The Guardian published a piece concerning a recent kerfuffle involving Google image search results in response to the query “unprofessional hairstyles for work” as contrasted with its antonym string, “professional hairstyles for work.”
I saw a tweet saying “Google unprofessional hairstyles for work”. I did. Then I checked the ‘professional’ ones 🙃🙃🙃 pic.twitter.com/5KLg7FZ6Hq
— Rosalia (@BonKamona) April 5, 2016
Not much surprising going on here, but of course, the predictable uproar and allegations that Google’s search results are racist.
Rosalia’s tweet has since been retweeted thousands of times – more than 6,200 in the first 24 hours, she says – as her discovery sparked discussion on implicit racial biases against black people in the workplace. Can an algorithm itself be racist? Or is it only reflecting the wider social landscape?
We’ve always conceived of search engines as arcane but neutral creatures, obedient only to our will and to the precious logic of information.
On a basic level, Google Images primarily figures out who or what is shown in a picture by judging the text and captions that surround it. It’s possible though that some rudimentary image analysis – the kind that can tell a face from a landscape – is also involved. In the case of the great hair debate, Google Images seems to have taken many of the pictures of black women wearing the “unprofessional” hairstyles were from blogs, articles and Pinterest boards. Many of these are by people of colour explicitly discussing and protesting against racist attitudes to hair. One image led me to a post criticising Hampton University’s ban on dreadlocks and cornrows; another was linked with a post celebrating natural hair and the “ridiculous” pressure to straighten it for the office; here’s a rejection of the idea that big, natural curls are “distracting” in a newsroom.
Ultimately, the algorithm is mirroring conversations about “unprofessional hair” biases, not making a ruling. In fact, just a day after Rosalia’s tweet went viral, memes about the discrepancy, screencaps of the tweet itself, and other recent related images topped the results of the Google Images search for “unprofessional hairstyles for work”. But it still raises questions about the role of algorithms in how we use the web, and pokes a few holes in the utopian fantasy of what the internet is for.
Apparently the knee-jerk racially aggrieved don’t have the most spectacular comprehension of search engines and the dynamics and logic by which results are derived. How do we explain to them that Google is not a sentient being who decides, arbitrarily, or if you’re a sensitive type, maliciously, which search results to spill in response to neutral queries? How do we explain to these folks that Google’s results rather represent a compendium of data linkages as they exist across the vast cyber stage of humanity that represents what we, the internet denizens type and label and discuss online?
Google search results merely reflect society. Google’s algorithm is a mirror (as the Guardian pointed out) of our own cultural character. It would be like calling a computer keyboard racist for allowing someone to type “spic” undeterred.
Like all racially aggrieved people, this is a case where they create an uproar for the sake of drama and emotive discussion, not for any truly piercing insight. In matters of race, Drama Conversation is the preferred mode of expression by those who partake in said subject.
“Algorithm” is such an un-sexy, clinical foundation behind many racial truths. So the concept is dressed up as human and accused of conscious motivation.