Safiya U. Noble: The Loss of Public Goods to Big Tech

Associate professor of Information Studies publishes invited essay in new magazine by founder of Berggruen Institute.

Safiya U. Noble, UCLA associate professor of Information Studies and African American studies, has published an invited essay on “The Loss of Public Goods to Big Tech,” on the role of capitalism and big technology in the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and institutional racism. The essay appears in Noema, a new magazine founded by philanthropist Nicholas Berggruen. 

Noble, who serves as co-director of the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry (C2I2), writes that the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted disparities among African Americans and populations who face economic and political difficulties, through “the limitations, failures and potential harms of Silicon Valley promises.”

“The consequences have been devastating,” she notes.” The inescapable truth is that the fragility and inequality of our social, political and economic systems have been laid bare.

“As we struggle with multiple crises at this moment, Big Tech has exacerbated the spread of unreliable and false information and conspiracy theories, undermining trust and slowing efforts by public officials to provide greater protections for the public, especially in cities with large populations of working poor people and in communities of color,” writes Professor Noble. “Twitter, Facebook and others also allow the spread of voter suppression disinformation, health-related conspiracy theories and racial animus through algorithmic amplification of harmful, racist and dehumanizing content in their products and services.”

Noble points out the profit made by tech companies in the wake of crisis. 

“When prolonged historical racial injustice sustained by institutionalized racism, police brutality or state-sanctioned violence erupts into popular protests, tech companies and their investors rush in to capitalize,” she writes in the essay. “The tech sector stands poised and ready to sell its wares to law enforcement around the globe, just as it lines up to sell AI, robotics, predictive analytics, contact tracing and surveillance technologies in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

The world’s largest tech companies have become propagators of deadly information, while they simultaneously profit from it. They have long treated the world as their private research lab while off-loading risk onto the public and refusing to be held accountable for their business practices.”

Noble states that the lesson to be learned from “the normalization of the surveillance state,” that was created post-9/11 is “how our unfounded and over-zealous belief in technology has not and will not save us.”

“… Everyday people traded their privacy for alleged increases in safety that digital technology and AI would bring,” she writes. “We submitted ourselves to biometric tracking of our bodies under the false pretense that these technologies would make us safer, when they mostly just jettisoned any expectation we should have of freedom of movement. The systems were faulty and deployed more invasively at people with brown skin anyway, because racist logics undergird both the AI systems and the societies in which they are deployed.”

Professor Noble calls for new paradigms – not new technology – that would create and support, “ fair and equitable implementations of public policy that bolster our collective good. We need to center the most vulnerable among us — the working poor and the disabled, those who live under racial and religious tyranny, the discriminated against and the oppressed. We need to house people and provide health, employment, creative arts and educational resources. We need to close the intersectional racial wealth gap.

“We are at another pivotal moment of reckoning about the immorality of our systems, and it’s a good time to reimagine regulation, restoration and reparation from Big Tech too,” Noble concludes.

Professor Noble is the co-director of the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry and a faculty advisor to the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute. She is the author of “Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism.” Noble was recently interviewed by NBC News on the use of tip reporting in the wake of national protests of racism.

To read, “The Loss of Public Goods to Big Tech” by Safiya U. Noble, visit this link.

Photo by Stella Kalinina