Book Review: Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Umoja Noble

Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce RacismAlgorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Umoja Noble
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found out about this book through a series of events. A woman I follow on Twitter tweeted about a talk one of her peers gave and in that talk she referenced this book. I plan to share this book any time that I see someone saying that coding is “color blind” and that it past experience and history doesn’t matter.

One of the things that I’ve learned from doing Agile software development, is that outcomes are more important than the specifics of the coding. This book focuses on the outcomes of search engine algorithms and explains how search engine algorithms drive racist results.

The author Safiya Umoja Noble, does a fantastic job explaining the basis of her research, querying Google for “black girls” and getting a huge list of porn. She verifies monthly for almost 6 years. She meticulously explains that these results are racist, sexist and the responsibility of Google.

Noble explains why Google believes that these results are not biased, because they are objectively using an algorithm to determine what links appear where on their search results. These results, they argue, are based on what is popular and therefore that makes the content “true.” The basis for Google search is Library Sciences, which uses citations to determine relatedness between content and how important (regardless of context or if the import is a negative or positive attribution) specific pieces of work are. This is called Bibliometrics (I did some of this work while I was earning my Masters).

To my surprise, Noble explained to me that the Dewey Decimal System was racist, sexist, and Eurocentric. I was taught, this was just the way libraries were organized. That this was the best way to organize books. Noble explains, briefly, that this system still used Racist categories like “Black Question” and similar type of classification. Similarly, the US Library of Congress uses similar classification headings. This is problematic, because other major library systems follow a similar system and take their lead from the US.

Google claims that they cannot control their outcomes, however, Noble points out, repeatedly, that they will modify their searches based on criticism or serious problems. Furthermore, Noble explains that after she wrote an article in Bitch Magazine, within 5 months the search results significantly shifted when she queried “black girls.”

I believe that outcomes are the responsibility of engineers, testers, and product owners. Algorithms are not neutral technologies. Hell, even Bridges can be non-neutral technologies, as they can be shaped to prevent buses from using them (which happened in NYC https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_…). So, engineers and leaders that believe that software projects are always neutral is flawed.

The best solution is to hire Black Women, Black people, Latinas, and other minorities. Furthermore, it’s important to allow those developers to significantly impact the outcomes of the product. Otherwise, having them as employees will not be effective.

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Banning TikTok Will Blow Up in US Politicians’ Faces

Leaving aside the various reasons why Trump would want to ban TikTok, which are almost entirely self serving, we need to take a step back and look at how banning an app from China could negatively impact US companies and if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

First, TikTok is a short video app that allows people to make both simple and sophisticated videos. Some are edited to present an entire scene others are just short videos of live action. They can be used for political commentary or just for humor. This isn’t the first App like this, Vine was the original TikTok and was widely popular, but Twitter was unable to monetize it, so they shut it down. Instagram has Instagram Live, Facebook has an app like this too.

However, the big difference between those apps and TikTok is that TikTok may have influenced the Tulsa rally and made Tump look back. The OTHER difference is that it’s owned by a Chinese company. There some fears that this means it will be used by China to collect information on American citizens and shared with the Chinese Government to do something back to our citizens. There’s “fear” that TikTok will influence the election in some fashion and will be, ultimately, influenced by the Chinese government.

To be clear, just about every social media company has to share information with their government. There’s currently an ongoing law suit in the EU about US social media companies and if they properly shield EU data. With that ruling, there are serious question if social media companies can send any data back to the US, since the US government routinely gets access to the data. That the US Government is a huge problem when it comes to social media companies.

Given that the US is looking to ban TikTok for something very much like what the EU just ruled that the US is doing, should give lawmakers pause before banning any other country’s social media platforms. If the US does something like this unilaterally, without going through any third party organization, like the WTO, then other countries may take that the opportunity to do the same for any company from a country they don’t like. If it’s good enough for the US, it’s good enough for us!

Furthermore, this flies in the face of the Neo-liberal economic framework the conservative movement in the US purports to support. Rather than government regulation, they should be pushing for Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms, to compete against TikTok and defeat it in the market place. Given that they are instead resorting to regulations, indicates the fact that they are being opportunist here and simply doing this for political reasons. As it is something of a political platform for young people.

Additionally, since there are at least two known cases of Facebook actually influencing elections through external meddling, the US 2016 election and Brexit vote, it is likely that Facebook represents more of a threat to any given government than TikTok. Though, all platforms can be turned into a disinformation platform if enough actors decide it should be turned into a disinformation platform.

It should be viewed as likely that other governments would move to ban US based social media companies and services, like Google and Amazon because of their closeness with the US government. Amazon provides an AWS platform for the CIA and other three letter organizations.

Of course, this might all be moot, because it’s not obvious that the US government can even ban TikTok, as it IS such a huge platform for free speech. Regardless, keep an eye out for other countries taking a lead from the US government after TikTok is banned. It is likely that dictatorships will leap at this chance.

We should not ban TikTok. We should create laws and a framework that requires businesses to strongly protect user data on any social media platform regardless of if it is US based or foreign. We should expect to see more innovation from othe countries over the next few years and that Facebook, Amazon, Google, Twitter, and Microsoft will all experience strong competition.

Book Review: White Rage by Carol Anderson

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial DivideWhite Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you, like me, recently read “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, you’ll have found that book to be incredibly moving. I felt it really helped explain the environment that many Black men now in their 30’s and 40’s grew up in and that young Black men are growing up in now. However, the book only glimpses at touches of context. Obviously there are references, plenty of them, to great Black thinkers and political activists. That book is primarily an emotional book. To help a reader, targeted towards Black men but very much helps white people, empathize with a young Black man. It humanizes.

This book, this book, though, is a clinical look at our history. It starts out with context around the history of the Civil War, that it WAS a war fought over slavery and not state rights. Anderson highlights the failings of President Lincoln and eviscerates President Johnson (which if you read An Indigenous History of the United States you’ll be unsurprised he’s as horrific towards former enslaved people as Indigenous people).

This book outline the systematic tools white leaders have used to continually keep Black Americans down. How tactics shifted from outright racism to much more subtle approaches of racism. How immediately after freeing enslaved people, they were basically forced into labor and where their labor could be sold if they were caught being “vagrant”, the so-called Black-Code. I’d never heard of these.

The Black-Code morphed into Jim Crow, which stuck around for an absurdly long time. In fact, the book essentially argues we only had a few years without Jim Crow dominating and we’re back into a quasi-Jim Crow state with all the current “Voter Fraud” initiatives – which are really just carefully worded Racists preventing non-whites from voting.

The book is a history book, so it’s dry. That doesn’t mean it’s not an emotional book. There are points where your blood will boil. Where you will be infuriated that we, Americans, have treated through law a group of Americans this way.

I learned how much effort the NAACP put into getting education into southern states. They were the catalyst for Brown. I have to admit, I didn’t know a lot about what they did. I vaguely had a negative impression of them when I was younger, because my parents would both get angry any time they were brought up. Like they were a bad group that were only trying to help bad people. Other than that I was pretty ignorant of what they did. Now, I can only look at how my parents reacted to the NAACP as two white people experiencing White Rage at what the NAACP was doing. That my parents and many other people in my home town, practice the subtler form of racism that is dangerous. It can turn into a darker type of racism, like Dylan Roof (which Anderson specifically mentions in her book).

This book is incredibly well researched. The paperback version, with an afterward reflecting on Trump’s election, is only 180 pages long with 83 pages of end notes. For some chapters there are well over a hundred end notes. I learned a lot from this book and honestly, it was an overwhelming amount of facts that spanned from the 1850s-2016. Overall, the book is one of amazing perseverance by the Black community. I’m in awe of what they’ve been able to do despite intentional roadblocks along the way. These roadblocks, it’s important to note, didn’t just hurt Black Americans, they hurt all Americans and are STILL hurting America today.

We could have many more Black scientists than we do, but because of policies enacted in the 50’s to STOP Brown v. Education, we destroyed educational opportunities for multiple generations of Black Americans and poor white people. White Americans should be embarrassed, but instead, many are pushing laws to continue disenfranchising and holding back Black America.

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Book Review: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and MeBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Since the Michael Brown protests in Ferguson in 2014, I have been actively working to listen and learn from Black activists and thought leaders. However, I didn’t do much reading beyond Twitter, The Root, and some articles the activists would post. While I feel like I’m in a much better position now, for these protests, to discuss with white Americans the reasons for the protests, I feel like I have so much to learn. I’m glad I went through learning from those activists first, because it was hard to learn to listen. I wanted to rage against what they were saying, because it didn’t apply to ME. I had to learn to listen, which is what really allowed me to listen to what Ta-Nehisi Coates said in this fantastic book.

Growing up in an absurdly white part of Western Pennsylvania, where there was one black family, one Indian family, and one Asian family, prevented me being aware of much of anything. Hell, I really did not understand why Rage Against the Machine said “Some of those that work forces are the ones that burns crosses” why there was so much anger against police.

During the Michael Brown protests I wrote that the police shouldn’t be militarized from more of an objective standpoint because it limited first amendment rights in general. That no American protester should ever be targeted the way they were targeted. This book, helped provide a lot of the context that I didn’t understand for why police would want to militarize. I didn’t understand it was to really control the Body of the Black person.

This book will make you cry. I had tears in my eyes throughout nearly the entire book. It’s a moving letter from father to son explaining the horrors he had experienced. Horrors that Coates had tried to shield his son from, but knew he could never and should never fully shield him from them all. There is just simply too much weight on the shoulders of Black Americans to behave a certain way to prevent White people from weaponizing their whiteness against the Black person.

Amy Cooper Weaponized her Whiteness against a Black birder in a horrific and absurd way. However, Coates explains, this event isn’t ahistorical, it is our national heritage. It is the cost of the “American Dream.” The Dream was build upon Black bodies. First as slaves and then as an underclass, an undercaste, to be separated into a red lined portion of the town. That should be destroyed if they accumulate too much wealth.

Coates has similar feelings as I do about a god and how that means life is even more precious. This life is the only one that we have. That we can and should do the most we can with this life. That this worldview makes the wanton destruction of Black bodies even more horrific, because there’s no afterlife where a lifelong struggle is rewarded. It makes enslaving an entire people for centuries even more horrific.

Coates rejects arguments such as black on black violence as a reminder that the white Dreamers used the state to segregate the Black community through both actions of the state and complicit realtors and other White community members.

This book, at the end, calls out that it’s not the Black person that can resolve the current crisis of their body’s safety. It’s the White Dreamer that must awaken from the dream. To realize this world isn’t for us either, that our bodies can be as easily destroyed as a Black body, if the state decides to do so. I believe this is true. This book has helped me make arguments to my white friends, to argue we need to understand the history of the formerly enslaved or the Black people negatively impacted by racists practices that sprang from enslaving Black people.

If you are White and interested in justice you must read this book. You will cry. You will begin to empathize with our Black citizens. It’s a first step, we need to push for change and justice.

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Corporate Responsibility and Black Lives Matter: Put Money Where Your Hashtags Are

Over the past week I’ve seen a lot of blacked out squares with some semblance of corporate PR speak about honoring diversity and supporting #BlackLivesMatter. Leaders have sent out emails within their organizations explaining how the organization supports the movement and in many cases, this has actually come with some financial donation, like $1,000,000 to NAACP and/or ACLU. These are fantastic gestures. However, they often feel empty. This twitter video really highlights why.

Another reason these gestures feel less than sincere is that the businesses that are coming out and saying these things, often have significant contracts with law enforcement, the Border Patrol, FBI, or national intelligence organizations. For example, Amazon has put out comments around supporting BLM. However, their Ring subsidiary has contracts with at least 400 police organizations nationwide. In fact, they were talking about increasing this and adding facial recognition to the recordings as recently as January.

Furthermore, many companies provide discounts and negotiated rates with local government employees. This, of course, includes police forces. Apple is an example that has Federal, State, and Local Government discounts. We shouldn’t find this surprising, as these organizations have massive buying power together. Companies like Intel also get discounts from the Apple store. However, if Apple is serious about more than just Diversity and Inclusion, Apple should drop discounts for cities and states with high numbers of police brutality cases.

For organizations that really want to make a difference where Black Lives Matter is more than just a hashtag to jump on to show “solidarity,” the ultimate expression of this is through divestment of support for the police. Hold police organizations accountable by removing special treatment. Hold police accountable by cancelling contracts for cloud storage. Hold police accountable by eliminated contracts for facial recognition. Hold police accountable by cancelling IT modernization projects. Hold police accountable by cancelling consulting contracts.

Collectively, define the requirements for restarting engagement. These demands include reduction of police brutalities (ideally as close to zero as possible), elimination of Qualified Immunity (or significant reduction), prosecution of police officers for excessive force, including murder, restructuring of police union contracts to prevent bad cops from being rehired, reintroduction of community policing efforts, introduction of civilian management boards.

These are some ideas provided by the BLM community. I’m ultimately not the right person to be dictating these requirements. Companies that are claiming solidarity should work with Black community leaders to identify the criteria for working with police departments again. Any other than true solidarity through divestment is just more words. Words that may be true, but without action, those words are meaningless. Without forcing the police departments to make change through dropping support, nothing will change. By enabling infrastructure, you’re enabling police brutality.

Below are some more ideas from Killer Mike: