Social Data and Social Justice

With over 15 years of industry experience in advertising, Safiya Noble, has a unique outlook on the ever-evolving world of technology. As friends initially saw Google’s search engine as a great public utility, she saw it as an ad platform. For reference, Google is still king as it continues to generate more ad revenue than any other company.

Safiya 2

In her current role as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA, Safiya actively grapples with the interweave of technology companies and their role in society. In her own words, “Technologies aren’t neutral, they aren’t objective, and they aren’t just tools.” You can’t effectively design technology for society if you don’t know anything about society.

Algorithmic Accountability

As social media platforms continue to push the boundaries of content creation and real-time sharing, the risk of the unexpected happening increases. This is evident with recent examples of awful things happening over live broadcasts. To make matters worse, ads (being none the wiser) get programmatically placed next to this graphic content.The question becomes: profitability at what cost?

Virality is the name of the game. That’s what people want. – Safiya Noble

As long as the “click” reigns supreme, this will continue to happen. It is this very intersection, that Safiya believes that companies have a responsibility to society – algorithmic accountability so to speak. Otherwise, it’s all too easy to view the tech sector as complicit. This will require a shift in business model. One that moves away from the almighty “click” and truly considers all aspects of driving ad revenue, responsibly.

The Diversity Dilemma

When asked about the topic of diversity – or lack thereof – in Silicon Valley, her response was simply: “We do. Correct.” Meaning, yes we have a problem! However, her thoughts on the topic span well beyond the notion that hiring diverse candidates will solve the problem. Coming out of college as a diverse candidate does not qualify an individual to deal with the social dimensions of large technology platforms.

Instead, Safiya argued that these companies would be better served hiring people with advanced degrees in the social sciences, humanities, and cultural studies. These are the people who are well equipped in navigating the complex social dynamics that play out across technology and social media. This attention to and knowledge of society is oft missing in today’s world of social media platforms.

Looking to the Future

So what happens if we don’t act soon? What happens if tech companies refuse to change and continue to ignore society when building solutions? The impact will ultimately hit the end user – the very targets of the ads that power it all in the first place.

Mark my words, AI will become a human rights issue in the 21st century. – Safiya Noble

Through better partnerships with experts in the social sciences, Safiya hopes technology companies can innovate new and existing platforms to be more culturally cognizant. Otherwise, we may have a new human rights issue on our hands.

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