Warning: Click Bait – Racism in your Machine

kitty trap
Told you so.

OMG! We live in exciting times!

Technology is evolving and innovating all the time. We are integrating hardware and software into our lives more and more everyday. And opportunities for digital intervention, organizing, and activism are multiplying with each new iteration of tech.

Some of the technology will be born from the nexus of social justice organizing and technology development along the lines of the tools developed by the early pioneers of digital campaigning, MoveOn.

Yet, if new technology is not developed by those who are leading the charge for racial and gender justice, then we are missing the real chance to innovate our society.

The foundation
Today’s paradigm of digital campaigning, emerged in 1998, from an email group and petition started by Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, a married couple, who were interested in getting Congress to censure Clinton (over the Monica Lewinsky scandal) and “move on.” They succeeded in getting over half a million signatures, but not winning the censure.

The founders of MoveOn should be applauded for innovating and finding a new way to campaign, a way that has come to be the dominant form of digital campaigning (regardless of my earlier criticism).

moveon kitty

And yet…

MoveOn was started by rich white people (their software company Berkeley Systems was making $30 million in annual revenue until they sold it for $13 million a year before starting MoveOn – according to Wikipedia).

(@JTPspeaks #BFD –  masses of well meaning white technologists are tweeting)

So much of how we see the world, and how we approach social change, is shaped by our lived experience. At a base level our lives are shaped by our experience of race, gender, and economics all combined with power. As individuals, we are really good at universalizing our experiences and assuming everyone has the same ones. This effect is multiplied when surrounded by people of the same race, same class, and/or gender. It is further multiplied when those doing the universalizing are the ones with power, who can then define the systems for themselves and bend everyone else to it.

Jaron Lanier, computer scientist and pioneer in the field of virtual reality, states in his book You Are Not a Gadget:

It takes only a tiny group of engineers to create technology that can shape the entire future of human experience with incredible speed… particular design will occasionally happen to fill a niche and once implemented, turn out to be unalterable. It becomes a permanent fixture from then on, even though a better design might just as well have taken its place before the moment of entrenchment.

The dominant paradigm of digital campaigning was started by a small group of people. They saw a niche and filled it and set the standard for digital campaigning for quite some time. Their worldview of upwardly mobile white people shaped their approach to digital campaigning and the digital tools they developed to campaign on.

I asked PaKou Her, Campaign Director at 18MillionRising.org, what she thought about my the whacky idea that technology can have a racial bias. She said:

The digital work we do today carries the social and cultural fingerprints of those who first created the platforms we use and the methods we test. It would be a fallacy to presume that these tools and tactics are free of the biases. The privileges and power of their originators are all deeply encoded into digital culture and tech – often unintentionally and unconsciously, but not without real disparate impacts.

For social justice and progressive organizations, it should matter who is in the room and who is doing the designing when digital campaigning and digital tools are developed. If white people are the only ones developing methods for digital campaigning and the associated technology then the platforms we develop will be for white people, will attract white people, and will block out people of color.

Director of  youth+tech+health (YTH) Jamia Wilson told me about their model, which capitalizes on the idea that the worldview of tech developers is built into the tech they develop. She told me:

The low-income youth of color we work with are not just a market for new health tools, they are experts in their own lives and are best positioned to create technology based health solutions. That’s why we give them the tools, capacity, and mentoring they need to create smarter tech for themselves and the world, on their terms.

These ideas aren’t confined to lefty do gooders either. There is an emerging idea trend, in Silicon Valley that diversity of identities on design teams is good for innovation.  Donald Farmer of Qlik wrote in WIRED:

…you need a diverse, multiform meeting-place of cultures, where people have quite different backgrounds, biases and conceptual starting-points in life and work. Diversity reflects more than mere political correctness: it delivers a measurable advantage for research and development

thesame

Deanna Zandt, digital strategy badass and author, wrote in a recent blog post entitled This secret will determine wether Ello creates interestingness, that it isn’t just about who develops the technology but who the early adopters of the technology are:

Early adopters have a huge amount of influence on establishing the cultural norms of a platform or service. The @ symbol for mentioning someone? #Hashtags? Short URLs? All were put into use by early Twitter users back in the day, and still remain the most important features of the service. How a community also deals with issues of violence, safety and abuse also determine who generally sticks around, and who doesn’t. Without a diverse set of people coming to the table to help shape those expectations of one another, we risk creating yet another sterile digital ecosystem like the many that have come–and gone–before.

It’s not about bean-counting. Diversity isn’t enough; this is about equity.

So what do we do?

A quick summary of my argument – Socially constructed technologies like race and the associated racism (for more on race as a technology check out Afrofuturism by Ytasha Womack) are baked into the systems (legal, educational, etc.) and institutions that make up our society. It also manifest in campaigning methods, organizations, and technology that we build to change the systems.

While Lanier is a pessimist about the ability to alter or innovate on foundational technology once it becomes a permanent fixture, I have hope that there is and will continue to be deep innovations in digital campaigning that take up the challenge of racial and gender justice.

There are plenty of organizations out there already innovating on the existing paradigm of digital campaigning, groups like: 18 MillionRising, ColorofChange, Presente, and Coworker. They are breaking the bounds of tradition with varied practices, from experimenting with power away from petitions, to investing in and elevating Black and Latino digital strategists, to creating new organizational forms and creating new digital tools.

As Pakou Her told me:

 To be truly innovative in a time of increasing diversity and demands for equity, we must disrupt and subvert the power and privileges built into digital campaigning while simultaneously creating new ways of being.

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