Here’s an interesting set of observations on those UN Women print adverts I posted on Friday.
"Actual Google search on 09/03/13" reads the small print on this poster campaign for UN Women. “When we came across these searches, we were shocked by how negative they were and decided we had to do something with them” says Christopher Hunt, the Art Director, but the shocking posters have not only raised issues concerning sexism, but also about the accountability of Google autocomplete. The Guardian responded with an ill-informed analysis of the mechanics of the autocomplete algorithm, while a more thorough response has come through the research community in the form of a blogpost by Anna Jobin of the Digital Humanities Lab at EPFL, Lausanne, who’s Phd is about our interactions with Google’s algorithms. When provoking the question ‘who is in charge when algorithms are in charge?’ she states:
I rather suspect a coordinated bunch of MRAs are to be blamed for the volume of said search terms – but that doesn’t mean Google is completely innocent. The question of accountability goes beyond a binary option of intentionality or complete innocence.
Unsurprisingly, Google doesn’t take any responsibility. It puts the blame on its own algorithms… as if the algorithms were beyond the company’s control.
Funny, that.Doesn’t matter who, but when I first proposed a talk about algorithms to TED 3 years ago, there was a gatekeeper who asked, point-blank, who on earth would ever care or even understand what an algorithm is. It required great diplomacy to convince them that maybe a few people would care. It’s possible that by now, this person has been replaced with one.
Marius is into coding “generative art.” Generative art is particularly “eruptive,” in the New Aesthetic eruptive sense. It looks “eruptive” because, although it isn’t new, the world has never yet come to terms with art generated by algorithms. We lack a sensibility that is cozy and urbane about that. So we have pretend that it’s amazingly new, all the time.
This response is pig-headed of us. Generative art has many analog precursors, as Marius himself has pointed out, in illuminating detail, on several occasions. Generative software code is code, and a printout sheet of it looks pretty intimidating to the non-coder. But it really is art code. It is not hidden from view by patents, trade secrets and commercial manufacturers. By the standards of New Media art, it’s compact, purpose-built, open to inspection, and, with sufficient investment of effort, comprehensible.
About a year after Pole created his pregnancy-prediction model, a man walked into a Target outside Minneapolis and demanded to see the manager. He was clutching coupons that had been sent to his daughter, and he was angry, according to an employee who participated in the conversation.
“My daughter got this in the mail!” he said. “She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”
The manager didn’t have any idea what the man was talking about. He looked at the mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to the man’s daughter and contained advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture and pictures of smiling infants. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again.
On the phone, though, the father was somewhat abashed. “I had a talk with my daughter,” he said. “It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology.”