[Polity; 2019]

Czech playwright Carol Kapek’s drama Rossum’s Universal Robots was the text that introduced the term “robot” into popular usage. One character offers the following declaration regarding his devotion to the project of robot manufacture, clearly encapsulating the central dilemma that inspired the process: “I wanted man to become the master. So that he shouldn’t live merely for the crust of bread. I wanted not a single soul to be broken by other people’s machinery.” Labor here emerges as a key episteme determining contemporary understandings of and desires for technological innovation. But however innocent or well-intentioned, techno-utopianism can overestimate technology’s potential beneficence upon social structures and dynamics at the direct expense of its ability to further complicate systems and structures of deprivation and oppression.  

And this is not only true for Capek’s play, which culminates in a global uprising of exploited robots against humans: it is further evidenced by a growing trend of scholarship dedicated to the intersections of racist dehumanization and technology. This trend includes efforts such as Cathy O’ Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction (2016), which examines how race and class-based inequalities in the US are reinforced via ostensibly objective algorithmic approaches to credit systems, education, and policing; Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s work on how gendered and colonial anti-Palestinian racism is reflected and fortified through Israeli surveillance and military technologies and practices in texts such as Security Theology, Surveillance and the Politics of Fear (2015) and Incarcerated Childhood and the Politics of Unchilding (2019); Simone Browne’s Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (2015) and Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code (2019). It is the latter volume to which this review will be dedicated, but I mention the others, and offer this wider background, out of the conviction that it ought to be situated in an ongoing and evolving scholar-activist tradition of intercepting, translating — and, at times, sabotaging — the process by which the discursive technologies of race/ism feed into the technological discourses charging the allegedly “post-racial” present.

This is by no means a simple task, and not only because Benjamin (whose book, like O’ Neil’s and Browne’s, is about the US) already has a great swath of examples of “racist tech” to choose from (predictive policing, discriminatory targeted ads, assumptive “gang databases,” to name but a few). For added to the already formidable evidence of racist technological praxis is the wider epistemological work that needs to be done to shift the reader’s focus away from commonplace assumptions of technology as a solely contemporaneous concern, as well as to disentangle racism’s attitudinal and structural manifestations. Benjamin accomplishes the former through illuminating historical overviews, including the (in)famous (but often poorly understood) example of the Luddites. Drawing from the insights of critics Imani Perry and Jack Clark, Benjamin explains, “Often remembered as people who were out of touch and hated technology, the Luddites were actually protesting the social costs of technological ‘progress’ that the working class was being forced to accept.” In contrast to the evocations of someone who is resentful against or “out of touch” with technology suggested by the term “Luddite,” then, the Luddites’ revolt was in fact deeply symbolic, staged against not only physical machines but the resultant societal deprivation, exploitation, and stratification that their introduction would impose.

But this is only one aspect of technology’s role in deprivation and oppression. Indeed, Benjamin makes note of the Czech-literary provenance of the concept of the “robot” in observing that the very link between the inhuman and labor denoted by its conceptual origins means that “Social domination characterized the cultural laboratory in which robots were originally imagined.” And, Benjamin continues, “technically, people were the first robots,” a history that tech discourse has only further entrenched over the years, from a ‘50s advertisement in the US triumphantly hailing the advent of robots as the “return of slavery” to the much later DOS script referring to “Master” and “Slave” disks. Ontological categorizations of the ease, efficiency, and luxury that was to be realized by robots in particular and technology in general were thus inseparable from human enslavement.

We can read the title of Benjamin’s text as a multivalent pun: on the one hand, Race After Technology provokes the question of just what structures of racism will look like “after” their encounter with current technology (the answer: eerily similar to what they looked like “before”). But it also implies a veritable race after, or in pursuit of, the latest technological trends, with scant attention paid to the impacts such developments will pose to already-marginalized populations. Benjamin’s neologism, “The New Jim Code,” meets this myopia head-on by intentionally echoing scholar Michelle Alexander’s concept of “The New Jim Crow.” Alexander’s term is, in turn, a lexical encapsulation of how structural patterns of African American racial deprivation supposedly overturned following the de facto fall of the Jim Crow regime were in fact concentrated in a “new” era of racially disproportionate mass incarceration, police violence, and so-called “tough on crime” legislation. Benjamin’s phrase is sequential, revealing how technology allows for a continuation and obfuscation of ongoing racialized state violence already documented by scholars of mass incarceration such as Alexander.

Benjamin defines “The New Jim Code” as “the employment of new technologies that reflect and reproduce existing inequities but that are promoted and perceived as more objective and progressive than the discriminatory systems of a previous era.” The fetishization of tech, like the fetishization of science, as a neutral arbiter or instrument in social life, as opposed to something conditioned by the contingent social structures of the contemporary moment, allows for the persistence of particular forms of socio-political deprivation under an ostensible (and false) banner of “neutrality.” Technological progress is seen as interchangeable with social, historical and political progress, and techno-determinism crowds out the very possibility of differential experience through the implicit inscription of a particular social subjectivity (say, the overly white and male world of Silicon Valley) as a platform for accessing universal humanity. But, as Benjamin notes, “the presumed blandness of White American culture is a crucial part of our national narrative. Scholars describe the power of this plainness as the invisible ‘center’ against which everything else is compared and as the ‘norm’ against which everyone else is measured. Invisibility, with regard to Whiteness, offers immunity. To be unmarked by race allows you to reap the benefits but escape responsibility for your role in an unjust system.”

And yet, when confronted with cringe-worthy “tech fails” such as algorithmic rankings of Black individuals as less beautiful than white ones, the standard PR rebuttal becomes to yoke racism to intent and claim, as evidenced by John McWhorter’s argument in Time that “[m]achines cannot, themselves, be racist. Even equipped with artificial intelligence, they have neither brains nor intention.” The problem here, as Benjamin notes, is that it assumes “self-conscious intent is what makes something racist.” Even a more robust sense of social justice on the part of programmers is not necessarily an inoculation against perpetuating structural racism so long as their interventions work within the conventions of an oppressive status quo. After all, as Benjamin reminds us, “databases, just like courtrooms, banks and emergency rooms, do not contain organic brains. Yet legal codes, financial practices, and medical care often produce deeply racist outcomes.” In fact, even innovations supposedly carried out for the expressed opposite purposes of racial exclusion and deprivation can have oppressive effects: “Even police robots who can use lethal force while protecting officers from harm are clothed in the rhetoric of public safety.”

The sequential character of Benjamin’s intervention is crucial to bear in mind because of this emphasis on the “colorblind” aspect of discrimination. Michelle Alexander’s work also analyzes how “colorblind” attitudes continue to replenish (rather than diminish) structural racism and racist state violence. This is because racializing projects like the “War on Crime/Drugs” all the way up to the “War on ‘Terror’” have always employed race-neutral language for race-specific approaches. Indeed, “The New Jim Code” captures the technological interface with these ongoing socio-political patterns of racial targeting. When we talk about techno-racism, it’s not simply a matter of racist algorithmic beauty standards or insufficiently diverse avatars — it’s also about the “biases . . . built into the technological systems used by police, where they have far more lethal consequences.” It’s about “positive eugenicist” approaches to science that treat “intelligence” as an organically isolable matter of genetics rather than a material outgrowth of racist and classist circumstance. It’s about “DNA phenotyping” that uses crime-scene “trace evidence” measured against “ancestry-informed markers” to predict what a suspect looks like — and thus give police racial profiling a veneer of scientific objectivity and infallibility. And it’s about so-called “tech-fixes” to racialized gaps in privilege actually exacerbate these very gaps, such as when electronic monitoring is touted as an alternative to “mass incarceration” but instead results in “newly”-racialized “e-carceration,” or when hospitals use racially-linked “health-care hotspotting” inspired by NYPD profiles to determine who the “costliest” patients to hospitals are.

Ultimately, Benjamin encourages us not to think of race in relation to technology, but race itself as a technology, a “means to sort, organize and design a social structure,” a view that will help us understand the strategic import as well as adaptability that patterns of racialization continue to exert for the state even as explicitly racist discourses and ideologies appear to have fallen by the wayside (as it turns out, the resurgence of white nationalism has rendered even this distinction incomplete at best.) Benjamin’s final chapter delivers the “Abolitionist” tools evoked in the text’s subtitle. And these “tools” ultimately begin with the imagination. For if racism is being “retooled,” then so too must the abolitionist imaginaries dedicated to a society and world free of carceral and police violence. But only the cultivation of “socially just imaginaries” will enable the political vigilance necessary for the prevention of reformist sabotage of radical dreams — the idea, for example, that simply redirecting funds from prisons to schools will challenge the carceral power of the state when “schools and public housing . . . operate within a logic of carcerality,” or the notion that the voyeurism of Virtual Reality technologies can inculcate “empathy.”

I remember first being cued on to the scope of techno-surveillance by reading Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight For a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (2019). I was chilled by Zuboff’s damning elaboration of how consumers of technology are not “the ‘product’” of the sales of companies like Google, but rather “the objects from which raw materials are extracted and expropriated for Google’s prediction factories.” This elaboration of an evolution in capitalism coupled with the “surveillance exceptionalism” instantiated by the “War on ‘Terror’” was devastating.  

Later, after discovering Benjamin’s study, I realized there were some advantages to a comparative consideration of both works. For one thing, both Benjamin and Zuboff have crucial insights regarding the ideological underpinnings of the “do what thou wilt” approach to tech. For while Big Data and tech companies and moguls tend to present a front of innocent empiricism to characterize their pursuit of the next big trend, technology does not operate in a vacuum. Even the assumption that technological innovations should be considered to be bereft of ideological baggage is, in the end, an ideological argument.

For Zuboff, it is an extreme mutation of the behaviorism espoused by the psychologist B.F. Skinner which, however criticized or ridiculed it may have been in its day, now seems to have returned as a disguised revenant that drives the assumed mandate of tech companies to participate in various projects of social and psychological conditioning and engineering. After all, if the deeper principles for which human societies struggled were all really ephemera in comparison to the more base satisfaction of surface-level needs and drives, as Skinner cynically supposed, then there really ought to be nothing wrong with tech and data companies trying to capitalize on psychological predispositions or social drives in as unrestricted a fashion as possible.

In one of her most chilling moves, Zuboff urges readers to recall the rapid proliferation of totalitarianism, an ideology geared toward the total destruction of the human character through merciless violence, to understand the shift towards unregulated behavior modification for the purposes of data collection; as totalitarianism’s rapid ascension seemed unbelievable in the very moment that cinched its rise, so too are individuals living under the current tech regime dealing with both the vertigo of comprehending the fine print underlying its ceaseless monitoring of human activity as well as the seeming inability to explicate in full detail the seismic shocks that have been levelled against social and political infrastructures in such a seemingly short amount of time. We need to overcome this vertigo and socio-political aphasia if we are to take decisive action. Benjamin, meanwhile, situates the laissez-faire response to tech as symptomatic of US-style libertarianism. In both cases, the authors prod us to (re)consider the deeper ideological foundations behind the overly-facile veneer of techno-optimism that uses only procedural viability as its determining rubric.

But it is also important to consider how Benjamin’s book fills in some crucial gaps to Zuboff’s. Indeed, for all of its explanatory prowess and the brilliance of its reappraisal of contemporary modes of capitalist production, I couldn’t help feeling that something was missing from The Age of Surveillance Capitalism — as strange as it may sound to speak of something “missing” from a book as mammoth-sized (535, not counting the index) as Zuboff’s. But there was — and Benjamin puts it best: “It is tempting to point to the smart recording devices we carry around in our pockets and exclaim that ‘we are all caught inside the digital dragnet!’ But, the fact is, we do not all experience the dangers of exposure in equal measure.” Indeed, we don’t. Race After Technology is a scintillating examination of how even something as seemingly all-oppressive as surveillance normalization is differentially oppressive — and how we can build alternative futures and solidary coalitions all the same.

Omar Zahzah is a writer and activist who holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Los Angeles. Omar’s dissertation, “Undercover and Hyper-Visible: Security Poetics and Pacification Prosaics in African American and Arab American Literature,” analyzes the structures of signification that inform both literary representations of racialized policing and surveillance praxis among dissenting subjects as well as the quotidian logics and rationales driving state-sanctioned projects of repression and pacification.