Technology has been exciting to me since the days of the two floppy disk "boat anchor" IBM computers. That excitement has never waned. I've watched and participated in delight as those big boat anchors morphed into smaller and much more powerful machines. Along with changes in size, the applications running on the computers flourished, too. Data on just about anything is now a "click" or a finger tap away.
In the '80s and '90s I got used to being the "fly in the buttermilk" — the only Black woman in attendance at IT trainings, seminars and industry events. I could count the Black men on one hand, usually two to three fingers. As time went by, I rejoiced when I began to see more Black faces. However, according to a report I read some time back from Brookings, "Black and Hispanic Underrepresentation In Tech: It's Time To Change The Equation," African Americans represent only about 11.9% of all workers in tech, and only 7.9% in Computer and Math (C&M) fields. What's up with that?
I know historically African Americans were never encouraged to pursue, nor pointed in the direction of STEM fields, and yes, I know that racism still exists in hiring, particularly if you look at the employee base of large Silicon Valley tech giants. Still, it is disconcerting to me, based on my gut feeling when thinking of interactions I've had in real life and online with African Americans, when I just don't see nor feel the excitement about tech in its various forms beyond social media.
I recently attended an evening seminar in Silicon Valley on the future of autonomous vehicles, and I was the only Black person there in a room of about 100 people. Believe me, I looked. I always look, hoping to see more of us. The dawn of driver-less cars and trucks is now here and is poised to disrupt many industries, as well as provide new types of jobs/careers.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning exists everywhere we look these days — refrigerators that can sense when we're running low on milk; Alexa, slowly but surely learning how to "converse" with human beings, addressing me by name through voice recognition. What is not exciting and attractive about that? I know we're out there, and more hidden figures emerge from our history every day, but our current STEM numbers are still dismally low.
While I understand that some of the fear — which is not just among African Americans, but across all races and ethnicities — is based on jobs becoming irrelevant and going away, putting our heads in the sand, and refusing to see the quickness that which technology renders so many jobs irrelevant does more harm than good. You may not like the giant monolith that is Amazon, but the reality is that it's here to stay — and has already toppled many a retail giant that we thought would be here forever.
Ever notice how well technology (hardware and software) seem to be popular when it makes our lives easier, provides convenience, time-saving and automates tasks? I can check the weather, ask about my commute, check on delivery of expected packages, tell Alexa to order me more Flonase for my allergies and turn my air-purifier on in my room with my voice in a matter of five minutes. Using the Nest app, I can schedule the temperature of my room to go up a notch so it's toasty warm when I get up.
I do have hope when I see young African American children taking part and winning science competitions. We need diversity in tech just like we do in all fields because we all have unique needs. When it comes to tech, I love that trite saying, "It's never too late." We need the input and attention of all ages — I am now 65, and still learning and still amazed at what is happening in tech — from incubators built to simulate the mother's womb and robots performing surgery, to a WiFi connected vacuum cleaner roaming around the house and garage door openers controlled by an app on your smartphone. What is not to love about the tech industry? It needs our Black perspectives.