Week 2: Lesson Plan – Google, Hegemony, Systemic Bias

Library of Congress Category: Information Resources, subclass ZA – either Information Superhighway (!), Electronic Information Resources, or Computer Network Resources

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
suggested: search engines, hegemony, neo-liberalism, computer algorithms (all 4 found!)

Here’s my lesson plan/outline for presenting some of Dr. Noble’s work with Google as a tool of hegemonic oppression, especially in the visibility of young Black women. Much of how I structured it was based on Dr. Noble’s talk, but more simplified and with more verbal and written prompts for student participation, which I find to be a little more compatible with the high school classroom.

I. Hook/Intro – Start with brainstorm (silently jot down responses/ideas in your notes):
        A. How has Google search changed our lives for the better? After a few minutes, field student responses (examples will probably include “easier access to information,” “satisfies curiosity” “more convenience, better planning in day-to-day concerns)
        B. How could Google search be having some sort of negative effect on people? What are the drawbacks to its ubiquity in our current culture? And, just like in A, field student responses (examples could include “we’re becoming more reliant on it for basic facts,” “we’re more and more likely to just skim things, look for simpler answers,” or something with Google’s commercial interests)

II. There are several things we don’t see/think about with Google, (much of which I hadn’t thought about before reading Dr. Noble’s article and seeing her presentation, so these are new concepts for me, as well).
        A. They’re a private company whose net worth was estimated at $82.5 billion. How is this revenue generated if the majority of Google’s top features (search, mail, etc.) are free? (field some guesses).
        B.  Google is a commercial search site run by a private company, not a public resource. Revenue is generated from targeted ads, particularly the ones at the side of our your search (show example with a harmless, generic Google search). As Dr. Noble points out, you are Google’s product, not their consumer.
             i. Are you familiar with the term ‘clickbait?” (Students explain/define the term, provide examples of clickbait headlines like “A policeman and a young black boy meet in the street. You won’t believe what happens next…”.) What’s the objective with these dumb headlines and articles? They generate revenue off of your web traffic, whether you were satisfied or not with the article itself.
             ii. Google search works in a similar way. The top results displayed are not the most popular, relevant, or authoritative sites, they’re the most commercially viable for Google.
                  a. This can undermine our belief in a ‘digital democracy,’ the belief that the internet, largely interfaced by search engines, almost exclusively Google at this point, can grant equal access to any content via search, privileging, just like a democratic system of government, only the content that is most popular, as measured by site ‘hits’ in this case.
                 b. In fact, results are sorted by vastly complex algorithms, which sort and list sites according to many, many different factors, in which site hits are just one.

        C. Google’s search engine is not a neutral tool. It reflects the biases, conscious and unconscious, of the engineers and other employees at Google who design these algorithms that make it run.
             i. To put it another way, see a quote from Siva Vaidhyanathan’s book “The Googlization of Everything” quoted in Dr. Noble’s article, “Rendering web content (pages) findable via search engines is an expressly social, economic, and human project
             ii. We’ll examine the “N**** House” example from DeRay McKesson’s  tweet and we’ll listen to a clip from the NPR piece we listened to last week.
             iii. These are not glitches, they’re related to the demographic makeup of the engineers that design the algorithms. Look at this chart of info about Google’s tech employees in particular: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/google-discloses-workforce-diversity-data-good/ (83% male, 60% White, 3% Black and Latino). How can these statistics show that these “glitches” are not outliers? How can these gender and racial breakdowns lead to problems like the ones we just saw? (Implicit, unconscious bias, no one in the room to speak up/examine how these algorithms can have negative impact or examine the potential bias they would propagate)
              iv. This kind of problem is not unique to Google or engineers. It happens in all seats of influence when leaders are not demographically representative of the public they serve or  interface with.
                  a. Briefly discuss women’s bathrooms in congress chambers: http://content.usatoday.com/communities/onpolitics/post/2011/07/house-womens-bathroom-congress-/1#.V0sJVPkrLIU How do female members of congress not get their own bathroom until 1993 (when there were 55 of them, over 10% of the House) and not get it expanded to 4 (4!) stalls until 2011, when there were 96 of them, close to 20%? When women are underrepresented in this body, commonsense problems like this get overlooked.

        D. Google search results, just like other media images, can affect our worldviews, especially regarding disenfranchised groups.
            i. What images pop into your mind when you think of the word ‘beautiful?’ (jot down examples, share: sunset on the beach? Yosemite?) Then compare to Google image search. What impact will these results have on young people (girls AND boys)? Field student responses.
            ii. Do the same with the “black girls” search (with much of the content censored out for a high school classroom, of course). Discuss the impact of these search results on young Black women looking to find themselves represented, congregated on the internet, perhaps looking for feminism or empowerment, but they don’t have that vocabulary yet. Note, discuss the fact that the vast majority of us (show of hands in the room, mine included) don’t venture past the first search result page on Google.
            ii. Note that Google, of course, does not create these social inequalities, but it does perpetuate and over represent them within our society at large. Read them this quote included in Dr. Noble’s article: “Search technologies themselves and their design do not dictate racial ideologies; rather, they both reflect and re-instantiate the current social climate and prevailing social and cultural values. As users engage with technologies like search engines, they dynamically co-construct content within the technology itself.”(Christian Fuchs, “Labor in Informational Capitalism and on the Internet,” The Information Society, emphasis mine”). Discuss last part, how do we “co-construct” content on the internet? (clicks perpetuate more content like it, vicious circle of revenue and marketing)
            a. If these search results are put forth as the dominant narrative about young black girls, other critical voices and ideologies are rendered invisible, as well as the suppression of these other views.

III. So what can we do about this? Brainstorm concrete actions to combat these suppressions and propagations of biases with your partner. Share some with the group (Ideas could include: start a petition to pressure Google into making algorithms public/hiring more diverse staff of engineers along gender/racial lines, emphasizing noncommercial alternatives to search engines for finding information about underrepresented groups,  increasing public awareness about how Google’s invisible commercials interests affect results)
        A. Shock, discouraged, disillusioned by this context and the “man behind the curtain?” Remember, Google is private company, and reinforcing biases through product marketing is the driving force of their search engine business model (when trying to locate revenue and profit margins and revenue for just Google’s search engine, I was unable to pin down numbers on this as Google works very hard to keep these statistics hidden from the public view. The first three articles that come up in the search “Google search engine profits compared to other divisions” just discuss how Google is dominating the market over Bing and Yahoo https://www.ventureharbour.com/visualising-size-google-bing-yahoo/).
            i. Even if we don’t have concrete solutions YET, awareness and skepticism is the first step even as we engage with this technology**. All this information is new to me, too. I’m not sure what’s the best path forward in my own conscientious consumption of Google products, but it’s important to ask these questions of the largest corporations in our lives and of ourselves as daily consumers of these products.
            ii. Exit Slip (a few sentences, turn in response as you leave): What’s the one aspect of today’s talk that impacted you most and why? How might you use Google search or view your Google search results differently moving forward?

**Full disclosure: my high school is heavily invested in Google products. Every student has a Google run email, since the company provide free email servers to any school that chooses to use them. Every student is enrolled in at least one class that uses Google Classroom, an online class management and homework submission system with a blog-style interface very similar to our Digital Humanities WordPress. All the computers in our three mobile computer labs are Google Chromebooks (the 12 in the library are Google Chromebox desktops), and we’ve partnered with them in our 1-to-1 computing initiative started this year. By 2018, all enrolled students will be using their own Google Chromebooks in class daily.  

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