Towards the Anti-Racist Algorithm: Digital Alterations of Racial Realities

In January of this year, David Auerbach wrote a very interesting article in Slate entitled, “The Code We Can’t Control.” The article was part review of Frank Pasquale’s Black Box Society. Summarily, both of these works urge us to more carefully consider our assumptions that computers are incapable of perpetuating racism and bias. To some extent both of these works illustrate that while computers do not create racial prejudice, the implicit biases of programmers are responsible for that, computers can perpetuate and contribute to racism by digitizing the logic of discrimination.


Auerbach provided several examples from a recent study by Latanya Sweeny on Google Ad Words that illustrate his previous concerns as well as those of Pasquale. The fact that computers are complicit tools in maintaining a racist architecture urges us to also consider alternatives to our current virtual and physical realities. If in fact computers can be programmed to perpetuate racist structures, we can also program them to perpetuate anti-racist approaches. the same Google ads that serve up arrest records for “black-identified” names can also be used to redirect racists to resources that challenge their misconceptions.  Of course this would fundamentally challenge the idea of search.  The purpose of search is to effectively list what you are looking for not necessarily what you need.  Or is it?  At least we assume, it is.  Should Google or any other search engine be in the business of social engineering? In short, the answer to that question is yes.  Big data search has long been involved in that enterprise from nudging you to buy movie tickets, re-ranking recommended sites, serving ads based on your unique history, etc.  I think the more appropriate question that we should be asking is why do we view a digital intervention to circumvent racial discrimination as unorthodox while we readily accept other forms of social engineering.  The answer to this question is deeper than search engines or algorithms.


The way to reverse racism in the digital universe depends on identical strategies of dismantling it in the physical world. We cannot accept the notion of a de facto state of racial neutrality.  The solution to socioeconomic inequalities has never been in maintaining the status quo. In order for us to effectively deal with racism in the world and online we must actively counter it with alternative visions and algorithms of the world we wish to inherit.

Remarks on Power Over Peoples

Daniel Headrick’s Power Over Peoples: Technology, Environments, and Western Imperialism 1400 to the Present fits into the author’s broader explorations on the relationship between technology, social change, and state power as explored in Tools of Empire (1981), Tentacles of Progress (1988), and The Invisible Weapon (1991). Collectively, these works help us to better understand the ways technology shapes state power and impacts the relationship between technocratic elites and those that they seek to subdue.

In this work, Headrick approaches the subject of how the power of technology over environment translates into Western efforts to expand and subjugate populations lacking the tools to fend off these incursions. Relying largely on themes characteristic of the anti-deterministic camp, Headrick makes a strong case against viewing technology as the sole reason for Western power over colonial subjects. In summary, Headrick argues that technological mastery translates into control over environment–and by extension people–who resisted Western hegemony using innovated, borrowed, and emulated technological responses.


Using a narrative approach, Headrick is responding to hubris regarding the technological achievement of the ‘West over the rest’. He urges the reader not to make the conclusion that all technological showdowns were predetermined in the West’s favor but rather he engages several patterns that challenge popular misconceptions about the historical role of technology.

First, he counters how readers tend to take a presentist approach to Western technological superiority, forgetting that technological advances in the present are a relatively recent phenomenon (mid-fifteenth century) in the long narrative of human history. Secondly, he urges us to consider that technologies are rarely evenly distributed but that their asymmetrical accumulation yield advantages of power over environment and by extension people. These powers are compounded by time and become important historical force because they tend to compel the extension of power and further development of new technologies. However, in Headrick’s assessment, technological advancement can present the illusion of self-fulfilling prophecies of cultural, ethnic, and or racial superiority damning those blessed with technological might to the path of eternal escalation. Lastly, he urges us to consider a connection between Western arrogance (relying on the work of Michael Adas) in the search for technological advantage and motives for imperialism.

This work relies largely on existing secondary sources to support these claims. Periodically there are important vignettes, that taken in the context of the original writer do not present the same perspective as when intertwined in Headrick’s narrative. For example, the first two chapters are largely reassessments of previously existing work on the role of naval exploration and navigation in Western imperialism. These chapters present no new factual information per se but they do create a new narrative that challenges what many have thought about as a simple explanation for European mastery of the seas. They get the reader to consider the possibilities of alternative futures based on the presence of advanced navigation technologies in many nations who are considered technologically irrelevant today.  Importantly, he takes up the complex issue of why European navigational technologies translated into the extension of state power over foreign lands and people.  For Headrick, Western Imperialism is not a matter of destiny but something more complex.

Towards the middle and end of the book, Headrick picks up themes addressing how Western nations often came to equate technological superiority with cultural superiority. Importantly, he illustrates how these views can be misleading as technology does not emerge in a vacuum but in a shared process of innovation. He demonstrates how people who were thought to be technologically and culturally inferior were often quite adept at using new technologies to thwart their more technologically advanced adversaries. For example, in Chapter 3 and 4, Headrick’s discussion of the uses of horses as a military technology against Native Americans and the complete failure of horses in colonial projects in Africa are two examples that contradict popular belief.

His interpretations of technology are supported by the evidence used but because the sources tend to be secondary sources based on primary state accounts, we tend to see very little from the perspective of those who were the victims of Western technology. For example, in addressing the problem of a self-perpetuating cycle of arrogance and conquest, Headrick urges us to consider the British invasion of Afghanistan by Lord Auckland. He narrates how the failed attempt to hold Kabul was not only a question of incompetence on the side of the British but an example of how technological might is not generally transferable to different environmental contexts and particularly how ineffective it is in asymmetrical warfare. We see brief profiles of the technologically-besieged such as Abd al-Qadir, Sheykh Mansur, and Samori Toure but most of the insights we have are related to the European descriptions of these encounters and their tools.

We see brief profiles of the seiged such as Abd al-Qadir, Sheykh Mansur, and Samori Toure but most of the insights we have are related to the European descriptions of these encounters and their tools.

We see brief profiles of the seiged such as Abd al-Qadir, Sheykh Mansur, and Samori Toure but most of the insights we have are related to the European descriptions of these encounters and their tools.

Before we are too critical of this shortcoming, Headrick’s selection of events and perspectives can be better understood by examining the kinds of sources he employed. As previously mentioned, the most important sources to his argument are established secondary accounts of primary sources that are definitely skewed toward the powerful. However, Power Over Peoples is quite effective at examining these perspectives in light of a broader history to pull out paradoxes that complicate previous interpretations if taken at face value. Headrick is quite adept at this process, making the sources consulted adequate for this study.

This work largely challenges the conventional wisdom of many political scientists and technocrats who seek the salvation of humanity through technological superiority alone. Power Over Peoples is a warning against Western pride in technological might, implying that those who seek to extend their power through technological advantage alone may witness their own tools become useless to master the new environment those tools have created.

Our Tools Will Not Save Us: Why Study the History of Technology

There are several great reasons to explore technological change using historical perspectives and methods of research but so many people are unaware of them–or opposed.  In the present, we have a popular view of history that is focused on great men and epic battles but these emphases provide little to explain momentous changes at the core of today’s major events.  To be fair, historians have long challenged the formulaic conventions of rulers and generals as the only subjects worthy of consideration.  However, most of the public is unaware of this shift.  Consequently, most would suggest that the study of technology belongs to those with the greatest level of technical expertise (i.e. engineers).  While a high degree of technical expertise certainly yields useful perspectives on technological shifts, there is much to be gained from a study of technological change based in the humanities.

1. As Ira Brodsky has argued, technology continues to play an increasingly important role in historical change but few people take the time to consider these changes in perspective and the broader historical impact of their evolution. Far too often our views of technological change tend to operate in two camps.  One the one hand, we tend to exalt technology to the level of a sentient force as evidenced in the concept of the technium popularized by Kevin Kelly‘s What Technology Wants. At the other extreme we tend to minimize the negative impacts of technology and its ongoing relevance or react strongly to particular forms of technology we dislike.  We are largely oblivious to broader social and economic consequences of our adoptions and rejections. This form of Neo-Luddism (a misnomer in itself), tends to be particularly true for those trained in the so-called ‘soft’ disciplines of the humanities. The consequences are that we really have an underdeveloped idea of technology and its impact on human history.

2. A growing number of graduates from ‘hard’ disciplines are coming to terms with an inability to express their technological insights to a broader audience outside of the silos of their areas of expertise. Thinking and talking about technology in historical terms allows us to employ the power of the narrative as a tool to teach and understand even some of the most complicated technological subjects. This is particularly important given the findings of past reports of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the National Research Council (NRC):

“Technology has become so user friendly it is largely “invisible.” Americans use technology with a minimal comprehension of how or why it works or the implications of its use or even where it comes from. American adults and children have a poor understanding of the essential characteristics of technology, how it influences society, and how people can and affect its development.” (Science and Engineering Indicators 2004)

3. Our education about the future, nay even the present, is more interdisciplinary in nature today than it has ever been. As the American university becomes more specialized, the workplace and the world around us has become much more responsive to ideas from vastly different disciplinary, cultural, and regional contexts. Traditionally, fields like history tended to focus on periods and regions as the central focus of explaining change over time. Today, major thinkers in both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ disciplines are transgressing long established disciplinary boundaries in how they innovate and engage core questions.  Poets now code with the meter of Tennyson, artists extemporize on 3-D printers, and engineers must design with the insights of Jung.

While we marvel at these transgressions, we also underscore our own ignorance of the past.  Ada Lovelace cut her teeth on mathematics and programming while incorporating literary and poetic sensibilities. Leonardo Da Vinci, the world’s most famous polymath,  is well-known as a painter and an engineer.  B.F. Skinner, who made significant contributions to debates in modern psychology, was also an inventor and a tinkerer. Studying the history of technology will enable us to think about both inventors and innovation as part of a ‘big history’ or grand overlapping narrative of the exchange and application of knowledge instead of disjointed episodes of periodic genius. After all, great men and their battles are so overrated.

Most importantly, we need to think historically and critically about technology, emphasizing the broader cultural, economic, and political contexts of technological change over time in various eras of the past. We should be engaged in a broader cross-disciplinary discussion about the complex intellectual demands of a STEM-driven (science, technology, engineering, and math) society. What questions relevant to the human experience should educators and students be engaging if in fact we are in a society supposedly ‘driven’ by technology?  To what extent is humankind advanced and/or hindered by the tools we create? What historical lessons can we derive from technological events of the past to better engage the present as informed citizens, regardless of our level of technological expertise?