Monday, December 17, 2018

Algorithms of Oppression - by Safiya Umoja Noble

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (one of the most devastating natural disasters of the 21st century) my husband learned an important lesson about doing Google image searches in front of a class. Typing in "Katrina" into the search box he (and the class) were bombarded with pictures of buxom women. This was literally just days after the hurricane struck and news of horrific flooding and drownings were still the top news stories of the day. Noble explains that similar results are returned when one types in the words "black girls".

However much we might want to believe that machines will provide neutral results, the fact remains that algorithms are written by people (mostly young, white men) who wittingly or not, program in their own biases.

My own research on Google and heuristics demonstrates exactly what conventional wisdom tells us: that people are more likely to click on links that appear at the top of a search result list. If people don't see what they want they assume it isn't there. It is very unlikely that someone will look beyond the first screen of results.

This is not only a problem in Google, but in library databases as well. Providing the example of searching the term "black history" in the ARTstor database the author shows a result page full of European and White American artists.

There was a lot to say about libraries and librarians in this work. In some places there is praise for our work, and recognition of our value. In others the author offers fair criticism and suggestions about where we can do some reflection and reparation where outdated language and systems are used.

A few years ago, I gave a presentation in which I compared librarians to colonizers. By creating an ambiguous and arbitrary system of organization and classification, and putting ourselves in charge of it, and, furthermore placing those on the margins in a position that requires them to come to us for assistance we are regulating knowledge, and determining who gets a piece of it. Noble goes even further explaining how the Dewey Decimal System itself, along with the standardized subject headings, were created so as to oppress. Citing the work of Hope A. Olsen from the the School of Information Studies at the University or Wisconsin, Milwaukee Noble explains that

Those who have the power to design systems - classification or technical - hold the ability to prioritize hierarchical schemes that privilege certain types of information over others. 

As recently as 2016 the term "Illegal Alien" was being used as a Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH). Students at the Dartmouth College were successful in their bid to have the term removed. The headings "Noncitizen" and "Unauthorized Immigration" are now used. The move was not without controversy and included a threat to the funding of the Library of Congress in the form of  HR 4926 "Stopping Partisan Policy at the Library of Congress Act". Librarians have recognized our own use of outdated and offensive language before, replacing the heading "Jewish question" with "Jews" and "Yellow Peril" with "Asian Americans".

Privilege and bias are also evident in the Dewey Decimal Classification system. For instance over 80% of the 200 range  numbers is used for Christian religions although only about a third of people worldwide identify as Christians.

Librarians, however, also can be credited for discovering and resolving some of these problems. I was reminded of this article, recently shared with me: Remembering the Howard University Librarian who Decolonized the Way Books were Catalogued".  It is important to note that the librarian was a woman of color, highlighting the necessity of a diverse population when designing and creating systems.

In her conclusion Noble envisions a new type of search engine, one in which
...all of our results were delivered in  a visual rainbow of color that symbolized a controlled set of categories such that everything on the screen that was red was pornographic, everything that was green was business or commerce related, everything in orange was entertainment, and so forth. In this kind of scenario, we could see the entire indexable web and click on the colors we are interested in and go deeply into the shades we want to see...In my own imagination and in a project I am attempting to build, access to information on the web could be designed akin to the color-picker tool or some other highly transparent interface, so that users could find nuanced shades of information and easily identify borderlands between news and entertainment, or entertainment and pornography, or journalism and academic scholarship.
This is indeed an ambitious project, and I would add that all caveats for design would apply. Such an undertaking would need a large, diverse group of people to categorize. As well I would be cautious about cutting into the autonomy of the users. What is pornography to some is art to others. Letting an algorithm decide what is scholarship and what is journalism can also be problematic. Some scholarship isn't really scholarship, and some journalism isn't really journalism. No matter what search engine is used everyone should use deliberation and do their due diligence in making selections about sources.

On the final page Noble reminds us that
Now more than ever we need libraries, universities, schools, and information resources that will help bolster and further expand democracy for all, rather than shrink the landscape of participation along racial, religious, and gendered lines.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Geography of Genius - by Eric Weiner

Nine years ago I embarked on a project of reading "Year Of" books. One of the books I read, together with my geographer husband, was Eric Weiner's Geography of Bliss in which the author sought out the world's happiest places. When we discovered that Weiner had written another geography book we downloaded it and listened to it together during our regular drives between Bridgewater and Fairhaven. In The Geography of Genius Weiner visits places that were once hotbeds of creativity, or in the case of Silicon Valley, still are.

Of course libraries are essential elements when discussing genius and Weiner mentions them no fewer than twenty times.

Twice he used the library as a metaphor:

  • In Athens, Greece he decides to take a walk, as was the wont of many of the great thinkers who hailed from that city. His host, Tony, "approves of walking". However, it appears to Weiner that "this approval does not extend beyond the realm of the theoretical as Tony's expanding belly "says more about the divide between ancient and modern Athens than a library's worth of books".
  • It seems that the stereotype of the shushing librarian will be around for quite some time. Weiner uses the image to explain that working in a quiet space may in fact not be conducive to creative thinking. And that it is in fact the moderate noise levels found in coffee houses that make them ideal places to incubate ideas.

Importantly, Weiner also points out that libraries are not just places for books, but for programs and as gathering centers as well when he sees people queuing for a lecture at the National Library in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Libraries weren't always a public resource. Early libraries were by membership or subscription only. Today public libraries are recognized as the People's University. Block printing during the Song Dynasty (969 to 1276 AD) in Hangzhou China brought information to the masses. "Soon, thousands of titles, on all sorts of topics, were published each year. One library alone, at the Imperial Palace, housed some eighty thousand scrolls."

In Calcutta he discusses colonization with this description of Job Charnock - a seventeenth-century English sea captain, who married an Indian woman.
He wore loose, baggy Kurtas, smoked a hookah...and drank the local libation, a potent moonshine called arrack. Job Charnock, founder of Calcutta, son a English aristocrats, proud servant of the queen, went native.
That might come as a surprise given our image of the British and their attempts to rule India without interacting with India.
Charnock was the exception to those who agreed with Lord Macaulay "a senior official in the Raj, who infamously said that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia."

The same type of European-superiority thinking is evident in Joshua Hammer's work The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu as well.

Throughout his travels the author sings the praises of several librarians who helped him along the way:
  • In Hangzhou, China a librarian named Norman delivers a difficult-to-find copy of the English translation of Brush Talks from Dream Brook by eleventh-century genius Shen Kuo to Weiner's hotel "with all the furtive intrigue of a drug deal or CIA drop".
  • During a visit to the archives Laurentian Library in Florence (designed by Michelangelo) he speaks with Dr. Shelia Baker who is excited about a recent discovery of a letter written by Galileo to a friend. She also explains that to those who lived in the 15th century a book cost as much in relative terms as a car does today. Books were status symbols. Scholars were people who owned many books (even if they never read them).
  • In the Silicon Valley Archives where he walks "into a majestic room, brimming with wooden cabinets and history" a librarian hands him a cardboard box filled with correspondence from Fred Terman's days at the Harvard Radio Research Laboratory during World War II.
  • And, finally, in the acknowledgements Weiner thanks Kathleen McNamara director of Georgetown University's Mortara Center for providing "that most valuable of gifts: a library card."
Smart people use libraries.