The technological side of racism

The other day I got a notification on my phone. A friend whom I haven’t seen in far too long posted a picture and Facebook thought that I might be in it. I got nostalgically excited trying to imagine what the photo might be. Was it that time I went to visit her and her family at her in-laws’? Maybe it was that time she sang with me onstage. It might have even been from when we worked together nearly a decade ago.

It wasn’t any of that. it wasn’t even a picture of me. It was one of those memes with a quote and a picture of the person being quoted. The person in this case was the rapper Common and Facebook wanted to know if I wanted to tag myself as him. I did not.

ICYDK, I look like this and Common looks like this and if I’m being perfectly honest, people often say I look like him. People in Maine, that is. White people in Maine, to be more specific. In other places where there are more Black people, this rarely happens.

Anyway, I compare my feeling of this false identification with how amazed and terrified I was a few years ago when Facebook correctly auto-tagged my white girlfriend despite the fact that most of her face was hidden behind giant diva sunglasses. Now, to be clear, my problem is not that I want to be auto-tagged by Facebook. I’m perfectly happy for it to have no idea who I am. This isn’t about being left out, or snubbed. It’s about a terrible sci-fi future in which racism doesn’t erode so much as advance just as exponentially as technology.

Some of you may think this is silly. Some of you may even be saying to yourselves “At least it’s not as bad as when Google was tagging Black people as gorillas or when cameras were commenting on Asians’ eyes,” However, this is not the first time I’ve come across these little bits of techno-racism. For example, I’d always thought those automatic soap dispensers in public restrooms were just broken. Then other Black people started posting videos of the same thing not happening for them and I realized something more specific was happening.

While perhaps seeming small, these things are all part of a pattern forming a terrifying future for everyone not white. Because, while the inability to detect darker skin tones is a problem in automatic soap dispensers, it is being reported as a much bigger problem in driverless cars not recognizing Black pedestrians. The problem gets even bigger just by reading this recent Washington Post headline: Racial bias in a medical algorithm favors white patients over sicker black patients.

As terrifying as all of that is, it doesn’t take much to imagine the horror of a Minority Report-like world in which similar racist algorithms are used in the criminal justice system. In fact, it takes no imagination at all because it’s already happening. The algorithms are called “risk assessment” tools and not only are they just as terrifying as you think, but according to, “Nearly every U.S. state and the federal system have implemented risk assessment in some form.”

While the current wave of tech offers the usual promise of a bright future for some, for Black people it’s threatening to send us back into a much more ruthless past. Not that racism in the tech world is anything new. It’s not. It’s been there from the very beginning. The very first American tech pioneer was a man named Herman Hollerith. He invented an electromagnetic tabulator that not only ushered in the computer age, but assisted and massively accelerated the institutionalization of racism from late 19th century America all the way through Nazi Germany.

As Yasha Levine wrote in his essay on Hollerith, The Racist Origins of America’s Tech Industry, “The data provided by Hollerith’s invention did not cause the racism, nativism, and eugenics that saw class and poverty through the lens of breeding rather than politics and economic policy. But it gave those fears concrete shape—and it provided data to which those fears could be hitched.”

Racism is in the foundations of this country and everything it’s built. It hasn’t gone away or necessarily gotten any better. Like technology, racism has, however, become more complicated. And as long as technology requires us to understand less and less of the world around us, these complications, while seeming innocuous to some, will only prove to be more and more deadly for others.

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Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash