Google Search and Cultural Representation

January 6, 2016

Google Search has worked its way into our culture as an indispensable, and unquestioned, tool of modern life. However, the algorithms behind the platform have become more sophisticated, allowing Google to tinker more and more with search results. Since so many of us regularly use the search engine to interact with the outside world, Google’s choices (and ours) affect the world’s perception of itself. Researcher Safiya Umoja Noble details some of the adverse effects of this great power in her paper, “Google Search: Hyper-Visibility as a Means of Rendering Black Women and Girls Invisible,” posted at the University of Rochester’s InVisible Culture journal. Not surprisingly, commerce features prominently in the story. Noble writes:

“Google’s algorithmic practices of biasing information toward the interests of the powerful elites in the United States,14 while at the same time presenting its results as generated from objective factors, has resulted in a provision of information that perpetuates the characterizations of women and girls through misogynist and pornified websites. Stated another way, it can be argued that Google functions in the interests of its most influential (i.e. moneyed) advertisers or through an intersection of popular and commercial interests. Yet Google’s users think of it as a public resource, generally free from commercial interest15—this fact likely bolstered by Google’s own posturing as a company for whom the informal mantra, ‘Don’t be evil,’ has functioned as its motivational core. Further complicating the ability to contextualize Google’s results is the power of its social hegemony.16  At the heart of the public’s general understanding and trust in commercial search engines like Google, is a belief in the neutrality of technology … which only obscures our ability to understand the potency of misrepresentation that further marginalizes and renders the interests of Black women, coded as girls, invisible.”

Noble goes on to note ways we, the users, codify our existing biases through our very interaction with Google Search. To say the paper treats these topic in depth is an understatement. Noble provides enough background on the study of culture’s treatment of Black women and girls to get any non-social-scientist up to speed. Then, she describes the extension of that treatment onto the Web, and how certain commercial enterprises now depend on those damaging representations. Finally, the paper calls for a critical approach to search to address these, and similar, issues. It is an important, and informative, paper; we suggest interested readers give it a gander.


Cynthia Murrell, January 6, 2016

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