important.

Algorithms of Oppression breaks from technologically deterministic narratives that normalize political inequality and prevent popular discourse from approaching the long-term consequences of an industrialized vision of progress. Noble’s position is clear—that information-technology companies replicate oppressive structures of power—and her proposed solution is consistent—that information is a public good whichshould be reappropriated from private interests using it only for the profit for a small number of families and corporations. Again, she isn’t simply condemning Google; rather, Noble’s book complicates its use as a social technology:

We must trouble the notion of Google as a public resource, particularly as institutions become more reliant of Google when looking for high-quality, contextualized, and credible information. This shift from public institutions such as libraries and schools as brokers of information to the private sector, in projects such as Google Books, for example, is placing previously public assets in the hands of a multinational corporation for private exploitation. (50)

Noble explains how Google replicates the oppressive material history against black women through the mechanisms that operate its search engines and advertising policies. Although her primary focus is on the relationships between Google and black American women, the theoretical foundation of her argument always has an eye on other historical forms of oppression. It may be that the clarity of Noble’s writing allows her to extend her argument to people outside her immediate scope; it may be that the monopoly of Google and similar infotech corporations have grown large enough to creep into all public life; or it may be that the racial, gendered, sexual, and classed methods of stratifying social life have traditionally targeted black women in America so particularly that there are very few oppressive tactics that have not been applied to black women at some point or another. In any case, Noble always has an eye on a wider public while she attends to the historical particularities of American black communities.

In the first two chapters of Algorithms of Oppression, Noble reviews the work of critical race theorists and intersectional feminists like Jessie Daniels and bell hooks to frame her political economic analysis throughout the book. The third chapter, the shortest by a good deal, is a case study of ideologically loaded search terms like “black on white crime,” that recycle non-credible information sources openly calling for racial violence. The cultural attitude of technology as politically neutral either in its utopian potential or in its banality curtails the public’s ability to think critically about information circulating throughout it: “What we find in search engines about people and culture is important. They oversimplify understanding and they can mask history…Search results, in the context of commercial advertising companies, lay the groundwork, as I have discussed throughout this book, for implicit bias” (116). The fourth chapter reviews some of the legal challenges and loopholes Google wrestles with across the world, including an extensive discussion of Google’s record-keeping practices and its contracts held with the US government (129). These two middle chapters, while they offer more specific case studies of Noble’s theoretical concerns, suffer from some redundancy and do little to advance either her theoretical frameworkor her case for policy changes. Yet they do serve a rhetorical purpose outside arguing her position. Algorithms of Oppression is a scholarly project, but the author writes more generally to the public. These two middle chapters personalize the social consequences of privatized information collection and distribution. Moreover, these chapters allow the book to be a book. The medium, as they say, is the message, and there is social power in a study distributed as a book that isn’t there in an article or a longform essay. If nothing else, Algorithms of Oppression offers an opportunity for academics to learn how to write quality research without obscuring it with the conventions of academic writing and publishing.

The final two chapters include work in library and information science scholarship from the likes of Sarah T. Roberts and describe how the analysis throughout the book can be mobilized  for activism. The challenge Google poses is that it centres itself as, increasingly, the sole curator of the knowledge we base our citizenship on: “When we inherit privilege, it is based on a massive knowledge regime that foregrounds the structural inequalities of the past, buttressed by vast stores of texts, images, and sounds saved in archives, museums, and libraries” (Noble 140). The collection, evaluation and distribution of information are responsibilities of, according to Noble, a citizenry who need to participate in those tasks to effectively run a democracy. She convincingly describes how the different ways search engines curate results (by frequency of views, number of links that lead to a page, advertising by companies to promote pages) privilege market-based interests and discriminatory social biases. Companies like Google and Facebook rely on their reputations as politically neutral machines producing politically neutral results for their market dominance and continued monopoly (Noble 29).

As with the specificity of Noble’s topic of study, her policy recommendations do not interfere with broader public interests. The algorithmically generated racism that criminalizes blackness in a search result works with the same technology that guides automatic cars and drones, generates suspect profiles, evaluates insurance and loan candidacy, and countless other bureaucratic mechanisms of society that are increasingly placed in the trust of self-modifying math equations on the internet. While it is easy to speculate what kinds of oppression could be possible with these tools, Noble effectively demonstrates that these threats are not science fiction to many communities around the world and in fact are happening right now (167).

Noble seems to write with the general public in mind and rarely descends into jargon or some of the discipline’s more esoteric texts. Here the specificity of her topic and solution help clarify her book’s importance and objectives to a reader who may not have years of formal education in media studies. Additionally, her work also opens a number of possible avenues for further scholarship and policy advice in other forms of marginalization or other legal contexts. Applying Noble’s method to other digital institutes like Amazon or Facebook are obvious follow-ups to this kind of project, but Noble’s book insists upon a public finding an alternative. With existing media, critical race, feminist, sociological, and political economy scholarship, there are many tools to postulate what such an alternative might look like. While Noble is primarily interested in an American context, her brief discussion of EU policy suggests that regional particularities change how digital resources can be mobilized for the public’s benefit.

The theoretical rigor, methodological variety and generalizability of the book also make it a strong teaching tool for undergraduates in communication, information and journalism programs, especially in introductory years. While the book is too recent to confidently prescribe its “importance” either as an academic resource or a journalistic report, it is an excellent summary and application of many theoretical tools used in the study of media. The material may be too specific for a large first-year lecture hall to adequately engage with, but as a second-year or seminar text it provides a strong methodological model for students trying to grasp how to study political economy and what political economy is interested in. Algorithms of Oppression is also relevant, and given the direction of algorithmic misinformation and racially charged forms of digital harassment, its arguments are becoming even more important.

As mentioned, Algorithms of Oppression is very clearly a feminist and black piece of sociological research. But it is important to recognize that Noble’s work also provides a foundation for several other researchers interested in promoting democracy and justice. The tools provided by infotech firms are not oppressive by their nature, but the extent to which they are used and made invisible by daily life warrants attention. Algorithms of Oppression is at the start of a scholarly trend seeking to understand who these technologies are most set up to benefit and how. Texts like Noble’s are necessary for scholars and informed publics to denaturalize media monopolies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and other companies that harvest citizen data and perpetuate myths of objective neutrality even as they exploit the labour of their own workforces. The quality of writing, theoretical strength and attention to its particular moment in history is why some of the repetition in the middle two chapters is more forgivable than it would be in a text with less foundational potential.

Hopefully, Noble’s book will promote further scrutiny of information technologies and work as a starting point for a public looking to get informed. Algorithms of Oppression is more effective as a book that can be picked up at one of the libraries that Noble argues need so much protection than as a dense article in a paywalled scholarly journal. Promoting media literacy will not be possible without addressing the information landscape that privileges Google’s profit projections. More work like Noble’s is needed to point to the dehumanized and, literally, autonomic process that information is communicated by. It isn’t that the kids these days don’t read anymore; it’s that they don’t edit.

Algorithms of Oppression feels like a strong interdisciplinary nexus, one that scholars of games studies will find a place to start specialized projects about the games industry and audiences. Noble briefly touches on the eruption of Gamergate as an instance of a mobilized misinformation campaign, but her interest in the phenomenon reaches only as far as it applies to the reproduction of misogyny on the internet, not in the mechanics of how the movement’s practitioners organized or where their entitlement to power originated. Well before Gamergate, data had been weaponized against women by doxing, altering images or cherry-picking information to misrepresent them or their words. One can see the oppressive strategies Noble describes in her book used at different points of the internet’s history (her book originated in an article for Bitch Magazine published in 2012) and her concerns certainly extend to games studies. Game publishers and distributors increasingly collect user data, and even in the rare cases that it is curated by humans working with a transparent editorial policy, centralized information is a tantalizing target for surveillance.

Given the consistency—perhaps even intensity—that gaming trends mirror infotech trends, much of Noble’s work is applicable to political economic and cultural studies of game industry and audiences. Videogames and the internet are not only historically interlocked, data collection and profit-motivated information are widely practiced by game publishers and online distributors. Noble provides a valuable frame for games studies, especially given the medium’s ongoing labour movements, racialized and gendered inequalities and interactions with local and national policymakers. If Algorithms of Oppression is going to be an “important” book, it will be for its ability to reach outside the academy. It’s a strong work of scholarship that provides  many new research questions, but it is more powerful because it speaks to the public it advocates for. It effectively takes its reader a step back from the tools they are accustomed to and reminds them that alternatives are possible.

Works Cited

Arnab, Sylvester. “Gamification as Responsible Experience Design”. First Person Scholar, 14 Sept. 2016.

Gross, Andy. “What Angry Birds Can Teach Enterprises About Critical Data”. Wired.

Jennings, Stephanie. “Video Games Exceptionalism vs. Media Specificity”. Ludogabble, 31 Aug. 2015.

Miletic, Philip. “A Review of The Video Game Debate”. First Person Scholar. 22 June 2016.

Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York University Press, 2018.

—. “Missed Connections: What Search Engines Say About Women”. Bitch Magazine, vol. Spring 2012, no. 54, Dec. 2016, pp. 36–41.