On Algorithmic Gatekeepers

Writing for the opinion section of The New York Times, Evgeny Morozov characterizes “one dimensional” algorithms which censor the Web:

The proliferation of the Autocomplete function on popular Web sites is a case in point. Nominally, all it does is complete your search query — on YouTube, on Google, on Amazon — before you’ve finished typing, using an algorithm to predict what you’re most likely typing. A nifty feature — but it, too, reinforces primness.

How so? Consider George Carlin’s classic comedy routine “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” See how many of those words would autocomplete on your favorite Web site. In my case, YouTube would autocomplete none. Amazon almost none (it also hates “penis” and “vagina”). Of Carlin’s seven words, Google would autocomplete only “piss.”

Until recently, even the word “bisexual” wouldn’t autocomplete at Google; it’s only this past August that Google, after many complaints, began to autocomplete some, but not all, queries for that term. In 2010, the hacker magazine 2600 published a long blacklist of similar words. While I didn’t verify all 400 of them on Google, a few that I did try — like “swastika” and “Lolita” — failed to autocomplete. Is Nabokov not trending in Mountain View? Alas, these algorithms are not particularly bright: unable to distinguish between Nabokov’s novel and child pornography, they assume you want the latter.

Why won’t tech companies let us freely use terms that already enjoy wide circulation and legitimacy? Do they fashion themselves as our new guardians? Are they too greedy to correct their algorithms’ mistakes?

Thanks to Silicon Valley, our public life is undergoing a transformation. Accompanying this digital metamorphosis is the emergence of new, algorithmic gatekeepers, who, unlike the gatekeepers of the previous era — journalists, publishers, editors — don’t flaunt their cultural authority. They may even be unaware of it themselves, eager to deploy algorithms for fun and profit.

“I, for one, welcome our new algorithmic overlords.” –Said almost no one.

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