...The modern study of the intersection of race and technology has its roots in the 1990s, when tech utopianism clashed with the racism of tech culture. As the Internet grew into a massive nexus for commerce and leisure and became the heart of modern industry, the ills of tech workplaces manifested themselves online in chat rooms, message boards, and multiplayer video games that were rife with harassment and hate speech. Documenting these instances, a range of scholars, activists, and politicians attempted to combat these ills, but with little success. When the Simon Wiesenthal Center sent letters to Internet providers in 1996 protesting the rise of neo-Nazi websites, for example, the reply it received from a representative of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a prominent tech lobby, channeled a now commonplace mantra: “The best response is always to answer bad speech with more speech.” Similarly, media studies researcher Lisa Nakamura documented a dismissive comment in a study of the online game LambdaMOO. In response to a failed community petition to curb racial harassment, a detractor countered, “Well, who knows my race unless I tell them? If race isn’t important [then] why mention it? If you want to get in somebody’s face with your race then perhaps you deserve a bit of flak.”
Race After Technology belongs to this earlier tradition of protest and scholarship—books like the seminal collections Race in Cyberspace and Communities in Cyberspace—that responded to this dismissive environment by documenting the way the Internet altered and entrenched conventions around race and identity, as well as the way those shifts were dictated by the characteristics of different online spaces. From Byron Burkhalter exploring how the people in Usenet newsgroups relied on a host of conversational quirks and specialized knowledge to discern the race of other users to Judith Donath examining how online handles and signatures communicated the personalities and identities of their authors, these early texts made the now obvious case that the Internet was shaped by the larger world—for better and worse.
In Race After Technology, however, Benjamin expands this insight, examining not only the emergence of a racist Internet but also how it is produced by a tech sector and a set of commercial products (online and off-) that are themselves shaped by historical prejudices, biases, and inequalities. An anthropologist and sociologist by training, Benjamin has specialized in research on biotechnology and race. Her first book, People’s Science, explored a California stem cell initiative that silenced poor and disabled research subjects despite ostensibly being designed to recognize their concerns. She has applied her interest in the gaps between scientific ideals and practice to a wide range of subjects, like egg donation and biased algorithms, for outlets such as HuffPost, The Guardian, and the Los Angeles Times. Race After Technology bridges Benjamin’s research and her broader interest in increasing the public’s literacy in tech. Less rooted in a particular type of technology, the book focuses on the practices and rhetoric that shape how issues concerning race—in artificial intelligence (AI), algorithms, and data collection—are treated across the tech sector.
The prevalence of secondary sources in Race After Technology can make the book feel more like a literature review than a focused thesis, but things snap into focus as Benjamin trains her roving eye on recurring forms across technologies, particularly codes, which in her telling encompass programming languages as well as names, addresses, and hashtags. Codes, she warns, “act as narratives” and “operate within powerful systems of meaning that render some things visible, others invisible, and create a vast array of distortions and dangers.”
Benjamin’s social and technical definition of codes serves as one of the book’s cruxes. Her interest isn’t simply to catalog all the oppressive tech out there; her goal is to make the dangers of tech legible, to teach us how to read technology through the lenses of history and experience.
To make clear how today’s technologies channel the heinous social systems of the past, she riffs on Michelle Alexander’s notion that we are living in a new era of Jim Crow. For her, racism is not just an untold chapter in the story of technology; it’s a constant presence, a leitmotif. Like Alexander, who coined the term “New Jim Crow” to accentuate the manner in which the carceral state was built from an existing racist blueprint under the auspices of neutrality and fairness, Benjamin uses hers to underline how central bias is in seemingly objective technological systems. ...
Read full review at The Nation