I really enjoyed an online lecture I attended last night by Dr. Ruha Benjamin, discussing the intersection between race and technology.
I’ve been listening to a lot of talks about race this past year, and this has been one of the best. Honestly, a lot of people who work in academics or research give talks that are very high-level and more than a bit dry. But this talk was not. Dr. Benjamin is an incredibly gifted storyteller and she had me hanging on every word, wanting to hear more.
Some of what she talked about intersects with the content in the talks I’ve been giving over the past couple years on the ethics of tech — topics such as hostile architecture, and how algorithms are never neutral because they are built on human biases. But she also hit on a lot of things that were new to me.
One really interesting thing she brought up that I had never heard of was this article that was published in 1957. The article said that slavery is coming back… but it will be robot slaves that we will own. Is this coming true, or has it come true? Why do we need to think of technology as humans that serve at our command (Siri, Alexa, et al)? How does our perception of race play into that?
That article ends with a chilling warning (reminder, this is from 1957) that someday we will be able to place radios in people’s brains, perhaps making possible the “control and enslavement of entire nations.” And yet the author concludes that “good seems to outweigh evil in the case of the robots.”
Technology does and will make many things possible, but when we look at the amazing technological advances of today, how often are our dreams built on the nightmares of others? The technological advancements that save us labor are built on the cheap labor of others — and whether or not they look like us, we do think of them as “others.”
If you’re interested in race and technology, there’s a recording of Dr. Benjamin’s lecture from last night.
She also has a book out called Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code.