Relationship Between Race and Technology: How Society Uses You (Part 1)

At the risk of oversimplification: race is how society defines and reacts to you; ethnicity is how you define and react to others most like yourself. During the last six years there has been a lot of reaction and little time to reflect on what this means for our emerging ideas of race and culture.

Today it is very popular to argue that race is irrelevant and it has become equally fashionable to embrace one’s ethnicity while denying one’s whiteness. I think both of these practices are quite dangerous and counterproductive for variety of reasons. Largely, they underscore a widespread denial of the ongoing impact of race in American society and its relevance to every major question of social and economic justice today. I argue that there are major differences between race and ethnicity that we really ought to think more carefully about because they affect us in a variety of important ways.

One of the reasons this must be is there is no biological or genetic rationale for racial identity. Race is a result of how populations have historically and socially constructed delimiters based on perceived physical and cultural assumptions. Whether these differences are accurate or not, as dominant perceptions they reflect how a society is structured.

People of different races often share the same cultural traditions, homeland, and language but have very different normative assumptions, experiences, and expectations. So for example, if you take two groups of people who occupy the same Caribbean island, formally known as Hispaniola– today we refer to it as Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The racial concepts at play in this island are often imported to the United States by Latino immigrants who find that their understanding of who they perceive themselves to be is superseded by how people assign meaning to them. We see this played out between Latinos but more pointedly in the discussions following President Obama’s executive order on immigration

Another reason this question is important is because ethnicity is largely how people culturally orient themselves in a society. Whereas race is determined mostly from the outside to the inside, ethnicity reflects how communities identify themselves from the inside to the outside.

Lastly, we should consider this carefully because ethnic and racial designations often do overlap so these designations can become quite complex. In someways it can be analogous to they way society views the relationship between gender and sexuality. Gender (race) is how society assigns meaning to you while sexuality (ethnicity) is more about how you express your own identity.

This is important because technology to some great extent is an amalgamation of both race and ethnicity. It is how society uses you and how you use yourself.  Although human beings create technology (like race) we lack control over how it is used and develops.  Although we all use technology on some scale, we interpret our experiences differently via the tools we employ. One some scale, technology is an extrinsic categorical tool like race but also intrinsically significant like ethnicity.

Instead of accepting technologies as extensions of human control of the environment or tools, I prefer to think of technology equally as a product and byproduct of human experiences. The future of the United States (and the world) depends to a degree on what extent the history of race is understood and integrated into our consciousness but it is also how we perceive our role and complicity in that process.

After all, race is a form of technology. It is using us as we use it.

What Technology Wants (From the Oppressed)

What Technology Wants (From the Oppressed)

What_Technology_Wants,_Book_Cover_Art cabral

Norman Kelly’s What Technology Wants (2010) argues that technology is falsely understood as physical outgrowth of human ingenuity.  Instead, says Kelly, technology is a living force that predates human innovation and is somewhat of a cosmic sibling also spawned from life.  For Kelly, the technium (the term he uses to describe technology’s autonomous attributes) is capable of not only fulfilling human desires but also to desiderate on its own terms.

I took liberty here to push Kelly’s line of reasoning into a realm of thought regarding exploitation that some would find absurd.  Nonetheless, if the technium sent an email to oppressed people, what would it say?

Dear Species So Enthralled with Selfies That You Are Willing to Destroy Thousands of Lives to Procure Precious Metals and Millions More Through Narcissism and Snark:

  1. The technium wants oppressed people to understand that I prey on resources; I will aid in ‘progress’ as you call it but by my nature I must exploit the weaker. This is not personal though you may believe so.  The technium needs resources to expand and simply follows “the path of least resistance” as you would put it.  The rationale is a bit more complex but this simple heuristic will do.  It’s not about you.  It’s about me and my cronies.
  2. The technium wants oppressed people to understand that although it is used by the powerful, it also uses the powerful. The powerful claim that their particular genius and their scientific superiority is why they command wealth.  This falsity is accepted as truth by both the strong and the weak.  You should understand that the sole basis of power is consent.  Is this not evidenced in how your cultures so willingly accept prevailing doctrines of wealth?  In how you so willingly adopt every new innovation I deliver while accepting the loss of your own autonomy, resources, and sense of humanity in the process?  The technium does not think of money as wealth but rather the ability to survive, to evolve, and to expand.  While most humans, particularly the powerful, have signified money alone as a measure of these traits, technology wants more of the following: efficiency, opportunity, emergence, complexity, diversity, specialization, ubiquity, freedom, mutualism, beauty, sentience, structure, and evolvability. (270)  Both the oppressed and the powerful base their faith in monetary instruments to achieve freedom.  However, all living things that use me–including human beings–are my currency because they consent to allow my influence to reign.  In this way, you can think of your powerful as larger denominations ($100) that I use to purchase my will as they help me to constitute the masses of lesser units ($1s, $5s, $10s) and the billions of pennies.  Neither powerful nor weak have any inherent value to me beyond the ability for coordinate my will–to be my tools even as they use me.
  3. The technium wants oppressed people to listen to the insight of Max More’s  philosophy but without abandoning the psycho-social inquiries of W.E.B. Du Bois.  As Amilcar Cabral wrote: “…however fine and attractive the reality of others may be — can only be transformed by detailed knowledge of it, by our own efforts, by our own sacrifices.”

P.S. Stop wasting so much time on twitter.


Polarity and Power in Colonial Discourse


In Networks of Power (1993),  using the example of electric power systems introduced during World War I, the late Thomas P. Hughes (1923-3014) argues that war drove technological development in the United States, Britain, and Germany by removing political and cultural obstacles prerequisite for technological change.  If this statement is true, what does this tell us about the pace of development in colonies of these metropoles?

War is a powerful prerequisite for technological momentum. Assuming all other things being equal, non-aggressive or non-agressed entities would experience a lack of technological development because they had not sufficiently removed cultural barriers to technological innovation that the emergency of war so often provide for Western societies.

The roles of international activists like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois included an important but often understated indictment of the technological imperative. Black anti-colonial challenges to imperial ventures (driven by technological competition) were perceived as contrary to progress because they exposed inconsistencies in the convoluted development of ideas of racial superiority, economic exploitation, and technological hegemony.  To stand in defense of the underdeveloped nations of the world, even on the premise of cultural ideals of racial equality and self-determinism, was to hold back the progress of the developed nations in the march of history throughout the world. Du Bois and Robeson both provide critical examples of why this rationale was problematic but also anti-democratic. New works by scholars like Mhoze Chikowero (2007) revisit and reinterpret theoretical frameworks echoed in Du Bois, Padmore, Nzikiwie and Rodney in specific regional contexts.  Additionally, Ronen Shamir’s Current Flow: The Electrification of Palestine (2013) examines how electrification (re)produced economic, social, and political inequalities among Jews and Arabs along such lines in Palestine.  Electrification is not only about the physical infrastructure of power supply but is also about power relations in the ability of technological change to transform culture, landscapes, and interactions between people. More pointedly, Shamir argues electrification can and does “make politics” when one dominant group uses “power” (pun intended) to further consolidate their control (p.5).

Paradoxically, it was following World War II that the employment of new technology and communications developed a international coalition of international black anti-colonial discourse.  Penny M. Von Eschen discusses such developments in her work, Race Against Empire. Traditionally we think of this work as exclusive to political developments but read through technological lenses we can see how anti-colonial projects were framing the discourse of modernization and the hegemony of the assumed objectivity of technological superiority (p.152,157-8).

Is Socioeconomic Inequality a Practical Concern?


We have defined technology as many things, perhaps most generally as: the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. Is socioeconomic inequality a practical purpose?  If so, why in fact have generations of our brightest engineers failed so marvelously to eliminate the scourge of social injustice and to vanquish racial prejudice?

How one answers this question depends on how one defines technology and its purpose but also how one defines the evolution of human history. If human history is perceived as linear and progressive, as technologists often assume, it is natural to understand the role of technology as factoring into greater advancement of human ideals.  However, if one sees change over time as erratic, irrational, and intractable, one would see technology much more as an expression of human angst than a vehicle of humanity’s salvation.

Regardless of one’s view, technologists have often failed to account for how technology can equally be a force that generates disparate outcomes and reifies existing social hierarchies.  It appears that for every disruptive technology, there are three hegemonic innovations.  Humankind is much more a captive of convention than an engine of revolution.

These tendencies beg the question of whether technology is universally practical at all.  The uses to which the powerful employ innovation are often contrary to the most practical and rudimentary of human needs.  Technological innovation defines practical by vicariously transforming the demands of the powerful to overshadow the longings of the weak.  In education and application, technology often urges us to redefine not only what is possible but also what is meaningful.


An Unlikely TR@P Interpretation of JFK’s Race to Moon



In John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon (2010), John M. Logsdon has shown us how the Kennedy Administration used the Apollo 11 program as a weapon in the diplomatic arsenal of foreign policy.  Documenting skillful planning and focused willpower, Logdson illustrates Kennedy’s plan to outmaneuver the USSR and land the first man on the moon. Though not the subject of his book, the extensions of Logsdon’s key arguments are also relevant to several unlikely assumptions about technology and its relationship to race and policy.

  1. Technological development does not exist outside of the human element. Technological innovation is in itself a material document of the dynamics of power. As Logsdon illustrates here between and within nation-states but these interaction can also be interracial and crosscultural.  Unconvinced?  Consider Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
  2. The most effective policy is often designed with a clear adversary in mind. The Cold War laser-like focus on the Soviets provided the basis not only for Apollo 11 but also for reconfiguration of public education (Sputnik), expansion of nuclear arsenal and defense-spending (Reagan).  Unfortunately, attempts to address racial inequality using such clearly defined and rigorously applied policy measures have never been attempted. Technology policy worked effectively against the Soviets because they were ‘the other.’ Developing a new domestic race policy with a technological education component will likely not be as effective because it lacks these characteristics. The unique relationship blacks have to and within the United States relegates them to a policy limbo.
  3. Technology develops and operates within a cultural discourse and its aspirations often reflect and affirm prevailing social norms, hierarchies, and ideals. In Kennedy’s case this was a particular vision of Western democrary and military supremacy. If we were to consider this in the context of STEM education policy today we would see an implicit affirmation that a technologist’s primary concerns should be market-driven and not tied to addressing social inequalities.

What can we draw from these observations?  It will be easier to colonize the moon using cold fusion in partnership with Russia and Ukraine than to improve failing schools in Detroit, Atlanta, and Chicago.

The math behind the movies: An interview with Tony DeRose of Pixar

Something to start geometry class with. “Illustrates” relevance.

TED Blog

Tony DeRose captivated the audience at TEDYouth, sharing how mathematics makes Pixar characters look so life-like. Photo: Ryan Lash Tony DeRose captivated the young audience at TEDYouth, talking about how mathematics makes Pixar characters look so real. Photo: Ryan Lash

Pixar films are known for their thoughtful storytelling and groundbreaking animation. One of the coolest things about these movies: the math that Pixar’s team is actually inventing to improve the audience experience and the look of the characters. We caught up with Pixar’s Research Lead, Tony DeRose—who gave the TED-Ed Lesson, “The math behind the movies,” about how arithmetic, trigonometry and geometry helped bring Woody and the rest of your favorite characters to life—to hear more. Bonus: we got to hear about his own progression from building model rockets to creating Oscar-winning characters.

What got you interested in mathematics as a kid?

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in science, but my interest in mathematics really began when I was in 7th grade. I was into building model…

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