Safiya Noble & Willow Bay | 2018 MAKERS Conference
Willow Bay, Dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and holder of the Walter H. Annenberg Chair in Communication, interviews Safiya Noble, Assistant Professor at USC, on old stereotypes in new media
- Ladies and gentlemen, Safiya Noble and Willow Bay.
WILLOW BAY: Hi, everyone. Great to see you. I was sitting there yesterday, and there the night before, and it's been just an incredible experience. So I want to start by-- before Safiya and I talk, and she shares some of her work with you, I wanted to start by sharing this note that I got from a girlfriend. I don't do slides. I do props. And the note says this. It's a quote from George Bernard Shaw.
"The reasonable woman adapts herself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to herself. Therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable woman." The note then said, "Let's all be unreasonable in 2018."
You know, I was really struck by this quote and surprised that I'd never heard it before. And then I did a little fact checking, and I realize that my friend, my girlfriend, had intervened just slightly with a little tweak, and changed the original wording of the quote, in which it said "man" to "woman." And it's interesting how much more cultural resonance it has now that she has done that.
She wrote women into the story, right? She wrote women into the narrative of progress, and I'd like to thank Megan Smith, who was here on this stage yesterday. She did a story write. As Megan explained to us yesterday.
And one of the reasons that that quote resonated so much with me is that at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, we like to think of ourselves as being in the business of teaching, training, and inspiring unreasonable women. We're a 70% women student body. And men, we want them to be unreasonable. We want them to change the world, to adapt the world to them.
And one of the ways we think about that in-- in communications is we teach them to be more than power users of all these communication technologies, but instead, to be critically conscious consumers, and accurate and ethical producers of content.
And I'd like to share some exciting news with you, and I'd like to thank-- huge thanks to Tim Armstrong, and to MAKERS, and Dyllan McGee because they're creating something incredibly unique for us to help us in their mission.
The USC Annenberg MAKERS fellowship, in which they are going to offer one of our students after graduation a unique professional experience where they get to spend the year at MAKERS working either with their editorial team or with their video production team. So a huge thank you to MAKERS and Oath for offering us that incredible experience, and for helping us in our mission.
And now, to the women that I'm really excited to introduce you to and for you to hear from. Dr. Safiya Noble, she's a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication. She cares deeply about the knowledge and information that is available to the public. And as you all know, we mostly get that information today online from digital technologies and from search engines.
She's also-- I have another prop. She's also the author of the just published "Algorithms of Oppression, How Search Engines Reinforce Racism," which already, just before publication, has already caused a dust-up, which we'll tell you about it in a minute. But you know, she-- in it, she challenges the idea that search engines like Google offer an even playing field for our identities and our activities. So Safiya, thanks for being here.
SAFIYA NOBLE: Thanks for having me. I'm excited.
WILLOW BAY: So I should point out that Safiya starts all of her lectures, particularly when you first meet-- when she first meets new students, with a warning about her you're never going to think about digital technologies and the information that you receive in the same way again. What do you say to them?
SAFIYA NOBLE: It's true. If you are a lover of Google, you are not going to like me after this talk.
So just bear with us. It's only 11 more minutes. I guess that's what I've got for you. But I think that you will find that if we just scratch the surface just a little bit with some of the technologies and the platforms that we're using, we'll think about them differently, and we can engage with them differently. And that's one of the things that I'm here to kind of talk about with you today.
WILLOW BAY: Well, you got started by scratching the surface.
SAFIYA NOBLE: I did.
WILLOW BAY: Tell us how that began.
SAFIYA NOBLE: I did. So years ago, kind of what prompted those this work was I-- I spent my whole first career for the first 15 years out of college in marketing and advertising.
And as I was leaving marketing and advertising and going back to graduate school, I-- Google was really emerging powerfully, and we were starting to shift a lot of our advertising budgets from kind of additional media to online media buying. And so as I left the industry, I was thinking about Google as an advertising platform, because that was the way that we were using it.
And then I got to graduate school, and everyone was talking about Google as, you know, this kind of public library online. And I was so surprised that people were engaging with it on those terms, knowing it in a different context. And so I-- I started looking into kind of the kinds of identities and ways that Google was representing-- representing different forms of knowledge.
And this kind of prompted the first really big explosion for me, which was I did a search on the keywords, "black girls." At the time, you know, my daughter was-- my stepdaughter was a tween, and I was a black girl at one point in my life. And I was stunned to find that almost all of the content on the first page was pornography.
WILLOW BAY: Go ahead and try it, if you want. Seriously.
SAFIYA NOBLE: Yeah. I mean, now, you know, it's been interesting to see over time--
WILLOW BAY: We can pull it up, right?
SAFIYA NOBLE: Everybody's like reaching for their phone on this slide. They're like, I got to actually check that out. But over time, you know, I've been a big public critic about the ways in which women are stereotyped and misrepresented in search engines. And so black girls really haven't been as maligned. I mean, the algorithm has changed.
WILLOW BAY: It's interesting. Google changed as a-- changed their search.
SAFIYA NOBLE: I can't take credit for that. But I will say that our voices collectively talking about what's happening in search engines has certainly been impacting the way the industry at large has been starting to think about women.
WILLOW BAY: So we have that slide. Can you pull that up?
SAFIYA NOBLE: OK. So here's the-- you know, this is, like, I started this in 2009. By 2011, you can see, for those of you in the back, sugaryblackpussy.com is the first hit when you do a keyword search on "black girls." You know, this is just, you know, with the default settings. And as you go down, I won't read it for you. But you know, this is mostly porn sites that represent black women and girls.
And of course, these are not-- these sites or night children or adolescents. These are women who are doing pornography, or porn companies featuring women over 18. And I thought about this in terms of the implications for children and adolescents, and how would they ever be able to recover their identities online?
Because as we know, when you think about Google as an advertising platform versus an information retrieval platform, you realize that those who can buy keywords have a lot of influence. And of course, the porn industry has pretty much more money than anybody.
WILLOW BAY: Walk us through another couple of examples.
SAFIYA NOBLE: OK, all right. So then we have-- here's another concept. So in the book, I have many, many examples, but here's another one that I thought was interesting. I started thinking about concepts like beautiful. What does it mean that when you look for-- and this is a couple of years ago, '14-- the key word "beautiful" brings back these kind of hegemonic white beauty standards of women.
Now, I have to say when I did this search-- and you know, my team collect searches from around the country-- we thought we would get nature. I thought, like, the beach, or an ocean scene, because that's beautiful. And also, I thought of that as a more kind of universal concept that people would attribute to beautiful. I am happy to say that I've-- I've said that in a lot of talks. And now, if you do a search on beautiful, you do get nature.
So I don't know if there's, like, a direct pipeline from my words to-- my lips to Google search engineers. I don't think so, but it is interesting to see the-- the shift over time. There you have it, from just a couple of days ago. All right. It's fine.
WILLOW BAY: Good. Progress.
SAFIYA NOBLE: Now, this is one that I think is really fun. This is-- I was watching the Grammys one night with a girlfriend on the phone. It's professor nerd-- nerddom. And-- and I thought, oh, I wonder what university professors look like in image search. And of course, here you have the guys. And you know, this is, again-- what does it mean for young women, for all women to think about these different kinds of occupations?
I think about teachers all the time. I always tell them, stop telling your students to just Google it, because this is the kind of thing. And what does it mean when they don't see themselves reflected back in these kinds of occupations? And you can do this on a number of occupations and be deeply disturbed. University Dean Willow's not fairing much better for you. Sorry. We got to get Willow up here on the first page.
WILLOW BAY: And so here's the thing. If I'm doing my job right-- as you all know, this is what a dean and a professor looks like. But if I'm really good, that's what a dean looks like next.
SAFIYA NOBLE: Oh, thanks.
WILLOW BAY: So we-- we're now in a different era where we have a sense of urgency, right?
SAFIYA NOBLE: Yes.
WILLOW BAY: About when we look at what's gone on online, right? Russian bots--
SAFIYA NOBLE: Right.
WILLOW BAY: Taking over our election, interfering with our democracy. So there's a fair sense of urgency around questioning the accuracy of what we see online. But should we also be questioning its neutrality?
SAFIYA NOBLE: Absolutely. It's a farce to think that we're going to find neutral and objective information. I don't think it exists. I think there are many perspectives. And what we want to try to surface are perspectives that are based on evidence, that are based on knowledge, that are based on inquiry, not that are kind of a gamification with misinformation and disinformation. And that is certainly the kind of thing that we're seeing.
And you know, I'm sympathetic to tech companies and the people who work there, because I used to work in corporate America for a long time. Really good people work in these companies, and these are very complex, difficult problems to solve.
But when we see the divestment in public information and education, we see the erosion of funding for public schools, for public libraries. People are reliant upon these private companies in the tech sector, and they have an obligation back to the public, in my opinion. Or we have to demand greater investment in public noncommercial information spaces.
WILLOW BAY: So the name of this conference is "Raise Your Voice." You're sitting in front of this room filled with executives, technologists, creators, and MAKERS. What is our collective social responsibility at ensuring that our public information is what we want it to be? What can-- what's our call to action? What should we be doing?
SAFIYA NOBLE: I think that we should keep a partnership and pressure on tech corridors, Silicon Valley, Silicon Beach, and so forth. I think that we can also have greater investment in public alternatives. And that might mean that the corporate sector is donating and investing in--
I mean, I'm certainly working with my collaborators on thinking about what a public interest noncommercial search engine would look like, and how that might be curated by, say, academic librarians, and public librarians, and people who are kind of in the knowledge business, so to speak.
Everybody who clapped, you should just-- just call me. So the idea that we-- we don't have to have either/or. I mean, I use Google. I used it this morning to get-- find directions to get here. For kind of banal information, it's fantastic. It really does help us sort through the-- the-- the trash that's online.
But for more nuanced kinds of information that are about concepts-- some knowledge, of course, we know. We work in the university. There-- there, knowledge is contested all the time. This is why we do research. This is why we try to have deep study. There are some questions that can't be answered in 0.03 seconds. And so this is why we need to think about other kinds of-- of arenas for knowledge.
And I think it's fundamental to democracy. It's certainly fundamental to people who are already living in the margin. For women, I mean, you see at very basic levels, we're misrepresented. Imagine what happens when you start thinking about women's knowledge and-- and the other kinds of things that we're creating.
WILLOW BAY: We have a quick minute left. You sort of made news. Safiya's book comes out. And immediately, somebody from the Association of Electrical Engineers the IEEE, reads a marketing blurb and sends out a critique, shall we say, in a tweet without-- without-- without having read the book. And what happens next?
SAFIYA NOBLE: So I got to tell you, I love women, because the Twitterati came. It's interesting. I mean, they came for him. And you know, you can't just take down women's knowledge, and our scholarship, and our labor that's in the service of women with, you know, a flippant kind of tweet. And so he apologized publicly on Twitter, and lots of people are ordering the book in solidarity, and I'm grateful for that. And of course, you can find me online at Safiya Noble, and you can follow the drama as it unfolds.
WILLOW BAY: Great. Safiya, thank you very much.
SAFIYA NOBLE: Thank you so much.
WILLOW BAY: Thank you all.
SAFIYA NOBLE: Nice to meet you all.
WILLOW BAY: [INAUDIBLE]