15 May 2019

Lizzie O’Shea’s book, Future Histories: What Ada Lovelace, Tom Paine, and the Paris Commune Teach Us about Digital Technology, is out today. A substantial excerpt is available on Long Reads, focussing on the false neutrality of algorithms. Referring to Google Ads that algorithmically become racist over time, O’Shea comments: “One possible response to this is that the algorithm is neutral, that it is just a vehicle for the ad, automatically responding to how people use it; algorithms aren’t racist, people are racist. But the algorithm is built in a way that also confirms implicit biases that exist in the real world, and it does so over and over again. … Google executives should bear the responsibility for the outcomes generated by their technology when it does what it is designed to do. In this case, Google is providing a service that is doing what it is designed to do: monetize advertising most effectively. In other words, the importation of racism into digital technology and the failure to consider implicit bias in design processes is not a bug, it is a feature of technology capitalism.” (In her day job as a lawyer, O’Shea is currently managing a class action against Uber for the tort of conspiracy to injure by unlawful means.)