It is a truth algorithmically acknowledged that a man needs to ejaculate and a woman needs to be put in her place.
Perturbed by the prejudice of the previous sentence? You should be. But don’t shoot the messenger, particularly as that messenger is from the United Nations. An ad campaign developed for UN Women, reveals just how pervasive discrimination against women is through the use of genuine Google search suggestions. The campaign features close-ups of women’s faces with autocomplete results for terms like “Women shouldn’t…” and “Women need to…” placed over their mouths. These include gems such as “Women need to be disciplined” and “Women shouldn’t have rights”. The small print on each ad reads: “Actual Google search on 09/03/13.”
While many of us interact with Google’s autocomplete feature several times a day, we rarely consider the mechanics behind it. Autocomplete is the computational equivalent of the real-world smartarse who finishes other people’s sentences for them. But while that smartarse may operate via hunches, autocomplete works via algorithms. Input just a few characters and the algorithm will mine through search data in order to anticipate what you’re looking for, based on what other people have searched for in the past.
Autocomplete suggestions differ according to variables such as region and time, but there tends to be a degree of consistency across results. So when I replicated the UN Women campaign search terms from New York on Monday night, the top three suggestions for “Women need to…” were: “Women need to shut up,” “Women need to grow up,” and “Women need to know their place”. Trying the term “Men need to …” generated “Men need to ejaculate”, “Men need to feel needed”. Oh and it seems “Men need to grow up” too. So there’s one small win for gender equality.
Google has become something of the secular equivalent of a confessional box. Within the confines of a search bar you can ask questions or express opinions you would never admit to in public. Our most popular searches are, to some degree, an uncensored chronicle of what, as a society, we’re thinking but not necessarily saying. What makes the UN Women campaign so powerful is that it pulls back the curtain of publicly acceptable rhetoric and lays bare just how widespread gender prejudices still are.
But a quick word of caution. While we shouldn’t make light of the very real and vile opinions the UN Women ads draw attention to, it should also be noted that autocomplete isn’t always an entirely accurate reflection of the collective psyche. Indeed, autocomplete suggestions can be so bizarre that they’ve spawned a Twitter account, @GooglePoetics, dedicated to the occasionally Dadaeseque outputs. A typical poem reads:
my God I’m a tomato
my God I’m delicious
my God I’m pregnant I wonder who did it
The world as seen through the lens of autocomplete is a weird and not always wonderful place. It’s a place where David Cameron “is a lizard”, Obama is “a Muslim”, Putin is a “badass” and Miley Cyrus, predictably, is “still twerking”. But despite the suggestions that have been skewed by a popular blogpost or meme and are clearly bonkers, there is still much to be gleaned from them about our deep-seated discriminations.
What’s more, autocomplete also serves as a worrying indicator of how, in the interests of efficiency, we’re gradually letting technology complete our thought processes for us. According to research conducted by, um, Google, 400 milliseconds – or the amount of time it takes to blink your eye – is now considered an unreasonable delay on the web. Technology has made us all incredibly impatient. As one Google “speed maestro” told the New York Times, “every millisecond matters”.
Because every millisecond matters, Google’s rationale behind the value of autocomplete is largely that it’s efficient. According to the autocomplete FAQ page, the feature is helpful because it lets you “rest your fingers”. But while autocomplete may let us rest our fingers, it also making us rest our brains. As a society, we need to break our speed addiction and slow down for a minute to think. And if you’re wondering what autocomplete thinks about that, well, it thinks we need to talk about Kevin. – By Arwa Mahdawi © Guardian News and Media 2013