Opinions are the writer’s own and not those of Blavity's.
Technology is at the core of how we live our lives, from how we commute through our city to how we communicate with our friends and family. Public transportation, water treatment facilities, electric power plants, internet networks, county schools and city hospitals: these are all technology-enabled systems that have a duty to serve everyone, regardless of race.
The reality, however, is that technologies and the systems they support often fail to meet this duty.
Today’s American society maintains systemic racism that operates at the scale of individuals, groups and organizations. Institutions implement racist ideas via policies, procedures, traditions and even technology designs. As a result, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and Asian people are often negatively affected by technology that reflects racist ideas embedded within these systems. This does not always mean that the technology was designed with racist intentions; it doesn't have to be. Sometimes, it simply means that technology designers don’t check to see whether long-term, established racist patterns might be worsened by the operation of a technology.
However, technology can also be used to positively shape the values and culture of a society. Those who design systems that foster equity for groups that experience racism can also use technology as a tool to enable their innovation.
What does it mean for technology to be antiracist?
Antiracism is both a belief and an action. Antiracist ideas insist that people from different racial groups are all equal, all fully human and all deserving of the same opportunities for economic, environmental and physical wellbeing.
Antiracist action with technology works to ensure that the outcomes of technology design do not create or amplify inequitable experiences for people of different racial groups. In some cases, building antiracist technology means redesigning existing systems and fixing the ways that these systems fail to serve Black, Indigenous, Latinx and Asian people. For example, antiracist technology design may mean correcting the failures of the Flint water crisis, or reducing the threats for environmental degradation caused when oil pipelines cross Indigenous land, or reducing pollution when industrial waste poisons air quality near Black and Latinx neighborhoods. Antiracist technology design can also mean inventing new technologies to help Black, Indigenous, Latinx and Asian communities address needs, such as voting rights, public safety and nutrition.
Why is it hard to design antiracist technology?
Many of the impactful technologies being developed today are complex and likely to have unintended consequences unless designers consider the concerns of people from a variety of backgrounds. For example, Google’s recent firing of Dr. Timnit Gebru illustrates the interplay between racism and technologies designed to serve the public.
The societal impact of Google’s technology designs is huge, given that its technologies are used by billions of people around the world. Until December 2020, Dr. Gebru served as the co-leader for Google’s Ethical AI team.
Dr. Gebru was fired when Google asked her to retract a specific paper that highlighted risks inherent in research performed by Google on a type of artificial intelligence called Large Language Models. Dr. Gebru and her co-authors argued that Large Language Models could unintentionally harm people of color, women and the LGBTQ+ community because the technology could amplify common patterns of hurtful speech. Additionally, Dr. Gebru spoke out within Google and publicly about the need for technology companies to build a culture of equity.
Dr. Gebru was among many observing the inequity that women, people with different abilities and people from Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and Queer communities often experience in technology firms.
How can we support innovators designing antiracist technologies?
Overcoming the impact of systemic racism can feel overwhelming, but we can take hope in the innovative work that leaders from Black, Indigenous, Latinx and Asian communities are already doing to apply technology to work toward racial equity. In support of an open innovation challenge on Antiracist Technology in the U.S., MIT Solve has gathered a group of leaders who each apply technology as part of their antiracist designs, in areas ranging from advancing public safety with systems that do not rely solely on police, enabling healthy self-expression using virtual reality platforms and applying tools from satellite data to help communities respond to climate risks.
Many leaders from Black, Indigenous, Latinx and Asian communities are creating innovative, technology-enabled approaches to building healthy and equitable futures. For example, the Detroit Community Technology Project works to address the 38% of households without internet through neighborhood-governed wireless networks, while also strengthening community trust and digital literacy. Others are helping redesign systems to consider the needs of groups that experience racial inequity.
Now is the time to acknowledge what needs to change, and we should all take the necessary steps to learn about the links between technology design and antiracism. It’s also time to celebrate the innovations being birthed by and for Black, Latinx, Indigenous and Asian communities. We can all play a role to support these innovators by learning, shopping, sharing and investing with an antiracist vision.
Danielle Wood is an assistant professor in the MIT Media Lab, where she directs the research group Space Enabled.