Sexism as revealed by search engines.

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Bomb test at the Bikini Atoll

One of the first skills to be taught for doing basic research — the kind that college freshmen do for a composition class, for example — is checking sources. Who or what is the source, what is the source’s history, and what work has the source done? And most importantly, what biases might the source have?

This may sound like a potential ad hominem fallacy, but it does not have to be. Our time is limited and might also be valuable, and thus while a racist or a flat Earther could occasionally make valid statements, the probability is that we can get the same insights elsewhere with less trouble. As a practical matter, we are not obliged to listen to everyone all the time, and someone with a record of bad ideas has the burden of showing that this time, what the person is saying is worthy of our attention. And even with people who are generally credible, identifying biases is necessary, since such things are often less than fully conscious to the presenter and are buried in the totality of the argument like inclusions in a piece of steel, the effect of which we need to determine.

I raise these considerations to provide the context of something that I have observed while doing the preparatory work for my writing. When a source that I am thinking of using is a woman of not too advanced age, the search engine that I go to first, DuckDuckGo, adds “bikini” to her name in the suggested completion of what I have typed already.

Someone might say that this is just being thorough in checking out a source, but it is instead a reminder that while the truth is important, the whole truth is often beside the point. The work that a person does is significant in relation to the particular material I am relying on, but the source’s physical characteristics generally will not be.

So what is going on here? In the time of the #MeToo movement, when again and again we are learning that men in positions of power have acted in ways that range from boorish to criminal, we need to pay attention to the assumptions that make up the infrastructure of our society.

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First, though, let me explain what DuckDuckGo is to those who have not heard of it — and who may think that I am getting the search suggestions that I have earned. DuckDuckGo is a search engine whose name is clumsy to type, but that does not collect data on its users. I am taking the creators of the site at their word here, but the consensus of people who know more about computers than I do — a class with many members — seems to be that the assertion is reliable. And unlike the Evil Corporation’s browser, DuckDuckGo does not impose a filter bubble based on the user’s previous searches and does not gather data on individual users. (This is not a paid promotion, I am sorry to say.) This means that autocomplete suggestions are based on the text already typed and on what the Internet is looking for. I have seen complaints that this prevents personalization, but that is exactly the point.

I have reservations about autocomplete. It is downright obnoxious when the suggestion is forced upon me if the mouse cursor drifts over it, and since I am easily distracted, the list of what the search engine thinks I am looking for can make me gang agley. But occasionally I find things that I had not anticipated that were just what I needed, and as I am a bad speller, autocomplete saves me a lot of flailing. (Professional writing is not the result of knowing how to spell everything in advance, but in doing the work of looking the words up to get things in order.)

All of this, of course, is to say that no, I am not looking for pictures of various women in politics, journalism, and so forth wearing bikinis, but enough other users of the Internet are to make the two things a predictable combination. So what are we to do?

Perhaps nothing. The impulse of the control freak is to pass a law or for the more technically advanced among them to rewrite the computer code, but such things do not have a good record of success. The Internet sees censorship as damage to the network to be worked around, and when the American people want something — be it alcohol, marijuana, pornography, or whatnot — they get it, whether the law approves or not. And manipulating search suggestions to steer people toward acceptable information is a bad idea.

Need I say that such manipulation not can but will be done by someone that you or I or the person over there does not like at some point in the future? Given the urge to meddle among too many of us in this world, apparently I do.

The better answer is that by being aware, we can shift things in a good direction. No matter how distracting an autocomplete suggestion might be, it is possible to ignore it. And the abuses being exposed with the downfall of men like Harvey Weinstein remind us all that the minor acts of boorishness are on a continuum, rather than being categorically different. If fewer and fewer users of search engines type in “bikini” after the name of women who are professionals in fields that involve things other than what they look like, the recommendations that are offered to us will get more interesting.

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Or I could just follow my own advice and ignore the suggested search string, even though it is at the top of the list. It is not what I was looking for, and if I am going to get on with the writing I need to do, I had better type in what I do need to find myself.

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Gee, Camp, what were you thinking? Supports gay rights, #2a, #1a, science, and other seemingly incongruous things. Books available on Amazon.

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