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to the United States by Latino immigrants who find that their understanding of who they perceive themselves to be is superseded by how people assign meaning to them.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.

Is Socioeconomic Inequality a Practical Concern?

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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

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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 Mis-Digitization of the Negro

The lack of an authentic technological education is developing a false consciousness among black folk (and others). Technology is good for a lot of things but it is not a cure-all to improve relationships, address inequality, and dismantle institutional barriers to progress. In the last 10 years, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields have been presented as providing the solution to nearly every problem of the future. Educators emphasizing the continuing relevance of humanities and arts have been sidelined to focus on the promise of future technological development. In our rush to get ready for the digital universe of tomorrow, how well do we really understand the complex racial challenges of today? Are our future technologies truly being engineered to address abiding concerns of relationships, inequality, and institutional racism or are they merely providing new tools to perpetuate the existing barriers?

Technology is an important factor in our world. Our interaction with technology molds and manipulates our thinking process in ways that we are only beginning to understand. In our obsession to accomplish more with ease and efficiency, is it possible that our optimism with digital technology has compromised our understanding of what hardship actually is? Is signing a digital petition, liking a facebook page, or tweeting 120 characters of disapproval, the equivalent of a sit-in, a protest march, or a boycott?

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When Carter G. Woodson penned Mis-Education of the Negro in 1933, he feared that the lack of an authentic black history hampered the development and advancement of the nation and a people. Woodson argued that by controlling a person’s thoughts, one could control his actions. While Woodson’s fears centered on the lack of an authentic knowledge of the past, today we look to two continuing extremes of mis-education that are particularly harmful to the African Diaspora.

On the one hand, we inhabit a nation and a world that is much more open to the study of black history than it was during Woodson’s time, yet millions of blacks (and others) still find themselves mis-educated about the continuing relevance of race and inequality in in global development. In our push to substitute the digital for the analog, machines over meanings, we have simply abandoned our study of social ills and not resolved them.

Equally troubling is the fact that some of the nation’s brightest graduates (black and non-black), similar to the ones that Woodson wrote about in Mis-Education, have talents that are not effectively applied because they lack an understanding of the complexity of the problems encountered in our society. In this regard, various high-tech educational achievements have deceived otherwise brilliant folk into believing that machines exist outside of culture. Instead of seeing the development of machines as alloys of the economic, political, and cultural substrate of the time, we see them instead as extraterrestrial devices that have been summoned to save humanity.

More troubling still, our unconscious adoption of technology impacts our thinking process not only about what is possible but why certain challenges remain. Technology shifts our focus from what should be done to what can be done. This trade-off has its merits but also comes with a cost. We have watched as a generation have backslid into simple-minded exhortations on the race question that were discredited more than a generation ago. What good is it to have highly educated, technologically talented citizens if they are no more able to discern and dismantle strategies of disenfranchisement than sharecroppers less than one generation removed from slavery? Technological study is only useful if it elevates the mind to confront and solve the challenges of a racially-hostile architecture.

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