Domesticating the techno-racial project


In writing about race, Toni Morrison asked us to think about race as home: “a suitable term because … [it] domesticates the racial project, moves the job of unmattering race away from pathetic yearning and futile desire; away from an impossible future or an irretrievable and probably non-existent Eden to a manageable, doable, modern human activity”1. Today, the racial project is increasingly entangled with the project of machine intelligence and AI. Examples of intelligent technologies reproducing racialized ways of thinking and acting are now widespread, in sectors ranging from healthcare, policing and welfare, all the way to dating and hiring. This is where Ruha Benjamin’s book, Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, enters: as one of those important pieces of scholarship and writing that domesticates the techno-racial realities of our age and work in machine intelligence, making visceral and conscious the disastrous effects of detaching technology from social and political context. This book is worthy of the widest readership, leaving us not only with a deeper understanding of the mutual and shifting roles of race and technology, but also, importantly, with the manageable and doable tools with which to create alternative, equitable, inclusive and prosperous futures.

Race After Technology is self-described as a “field guide into the world of biased bots, altruistic algorithms and their coded cousins”. We are taken on a tour across a landscape carved and structured by what Benjamin calls the New Jim Code. Code here refers to the systems of signifiers and meaning that infuse our cultural and social world, whether these be in our names, traditions, music, dialects or stereotypes. But these codes, invoking the memory of US Jim Crow-era racial segregation, are now renewed and reproduced by modern technologies that purport to be objective and unbiased, yet in reality, are the opposite.

Keeping to its intention of being a field guide, Race After Technology reads as a broad survey of the many instances in which technology and race combine in discriminatory and biased ways. Yet what could have been a dry review, is lively, fluid and simple in its use of language and argument. While guiding us through the New Jim Code, Benjamin also provides us with a practical introduction to socio-technical theories that are of increasing relevance to machine intelligence: covering topics from technological determinism and critical theories of race and race-blind racism, to surveillance, biopolitics and philosophy of the human. This book is not only a field guide to the racist underpinnings of new technology, but also a guide to the theory and application of socio-technical research, whose understanding can only strengthen the toolkit of machine intelligence researchers.

Over five chapters we discover examples of AI judges for beauty pageants that reinforce a view of white Eurocentric beauty as default, of racist soap dispensers, of identities dispossessed by border agencies and states using prediction and search, and of facial recognition systems and predictive policing that creates a technological dystopia that many Black communities are already living in. Our ongoing support and activism for the #BlackLivesMatter movement and against racial injustice globally underscores why books like Race After Technology, which make us conscious of the racial dimensions of machine intelligence, is an important contribution and one worthy of our deep study.

Race After Technology is predominantly focused on the instances and experiences of US race relations — like much of the work at present in race and technology more generally — so does not provide an extensive view of other dimensions of racialized technology, for example, in relation to tribal ethnicity in a country like Kenya2, or the indigenous experiences of Māori in New Zealand3. It also takes a limited view of the broader geopolitical and economic factors at play. But that is not the aim of this field guide. While experiences differ across the world, this book’s aim is to reveal the modes in which modern technology, and especially AI, is racially infused. When we can see our technology in the light of the harms and injustices it causes, our sense of confidence, and the power we hold as technical designers, is shaken; from our own work, we become alienated, and the view we might hold of intelligent technology that works for the good of all, destabilized.

This destabilizing and — returning to Toni Morrison’s directive — domestication of AI research is essential, since it clears the path for our understanding of the book’s recommendations and tactics for abolishing the New Jim Code. Our new-found abolitionist tools range from changes in epistemological practice to practical tools of regulation and contestation: shifting to technology with an emancipatory ethics, using principles of design justice, prioritizing equity over efficiency and social good over market imperatives, deploying audits for coded equity, democratizing data and documenting what it contains, using the tools of participatory action research, and relying on narrative as a tool for liberation.

As computer scientists, perhaps we can understand ‘code’ in the New Jim Code more literally. Lawrence Lessig might have captured this sense of code best when he wrote: “Nature doesn’t determine cyberspace. Code does. Code is not constant. It changes. It is changing now in a way that will make cyberspace more regulable. It could change in a way that makes cyberspace less regulable. How it changes depends on the code writers. How code writers change it could depend on us”4. So here, as the code writers, revealed again is the imperative to domesticate technology and our research. Ruha Benjamin’s book Race After Technology, when engaged with fully, provides a key resource with which to understand the precise ways that the code writers can, and must, change. And as she writes, that change will “bring to life liberating and joyful ways of living in and organizing our world”.

References

  1. 1.

    Morrison, T. Home (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997).

  2. 2.

    Nyabola, N. Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Politics in Kenya (Zed Books, 2018).

  3. 3.

    Gavaghan, C., Knott, A., Maclaurin, J., Zerilli, J. & Liddicoat, J. Government Use of Artificial Intelligence in New Zealand (New Zealand Law Foundation, 2019).

  4. 4.

    Lessig, L. Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace 109 (Basic Books, 1999).

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Shakir Mohamed.

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Mohamed, S. Domesticating the techno-racial project.
Nat Mach Intell 2, 491 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s42256-020-00228-4

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