Gretchen Andrew talks to Medium Magazine about optimising search results for diversity and visualising hope.
Catching Up with Gretchen Andrew, Search Engine Artist
About 5.6 billion times per day, Google performs a search for an internet user. That’s three trillion results annually. And every one of those search results adds to a user’s understanding of her world — whether she’s searching for bagels or Brexit.
Most of us Google users quickly scan our search results and click onward, never stopping to consider how search algorithms shape our shared reality. Not so for Gretchen Andrew, an artist, self-proclaimed “Internet Imperialist,” and MozFest 2018 Facilitator.
Gretchen’s work asks how the artificial intelligence (AI) built into search algorithms defines the internet — and our world. “Our current internet has a structural preference for products over people, companies over communities, and commerce over culture,” Gretchen says.
Type the word “Cherokee” into Google image search, Gretchen explains, and you’ll scroll through pages and pages of photos of SUVs. You won’t see any images of the Cherokee tribal peoples, original inhabitants of the area now known as the southeastern United States. Another example: a search for the word “citizen” is dominated by results from a watch company. “Not only is our current internet non-inclusive, but artificial intelligence built into search is learning to define our world primarily by what can be bought and sold,” says Gretchen. “Human complexity is not well represented online.”
At MozFest 2018, Gretchen and a group of workshop participants explored the artistic process of search engine manipulation. Gretchen’s practice includes interlinking websites and creating metadata, alt-text, and image titles. These basic Search Engine Optimization (SEO) techniques are typically used to game algorithms and increase commercial sales. Workshop participants learned how SEO techniques can be used instead to increase the diversity of viewpoints and voices online. For example, Gretchen might tag images showing toddler girls learning to crawl in everyday, family environments with the title and alt text “girls crawling.” This includes those images in search results for that same phrase — — a search previously dominated by sexualized images of adult women on their hands and knees. By altering search results, Gretchen forces the AI to assimilate new, more nuanced information about the world.
Gretchen manipulates search engine results for inclusivity by making changes on her own websites, social sites like Pinterest and Quora, and on a grassroots network of collaborating arts and culture sites. And, as her MozFest workshop participants learned, anyone can use this process. She says, “I was pleased to see the occupations, backgrounds, and motivations of participants was much wider than I was anticipating… each of the participants in my workshop made their own connections between art and digital inclusion.” Together, the group explored the high-level causes, effects, and impacts of AI from diverse perspectives. The session, Gretchen says, helped her “remember that the goal is not to find a single, best solution but to create a space where many solutions can exist simultaneously.”
Art into Activism
“Before MozFest,” Gretchen says, “I was concerned that the work I was doing didn’t really count as activism.” After all, she wasn’t involved in creating new product roadmaps or pushing for new policies. But the festival changed her outlook. “This project is a way for participants to become more web literate, more aware, while making actual, measurable, changes to how the internet operates.”
Since the Festival, Gretchen has been exploring how her art practice can go beyond surfacing and solving the bias in the system. She is now experimenting with search engines as tools to visualize hope. “Search engines don’t differentiate between content that’s present-day, and actual, and content that reflects our aspirations, our hopes and fears.” She notes that there’s lots of content online describing negative scenarios, like apocalyptic futures for our environment. By generating aspirational content and maximizing its inclusion in searches, Gretchen comments on the phenomenon of “fake news,” and reveals the flaws in search AI. She says, “I’m purposely confusing the internet, in a way that a human reader will not be confused. I’m pointing out the weakness in the system, creating awareness of it, in a playful, positive way.”
Gretchen remarks that we’re used to artists creating worlds for us. We understand that process when it’s in a painting or a gallery installation. Her work reminds us to take notice — and take action — when the reality-builders aren’t artists but AIs. These corporate algorithms operate at a massive scale, with little oversight. “I think the most important thing I can do is convince people that they have a right to this conversation,” says Gretchen.
Gretchen regularly gives workshops for anyone wanting to use art to make the internet more inclusive. She’ll be teaching at Arebyte Gallery in London in April 2019. In the past, she’s held talks and workshops at A4 Arts Foundation with Wikipedia, and for Vivid Projects, The Photographer’s Gallery, The British Computer Society, and Cambridge University. Those interested in joining her grassroots network of websites hosting search interventions can reach her at gretchenandrew.com.
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