Did you see the news about what Google throws up if you search for ‘South Indian masala’? Last week, there were lots of outrage-cum-LOLs about the fact that when you type South Indian masala into the search engine, it shows you pictures of female actors in see-through blouses instead of images of molaga podi or whatever. It was also pointed out that searching for ‘North Indian masala’ throws up pictures of chana masala and garam masala, and not pictures of Bollywood actors in transparent clothes.
Shashi Tharoor was so annoyed that he tweeted to Google CEO Sundar Pichai about the issue.
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) July 7, 2017
To which the obvious response is:
Exasperating farrago of distortions misrepresentations & outright lies being broadcast by a showman masquerading as a search engine expert!
— Chandra Bhanu Jha (@chandra_09_04) July 7, 2017
Just kidding! Google obviously responded saying that it wasn’t like Google thought this was what South Indian masala meant, but that the search results were based on user patterns and Google’s understanding of user intent and happiness. Hilariously, it also offered what we assume it thought was some kind of consolation prize: that searching for ‘Hindi masala’ instead of ‘North Indian masala’ would also yield similar pictures of actors.
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) July 8, 2017
I mean, it would have been nice if Google didn’t show this as the search result, but I think it says more about us and our search patterns than about Google that this is what it throws up. It also makes you think about how much sexism there is encoded into the internet, all of which is a product of who uses it and how.
Take reusable stock images. Anyone who has had to frequently search for freely available stock images would notice that there’s some sexism and racism, or at least reflections of the sexism and racism that exists in the real word, that show up in the results.
For example, when you search for reusable images of pregnant women, you have literally hundreds of images to choose from. Men cooking? Not so much. At best, you’d able to find some images of white men cooking in professional restaurant set-ups, and almost none of men cooking at home, or doing any kind of household chores at all.
There’s something else going on when you search for images of Indian women too. There are plenty of images of women in rural set-ups, doing things like elegantly carrying multiple matkas of water on their heads, and almost none of women hanging out with their friends, working in offices or exercising. Of course, a significant number of pictures of rural women are posted online for free commercial use by what seem to be foreign tourists, and the pictures are often in folders with names like ‘Rajasthan Delhi Agra Goa Trip 2015’.
What does it all mean? Well, it could be a reflection of the fact that more stock images are created outside India than in, and that we need to up our representation in the virtual world, given that these images influence how Indian women are portrayed online in thousands of different place. It also shows that the internet, often considered a new, gender-equal playing field, actually clearly reflects the real world’s power imbalances, and that the nature of technology is a function of who creates it and how it’s used, and so it isn’t immune to sexism and racism at all. Remember when Google Photos tagged black people as gorillas through facial recognition software, as it was programmed to recognise white people as humans?