Dr. Safiya Noble, a professor and the author of “Algorithms of Oppression,” would love to one day adapt her book into a series highlighting the women doing incredible work in her field. And she already has the perfect person in mind to play her: Tessa Thompson.
Noble spoke about the importance of visibility for women of color — especially those working in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields — on “What Are You Bringing?” The podcast is hosted by “On Being Human” author Jennifer Pastiloff and Alicia “ACE” Easter, the founder of ACE Yoga LA, and was presented Wednesday as part of TheWrap’s Power Women Summit 2020.
“My hope for this work… is that I can use it to culture shift. We live here in L.A., and I’m trying to envision… doesn’t Tessa Thompson want to play me in the making of ‘Algorithms of Oppression’?” Noble said on the podcast. “The next dream I would say is to turn this either into a show or a film where I can also tell the story of all these incredible women and make them visible too.”
Noble, who is the co-founder and co-director of UCLA’s Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, delved into the podcast’s theme, “Own Your Worth,” by explaining how she had to trust in her instincts even as others dismissed them. Her most recent book, “Algorithms of Oppression,” examines the problem of “data discrimination,” or the reality that software, algorithms, search engines and other technology can contain inherent racial bias that “discriminate against people of color, specifically women of color.” Years ago, as Noble began doing her research, she was consistently told that “there was no ‘there’ there” — that racially biased search engines weren’t possible. But she knew that wasn’t true.
“The people who are smartest about the harms are the people who are experiencing the harms,” Noble said. “So many women, women of color and LGBTQ people have been at the forefront of the last 15 years of pressing on what is at stake for the most vulnerable in our society.”
“Algorithms of Oppression” highlights instances of facial recognition technology that didn’t recognize the faces of Black women and predictive policing drawing from years-old data that reinforces outdated biases. And she said that often, the people who are the most poised to notice bias are the victims themselves.
“The women and the people who are most likely to see that something’s wrong here — ‘I’m being precluded, some software keeps screening me out of being considered for jobs, something’s happening here’ — those are the people who know the most,” Noble said. “We have this idea that poor people don’t know. Actually, they know the most.”
Noble said that when she got her PhD in information science, she was the only Black woman in her class. She didn’t have role models or teachers in the field who she could look up to or lean on, and she estimated that today, there may still be only 20 or so Black women in the world with the same degree. By getting the word out about her book — especially if it becomes a splashy TV series starring Tessa Thompson — she hopes to inspire change in her community and in the world.
“There is something about visibility that I think can help attract other people to want to come and do work in new areas, so to me that’s what culture shifting is about, that’s what representation is about — to get people involved and them wanting to do the hard work too,” Noble said.
Listen to Dr. Safiya Noble’s full conversation as part of the “What Are You Bringing?” podcast above.
The Power Women Summit, presented by the WrapWomen Foundation, is the largest annual gathering of the most influential women in entertainment, media and technology. The Summit aims to inspire and empower women across the landscape of their professional careers and personal lives. This year’s all-virtual PWS provides three days of education, mentorship, workshops and networking around the globe to promote “Inclusion 360,” this year’s theme.