What’s the genealogy of black technology in the US? Charlton McIlwain at Strand

How did Black Lives Matter come into being? This movement changed how we push for racial justice, but surely it didn’t begin in 2012 when the hashtag was created. What’s the longer genealogy of black technology?

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Strand Books to hear Ruha Benjamin interview Charlton D. McIlwain about his new book Black Software. This post is a liveblog of that talk.

Charlton McIlwain (@cmcilwain) is a Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, where he is Vice Provost for Faculty Engagement and Development. Author of multiple books on race and the media, his most recent book is Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, From the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter, which just came out with Oxford University Press. Professor McIlwain is also an advisor to Data & Society, who have posted a video of his book talk (livetweets by Ethan Zuckerman). I have personally benefited from Charlton’s research on #BlackLivesMatter when doing my own research on the relationship between the social movement and news media.

When trying to trace the pre-history of Black Lives Matter, Charlton looked first to the 1990s. In that period, scholars typically talk about absences. Research on a “digital divide” assumed that black people weren’t online or using the internet. But 5.2 million black people were on the internet in 1995. What were they doing?

“Remember when the Internet was Black?” asks Charlton. He tells us the story of David and Malcolm of “Net Noir,” a network of black culture established in 1994. They created the service for people to talk, debate, and have fun. They pitched the idea to Redgate communications, an investor within AOL that incubated “greenhouse” projects. Redgate funded David and Malcom. “I knew within the first 15 minutes that I was going to do this deal,” said Ted Leonsis, who ran Redgate. The first part of Black Software celebrates the stories of pioneering entrepreneurs like these.

Next, Charlton takes us to 1965, telling us a story of the US government’s fears about a collision between civil rights and automation, set in the backdrop of the Voting Rights Act. He tells us that many people wrongly imagine these two issues as parallel and separate. In the book, he surfaces threads of connections between them.

On one hand, the US government was advancing automation (and worried about automation). Charlton cites a Department of Labor Report that prefigured today’s debates about labor automation: “There are machines now which can play excellent games of checkers… they are doing skilled as well as unskilled jobs in the economy.” He then outlines moments when tech companies like IBM were involved in social issues and current events affecting black Americans. For example, he talks about IBM’s involvement in Johnson’s War on Poverty, as well as IBM’s sponsorship of a documentary on the Watts Riots in 1965.

Next, Charlton talks to us about Silicon Valley in the 1980s, after the rise of the microchip and the personal computer. He tells us that cocaine was a scientific, entrepreneurial endeavour. He draws an analogy between the development of cocaine and crack cocaine in the 1980s and the history of the tech industry (he encourages us to read the book to find out more).

Ruha Benjamin takes the stage to facilitate questions. Ruha calls Charlton’s book a “labor of love” and a “reclamation of definition” away from the deficit model to something else. It’s not substituting a black version of technology for a white one; it’s something more complex. She tells Charlton that Black Software would be a good graphic novel– that would weave together many stories and many layers from the 1960s through the 1990s.

Ruha concludes by asking Charlton about the force of capitalism in black technology. She describes today’s efforts around inclusion in the tech industry, including “afro-tech fairs” and efforts by companies to recruit black employees. Charlton responds that among the people active in the tech industry in the 1960s and the 1990s who he interviewed, they talked mostly about the economic motivations that drove them to start companies. They weren’t interested in activism. He mentions this as a risk for our current moment as well.

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