Are search engines making us more racist?
According to Safiya Umoja Noble, a professor of communication at the University of Southern California, the answer is almost certainly yes.
Noble’s new book, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, challenges the idea that search engines like Google provide a level playing field for all ideas, values, and identities. She says they’re inherently discriminatory and favor the groups that designed them, as well as the companies that fund them.
This isn’t a trivial topic, especially in a world where people get more information from search engines than they do from teachers or libraries. For Noble, Google is not just telling people what they want to know but also determining what’s worth knowing in the first place.
I reached out to Noble last week to find out what she had learned about the unseen factors driving these algorithms, and what the consequences of ignoring them might be.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.