Co-Opting AI: Race
NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge invites you to a presentation and discussion of Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code (Polity, 2019) by Ruha Benjamin, Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures (forthcoming from NYU Press, 2020) by André Brock, and Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter (forthcoming from Oxford University Press, 2019) by Charlton McIlwain. The event is part of our series on “Co-Opting AI” and will feature the authors Ruha Benjamin, André Brock and Charlton McIlwain in a conversation moderated by Mona Sloane. It will explore the complex entanglements of race and ethnicity with technology, cyberculture and inequality.
In Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code Ruha Benjamin cuts through tech-industry hype to understand how emerging technologies can reinforce White supremacy and deepen social inequity, from everyday apps to complex algorithms. Benjamin argues that automation, far from being a sinister story of racist programmers scheming on the dark web, has the potential to hide, speed up, and deepen discrimination while appearing neutral and even benevolent when compared to the racism of a previous era. Presenting the concept of the “New Jim Code,” she shows how a range of discriminatory designs encode inequity by explicitly amplifying racial hierarchies; by ignoring but thereby replicating social divisions; or by aiming to fix racial bias but ultimately doing quite the opposite. Moreover, she makes a compelling case for race itself as a kind of technology, designed to stratify and sanctify social injustice in the architecture of everyday life. This illuminating guide provides conceptual tools for decoding tech promises with sociologically informed skepticism. In doing so, it challenges us to question not only the technologies we are sold but also the ones we ourselves manufacture.
In Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures André Brock claims issues of race and ethnicity as inextricable from and formative of contemporary digital culture in the United States. Distributed Blackness analyzes a host of platforms and practices (from Black Twitter to Instagram, YouTube, and app development) to trace how digital media have reconfigured the meanings and performances of African American identity. Brock moves beyond widely circulated deficit models of respectability, bringing together discourse analysis with a close reading of technological interfaces to develop nuanced arguments about how “blackness” gets worked out in various technological domains. As Brock demonstrates, there’s nothing niche or subcultural about expressions of blackness on social media: internet use and practice now set the terms for what constitutes normative participation. Drawing on critical race theory, linguistics, rhetoric, information studies, and science and technology studies, Brock tabs between black-dominated technologies, websites, and social media to build a set of black beliefs about technology. In explaining black relationships with and alongside technology, Brock centers the unique joy and sense of community in being black online now.
In Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter, Charlton McIlwain shows that the story of racial justice movement organizing online is much longer and varied than most people know. In fact, it spans nearly five decades and involves a varied group of engineers, entrepreneurs, hobbyists, journalists, and activists. But this is a history that is virtually unknown even in our current age of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Black Lives Matter. Beginning with the simultaneous rise of civil rights and computer revolutions in the 1960s, McIlwain, for the first time, chronicles the long relationship between African Americans, computing technology, and the Internet. In turn, he argues that the forgotten figures who worked to make black politics central to the Internet’s birth and evolution paved the way for today’s explosion of racial justice activism. From the 1960s to present, the book examines how computing technology has been used to neutralize the threat that black people pose to the existing racial order, but also how black people seized these new computing tools to build community, wealth, and wage a war for racial justice. Through archival sources and the voices of many of those who lived and made this history, Black Software centralizes African Americans’ role in the Internet’s creation and evolution, illuminating both the limits and possibilities for using digital technology to push for racial justice in the United States and across the globe.
Ruha Benjamin is Associate Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, founder of the JUST DATA Lab, and author of Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code (Polity 2019) and editor of Captivating Technology: Reimagining Race, Carceral Technoscience, and Liberatory Imagination in Everyday Life (Duke 2019) among many other publications. Ruha’s work investigates the social dimensions of science, medicine, and technology with a focus on the relationship between innovation and inequity, health and justice, knowledge and power. She is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including from the American Council of Learned Societies, National Science Foundation, Institute for Advanced Study and, in 2017, she received the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching at Princeton.
André L. Brock is Associate Professor at the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech. He is an interdisciplinary scholar with an M.A. in English and Rhetoric from Carnegie Mellon University and a Ph.D. in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His scholarship includes published articles on racial representations in videogames, black women and weblogs, whiteness, blackness, and digital technoculture, as well as groundbreaking research on Black Twitter. His article “From the Blackhand Side: Twitter as a Cultural Conversation” challenged social science and communication research to confront the ways in which the field preserved “a color-blind perspective on online endeavors by normalizing Whiteness and othering everyone else” and sparked a conversation that continues, as Twitter, in particular, continues to evolve.
Charlton McIlwain is Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication and Vice Provost for Faculty Engagement and Development at NYU. His scholarly work focuses on the intersections of race, digital media, and racial justice activism. He is the founder of the Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies. His book, Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, From the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press, and he is the co-author of the award-winning book, Race Appeal: How Political Candidates Invoke Race In U.S. Political Campaigns. He received his Ph.D. in Communication and a Masters of Human Relations, both from the University of Oklahoma, and a B.A. in Family Psychology from Oklahoma Baptist University.
Mona Sloane is a sociologist whose work examines the intersection of design and social inequality, particularly in the context of AI design and policy, valuation practice, data epistemology, and ethics. She currently is a fellow at NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge, where she convenes the “Co-opting” AI series. She is also an adjunct professor at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering and a contributing editor with Public Books.
This event is co-sponsored by IPK’s Race and Public Space Working Group.
Image credit: Philipp N. Hertel