Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code by Ruha Benjamin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In Race After Technology, Ruha Benjamin delivers a powerful synthesis of STS and critical race theory. She diagnoses a series of problems plaguing the creation and effect of design and technology, drawing throughlines from historical through contemporary examples. If pressed for time, the lengthy introduction chapter summarizes her core argument both about the existence of the “New Jim Code” and need for abolitionist tools to dismantle it and the need for analyses and lens like she offers in this book that bring together STS and critical race theory.
She offers us four dimensions to the New Jim Code: engineered inequity, default discrimination, coded exposure, and technological benevolence/beneficence, each of which is described in Chapters 1-4, respectively. As she summarizes on page 47 of the Introduction: 1) “engineered inequity explicitly works to amplify social hierarchies that are based on race, class, and gender and how the debate regarding ‘racist robots’ is framed in popular discourse”; 2) “default discrimination grows out of design processes that ignore social cleavages” and when “tech developers do not attend to the social and historical context of their work”; 3) coded exposure is about the ways that technologies enable differential visibility and surveillance that often fall along racial lines; and 4) technological benevolence interrogates the problematic efforts and claims of “tech products and services that offer fixes for social bias.”
In her last chapter, Benjamin tries to imagine what an abolitionist toolkit would require to address the New Jim Code. As primarily a book of theoretical synthesis, her toolkit leans heavily on other frameworks like the Design Justice principles and the recommendations Virginia Eubanks articulates in her essential book Automating Inequality, also it celebrates the work of those developing approaches for auditing technology like algorithms. The key work done by the last chapter though is articulating the need for new “social imaginaries.” Building on the work of Black science fiction writers, Black new feminist theory, and the prophetic speech tradition integral to the Civil Rights Movement (think “I have a dream”), Benjamin’s call for abolitionist and liberatory design and technology is one of narrative. What is the future we want to live in and how do we describe it to ourselves and those around us? How do we see ourselves bringing that future into being? How do we dramatically redefine or expand our efforts of inclusion in design practices and the expansion of who is called a “designer” to those situated in society in ways and with expertise not usually invited explicitly or implicitly into design?
While this is definitely a scholarly manuscript, it reads easily and quickly for social theory. If you are working in the areas of UX design/research, AI, tech ethics, tech criticism, technology and politics, or race and technology, this is going to be essential reading. I expect to be recommending this to my engineering students for years to come.