Charlton McIlwain, author of "Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter," shares African Americans’ role in the internet’s creation and evolution, illuminating both the limits and possibilities for using digital technology to push for racial justice in the United States and across the globe. McIlwain's book shows that the story of racial justice movement organizing online is much longer and varied than most people know. In fact, it spans nearly five decades and involves a varied group of engineers, entrepreneurs, hobbyists, journalists, and activists. But this is a history that is virtually unknown, even in our current age of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Black Lives Matter. From the 1960s to present, the book examines how computing technology has been used to neutralize the threat that black people pose to the existing racial order, but also how black people seized these new computing tools to build community, wealth, and wage a war for racial justice. This event was hosted by Data & Society Faculty Fellow Anita Say Chan. Charlton McIlwain is Vice Provost of Faculty Engagement & Development at New York University, and Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU’s Steinhardt School. Dr. McIlwain’s scholarly work focuses on the intersections of race, digital media, and racial justice activism. He is also the Founder of the Center for Critical Race & Digital Studies, and in addition to "Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, From the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter" (Oxford University Press), he is the co-author of the award-winning book, "Race Appeal: How Political Candidates Invoke Race In U.S. Political Campaigns."
Charlton McIlwain, author of "Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter," shares African Americans’ role in the internet’s creation and evolution, illuminating both the limits and possibilities for using digital technology to push for racial justice in the United States and across the globe. McIlwain's book shows that the story of racial justice movement organizing online is much longer and varied than most people know. In fact, it spans nearly five decades and involves a varied group of engineers, entrepreneurs, hobbyists, journalists, and activists. But this is a history that is virtually unknown, even in our current age of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Black Lives Matter. From the 1960s to present, the book examines how computing technology has been used to neutralize the threat that black people pose to the existing racial order, but also how black people seized these new computing tools to build community, wealth, and wage a war for racial justice.
This event was hosted by Data & Society Faculty Fellow Anita Say Chan.
Charlton McIlwain is Vice Provost of Faculty Engagement & Development at New York University, and Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU’s Steinhardt School. Dr. McIlwain’s scholarly work focuses on the intersections of race, digital media, and racial justice activism. He is also the Founder of the Center for Critical Race & Digital Studies, and in addition to "Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, From the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter" (Oxford University Press), he is the co-author of the award-winning book, "Race Appeal: How Political Candidates Invoke Race In U.S. Political Campaigns."
Anita Say Chan:
I'm thrilled to finally introduce our speaker, who is an advisor here at Data &Society, Dr. Charlton McIlwain. He's vice provost of faculty engagement and development at New York University and professor of media culture and communication at NYU Steinhart School. Dr. McIlwain's scholarly work focuses on the intersections of race, digital media, and racial justice activism. He's a founder of the Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies, and in addition to "Black Software: The Internet and Racial Justice, From the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter," which you can buy here tonight, he is the author of the award winning book, "Race Appeal: How Political Candidates Invoke Race in U.S. Political Campaigns." So everyone please help me in welcoming Charlton McIlwain....
It's always great to be at Data &Society, a place that I don't come to enough—but in many ways one could say a birthplace, if you will, for what ultimately became “Black Software.” Those of you have been to the space before and often know that it is a unique space where ideas germinate alongside meeting fascinating people, and having the opportunity to really come into contact with many different ideas. And used to be even some whiskey involved, not so much anymore, I see. That was always an upside.
But I'm pleased to be here and talk to you a little bit about my new book, "Black Software: The Internet and Racial Justice, From The AfroNet to Black Lives Matter." And what I thought I would do for the time that I have here before Anita and I have a chance to talk a little bit, and the time to talk with some of you, is give you a little bit of the backstory of the book. Now, I am a, more or less, trained social scientist. And so writing this particular book and what it turned out to be was an interesting journey. You spend your whole career doing the kind of work where you, —I wouldn't say discovery is the term I would use for something I do often as a researcher—it's more you have hypotheses that you try to confirm, and you discover some things a little bit.
But rarely the kind of bombshell things that you really get into academia for, in some ways. And “Black Software” was that kind of journey, that journey that I'd looked for, for so long. But it was a frightening journey. So those of you that have read a little bit of the book or know a little bit about what it's about, know that it has become a historical book. And I am not a historian, and so the moments of grappling with things like archives, where folks like me can easily just get lost and disappear into oblivion, is difficult when you know you have to actually write a book, and turn in something, and do so in a very limited timeframe.
And so, what I thought I would do is talk a little bit about the journey, how I put this book together and use that as the beginning point of a discussion. So I will do that in this way, titling this introduction to the book as, “one book, two stories, and a little cocaine.” Always great to have cocaine somewhere in your presentation, figuratively speaking of course. So it took a while to figure out what this book was about. And so in the end it became something quite different from where it started. And again it was a kind of a rollercoaster. And so I will talk about these kind of things, how I ended up with one book that's really built around two giant stories that I was compelled to tell in some way.
And then the question of, how do I tie these two books together? How do I ultimately explain to people the concept of what I call “Black Software”? Of course this is where things all began for me, with Black Lives Matter. The movement that burst on the scene in many ways like a former Civil Rights Movement burst on the scene with people not really expecting it, people not really knowing that it was coming, and to think about the success of this movement, right, the fact that all of us here and probably most of the folks in this country, and many folks outside of this country know Black Lives Matter, even know what the movement itself stood, stands for, and fights for.
That very fact alone is a testament to its power, not to mention the fact that it managed to catapult to our national attention issues that hadn't been on the forefront of our discourse since the late 1960s, early 70s—the last time that U.S. folks said that issues of race and racial justice were a foremost problem for the country. And so I wanted to understand this movement. Who were the folks that drove the movement, and mostly, how did they mobilize and utilize digital tools to accomplish what they managed to accomplish? And so that's where things began, and I began with the question, where did Black Lives Matter come from? Right, and I had some ideas, and I knew it came from 2012 when the hashtag began.
But I knew, at least at the very beginning, that there was a longer genealogy. And so that's what I set out to find. And I set out to go to the place where I knew I would find it, and that would be a very short jaunt back to the early 1990s. Where I thought all of this book would take place in a very nice and tidy and neat way. Obviously it did not, but that's where I first began. So think about the early 1990s. Those of you who lived through it, for us old folks in the room, and those of you who may have read about it somewhere, saw it on TV. But if you were talking about black folks and the internet in, let's say 1995, what two words come to your mind?
Audience: Digital divide.
The digital divide, right, an almost singular narrative that we used and were accustomed to talking about this intersection of race, folks of color, and the internet, and digital technology more broadly. And for all of the reasons that this term, the digital divide, entered into our conversations, entered into policy discussions to try to understand the gap between the haves and the have-nots, the fact is that this term, this narrative, did considerable violence. And it did considerable violence because it was a kind of erasure. 5.2 million, anyone want to guess what that number represents?
5.2 million represents the number of African Americans in 1995 who owned and had a computer at their home. Now granted, it pales in comparison to the 40 million whites who did the same. But the point is, at a time when we're thinking about black folks as only being part of those have-nots, and not a part of folks that were engaging in technology at this very crucial time, erases what this 5.2 million people did. Who were these people? What did they do? Why did they have computers in their homes at a time when the cost, the price was exorbitant? And they were relatively unique amongst their particular peers.
This was an early moment where I said, this has to be the story that I tell. The story of these 5.2 million folks. What were they up to? Who were they? And what are we today as a result of them having been who they were when they were? For those of you who have written books you know you have drafts, and in those drafts, successive drafts, you start to lose things that were in earlier ones, sometimes things that you really did not want to get rid of. And this was one of them, a chapter title in one of the earlier drafts of the book called “Remember When the Internet Was Black.” Just sit with that for a minute. “Remember When the Internet Was Black.”
At once a revelation, I didn't know the internet was black. A declaration, yes, it was. But mostly one giant question, which is, what are you talking about? What do you mean by the internet being black? And what I meant, particularly for this beginning point of the book, what ended up being what I called book one, that first story, was a story about these folks. These are merely a handful of the many, those that I spoke with personally, others whose stories I found in archives and pieced together in various manuscripts and publications and so forth. So I want to tell you a little bit about them, and this is who the book is really built around in book one.
And this is where, really the fun of the book began. This was the early part of it, so I'll talk about William, who is up in the upper left-hand corner and Kamal, who is right next to him, and the birth of “Black Software.” As much as I would like to claim credit, someone else came up with the idea of black software. And it happened in one of those ways that is really hard to tell who exactly came up with it. And at what moment, but it came together at an interaction between these two gentlemen. The one on the left, William, was someone I talked to and early on I was asking everybody the same question, the question I knew the answer to, right? Which was, when did you first get online? Everybody gave me the answer I thought I wanted to hear except William, because William said, ah, well...
And I'm like what's taking you so long? It's gotta be 1992, maybe '93, '94, maybe '90. And he said, ah, 1978. I was like shit. What on earth do you mean by being online in 1978? I will leave that story for the book, but only to say that William ends up in Cambridge, Massachusetts owning a computer store where he is making ultimately millions of dollars as the only person of color with a black owned computer store. And he's selling what you had to sell at the time, computers, hardware, software—by software I mean things that were on CD-roms or floppy discs—and so forth.
And that's how things circulated. And at one point, William is looking at things that he ultimately, or as I discovered at first, he deemed or called “black software.” When I first saw them and wondered what they were, it looked like clip art. And it was clip art of people that looked like me and not the typical clip art that you saw at the time. If you asked William where he got that clip art and other types of artifacts from, he would tell you this story about a young man coming from Los Angeles, walking into his store and saying, I have something to sell you. Which was a whole set of CD-ROMs, other kinds of software, with information, with images, everything that looked like what William had called black software.
That was things that represented their world, and represented their interests. And so Kamal had come from Jet Propulsion Labs, where he was working every day doing tech transfers. Not understanding really a lot about software, but having to be immersed in this new world. And he ultimately tells a story of looking around one day and saying, there is nothing for me here. And then he comes to Boston, and he moves to the Roxbury neighborhood in Boston where William also lives. And he's watching one night on television a professor from Princeton talk about building a new software package called Culture.
And there is Rembrandt and all of these other white guys, and Kamal said, how you gonna have a software package called Culture and there is nothing African about it. There is nothing about Africa, or black folks, or people like me. And he said, I need to do something about that. And the rest, as they say, is history. The person who I would say begins what we call, what I call “black software,” a commercial entity that he built and patented into a very strong commercial company in the late 1980s and into the early 1990s.
And then there is Derek Brown down here in the bottom right, E. David Ellington in the center, and Anita Brown in the bottom left. These stories intertwine in again one of those fun ways that's just magical when you stumble on it. I talked to [Derek] first one day, and he's telling me the story about who he is, how he got started. His story begins in South Carolina at Clemson University, and then to Georgia Tech. And then I talk to David Ellington. Could not be a more different person, very...what's the word? let's say very dynamic, very forthright about who he is, and what he does, and what he wants to do.
And makes no bones about hey, I'm here and in this place to make money, and the best way to do for my community of black folks is to do for myself. And so to talk to these two opposite kinds of people personality wise. And I talked to David, I realized that both of them have mentioned a common moment. A moment of an event in Washington D.C. that brought together the Congressional Black Caucus and some other entities in talking about technology in the mid-90s. I came back to Derek, and I said, Derek, you know a guy named David Ellington? Long pause, and I was like oh this is good. I want to know why the pause, why the deep breaths, and he said, you know, when you emailed me first and told me about your project and asked to talk to me the first email I sent was to David Ellington, who I hadn't talked to in 20 years because there has been bad blood between us.
And so he launches into a whole new story. And the story was really about the two of them being a part of a moment, but on different sides. That is, black folks intimately involved in the production of software, the internet, in the early 1990s. One who said, I want to make money, and a lot of it. And the other who said, I want to do something for my community and use this as a tool to do so. Anita Brown, who was a Washington D.C. mother, no formal college education or anything, but was known to have the largest email mailing list of black folks at the time.
And so her email database was legendary. But mostly Derek talked about her as the glue that kept the folks like Derek and David together into a fascinating story that is a story about triumph, about black ingenuity, about black tech pioneering in the late 70s, 80s, and 90s. But it is also a story about limits. And I wanted to talk, when I discovered this next story had one of those other moments of fear. Again, I'm used to writing things that I know when they're gonna begin and end, and here is a moment of discovering a vastly different story.
And I went looking for this because all of that triumph came to an end by about the late 1990s. And to me at that moment of discovering that, thought there was a way in which this seemed predictable. That what seemed so good, what these folks had built, that it would come crashing down in such a dramatic way seemed predictable, but why? And that's where I discovered what ended up being book two that I called, "Collision Course." And I won't say much about it, but I'll read you just a small portion of the book:
“That was one of these moments of discovery about a different point in time that I had never interacted with, let alone known anything about before this time. but on Friday August 6th,1965, President Lyndon Johnson stood at a capitol rotunda podium poised to sign the most far reaching and impactful civil rights legislation in U.S. history. Civil rights leaders from Rosa Parks to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, and others looked on. They smiled triumphantly. They were hopeful about the future. The president signed the Voting Rights Act into law. By stroke of a presidential pen, black people had seized and secured the greatest power ever at their disposal, the franchise.
Just four days earlier, however, the U.S. Department of Labor began that week churning out a relatively uncelebrated news release.The Weekly News Digest regularly filled itself with the problem of negro employment. The August 2nd edition, authored by U.S. Labor Secretary W. Willard Wirtz, led with this headline, “Heads on Collision Course for Civil Rights and Automation.” The news release proffered two immutable truths. And I quote, ‘Call it automation, cybernation, or age of the robots, the technological revolution is here and here to stay. Call it Civil Rights or equal opportunity or peaceable protest for freedom now, it is equally evident that the negro revolution is here.’ These lines faded into the long shadow cast by the end of the week's voting rights victory. Johnson was privileged to pay in full one of America's long overdue promissory notes. But his labor secretary ended his weekly memo with this cryptic reality check.
"There are machines now, which can play excellent games of checkers. And they can play pretty good games of chess. They can play a fair hand of bridge, they can interpret books. They are doing, in a good many ways, skilled as well as unskilled jobs in the economy. They have no hands, but they can tabulate checks, and they can make no mistakes. They have no eyes, and yet they watch over the industrial process without ever blinking. It has taken only 30 years to move from the fantasy of Rossum's Universal Robot to the reality of UNIVAC and its brother computers. And today's reality is more fantastic than the fiction of the 1920s." And so this moment signaled what very many people at the time knew was coming, that is, a collision course between civil rights and the dawning computer revolution. And now in our narratives about the 60s, we rarely hear about these two things happening or interacting in any way.
So I'm reminded of Terra McPherson's chapter in Lisa Nakamura's book, "Race After The Internet," where she basically says in the 60s we've got two things going on. We've got the Civil Rights Movement, and we've got the computer revolution going on. And they might share a similar logic. It's a brilliant piece in many ways. They share a similar logic, but these are two independent disconnected stories. And so, to discover for me that these were not disconnected stories, but stories that were so intertwined led me to say, I have to write about this too. And in fact, so much that I cannot write about book one and those triumphs without writing about this next story. Where it begins in the very very early 60s at places like MIT, and the corridors of IBM and ends up in the late, or I should say the mid-60s, with the very foundations of predictive policing—computer based racial profiling systems that are very much at the driving force for why we are using computing technology at that point in the 60s. So what does it mean that this is the story that comes out at such a particular moment in our history?
Okay, how am I doing on time? Six thirty-five, five more minutes, okay perfect, five more minutes for some cocaine. So as you can tell this is one of those, my wife still is like I don't understand why that cocaine stuff is in there. And I mostly have to say it's in there because I decided it was going to be in there. Whether it needs to be or not. But as I discovered this story about cocaine and its sort of rampant use in Silicon Valley throughout the 1980s, it began to dawn on me that it made a good analogy for how to explain what I mean by black software and the significance of this term, black software. Again, I'll just read a small section from the book so I can keep on my time schedule and not ramble about this very interesting subject.
“In the 1980s Silicon Valley heralded the second high tech revolution. From its Bay Area core, the region radiates outward from Stanford University to the west, and up to Daly City, down past San Jose, and over to Hayward. It was named for invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship. The region had long ago played midwife to industry. It helped to birth the microchip, ARPA-net, disk drives, and the personal computer. By the 1980s, cocaine was the valley's newest, purest, most preferred, and best distributed high tech curio. You see, the valley sold dreams, its sprawling intellectual industrial spaces, including its Stanford connected labs and government sponsored research centers provided a new frontier for imagination to wander. Each fed the impulse to build new tools with which to master the universe. Its financiers capitalize investment in its fantasies. The new tools brought to market in droves, provided the satisfaction that comes from dreams not deferred.
Cocaine was tailor-made to fit the valley's technological and entrepreneurial ethos, its daily grind. Its demand to create value, its pervasive drive to succeed, its capacity to aspire.” So that was the beginning point for me of seeing the connection between a different kind of technology than computers, right, a chemical technology, but a technology nonetheless that begins as something pure, something white, something that drives things that are good, all of these technological inventions. But what we know from this story, is that this story begins to move down the coast of California where it transforms themselves into something very different before it hits the streets of South Central Los Angeles, and gets turned into crack cocaine.
And most of us know where that story ends. And so “black software,” and using this transformation of cocaine to crack, and all the stories that are tied up with that, very much served as an analogy for what I call “black software.” And I will end with this, which is in the introduction of the book. For me, “black software” conjures the myriad ways that we mobilize computing technology. “Black software” refers to the programs we desire and design computers to run. It refers to who designs the program, for what purposes, or what or who becomes its object or data.
It refers to how and how well the computer performs the task for which it was programmed. But, “Black Software” is also a story about how computing technology was built and developed to keep black America docile and in its place. Disproportionately disadvantage, locked up, and marked for death. This is the story that I unravel in book two, and it speaks to the nefarious ways those in power use computing technology to destroy black agency. By nullifying black peoples' hopes and dreams, aspirations, human potential, and political interests, and limiting the heights we are meant to achieve. This story's shockwaves reverberate and still define our present day. Thank you....
Anita Say Chan:
So thank you so much first off Charlton for this incredible work.
As you know, it's doing an incredible amount of work, and making some really clearly important contributions. Even if you say you're not a historian by training, you're doing an incredible amount of work in terms of contributing to histories of computing in the US, as well as histories of civil rights and civil rights movements. Many of us, who do work in histories of computing are so well accustomed to thinking about how international instability in the mid part of the 20th century and the Cold War shaped computing culture and computing developments again and from 1950s onward.
But many of us are not accustomed to thinking about how versions of domestic unrests, concerns around domestic insecurity, protests, and civil rights movements were also elements that were driving not just computing developments, but developments around predictive computing, around predictive policing, around information systems and development. And you, in a beautiful way, demonstrate how the Watts riots in the 1960s and events that were going on across the country were already by the mid century, the 20th century, inspiring state and federal agencies to start to build out collaborations with corporations like IBM to take on multiple tactics. Not just developing some of the first televised documentaries on the riots presented on CBS by IBM on the riots. But also to develop some of the first control and command systems around data feedback to basically institute some of the first applied kinds of predictive policing technologies that let different kinds of law enforcement agencies speak to each other in a sense.
And by 1970s Kansas City, Missouri we already see these applications at work. But we also see the kind of contributions that you're making to amplify our thinking around civil rights movements. And your text also takes us into the kind of philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr., of A. Philip Randolph to try and remind us that these weren't just philosophers and leaders in the civil rights movements. But also some of the foundational thinkers and early thinkers around the impacts of automation on tech and work. And so already in the early 1960s we can see MLK speaking to the United Auto Workers Union on how the impacts of automation were going to disproportionately impact people of color and working classes. So your work is doing this beautiful navigation, drawing, speaking directly to both historians of computing and historians of civil rights in the US. Necessarily demonstrating in lots of ways how they are actually entangled as you've already gestured towards.
So could you speak a little bit to us about how the work you see in trying to intervene in these sorts of publics, academic, but also beyond, and how your methods in a sense also draw in these diverse audiences to make these kind of interventions and to also underscore their entanglements, again as you so beautifully demonstrate.
Thank you, and I'll start with this and then we can continue on if I don't answer your question very well. But some of you may remember last year sometime around this time The Intercept came out with an article that basically talked about discovering that New York City Police Department was sharing its photo database basically, that comes from all of its cameras around the city, sharing it with IBM for the purpose of helping them build this new AI system that would be able to identify suspects, et. cetera, based on skin color. And the punch line of the article was A, this is happening and it's kind of messed up. And the second one was they'd been doing this in secret for five years. And I remember that story in kind of, you know, good and bad ways. And one moment chuckling and saying, no, this is not a five year story.
It's a 50 year story. And not just generally speaking, but the relationship between the NYPD and IBM is a 50 year story. And what we are seeing and what they were reporting on was the culmination of a 50 year long project, one that began in the mid-60s. And that was one of those moments where, again I asked myself, what does it mean? I mean, what does it mean generally speaking and what does it mean for the folks that I call the vanguard, these black technologists, these pioneers in the 80s and 90s. What does it mean that from Jump Street, right, from the very beginning in the take off of the development of computing that what the computer has set its task towards is how do we curtail the unrest of black people that are rioting in the streets for their basic rights? How do we keep them indoors, pacified, not prone to crime, et. cetera, et. cetera? What does it mean that that's the first problem that I set the computer to solve?
And so that's one of those reasons that I said, you know, I have to figure out a way to tell both of these stories even though they cover a vast amount of time. But they are so intertwined, and I think really, you know, when we look at the state of where we are now, right. And you see both the optimism, where this book started with Black Lives Matter, right? And you see folks being able to do incredible things afforded by the technology that we have. And then look back and go, oh, but this is what this is for. And by the way when we look beyond Black Lives Matter today what do we see? We see these massive surveillance systems, so on and so forth, that are working against people like me.
Anita Say Chan:
Yeah, yeah, see so it's a recovering these histories of erasure, and gesturing towards actually other versions of other histories that may have been possible otherwise.
One of the other things that I really love about the work, especially as someone who covers and has written about geek cultures and computing cultures in the global south and in Latin America, is the way you offer us a different kind of topology and geography of geek cultures and computing cultures. So, you know, a kind of dominant version of computing cultures that were given. The version that we would get if we walk into the computing history museum in Palo Alto, California is a version that ties geek and computer cultures to the coasts. Largely to institutions like MIT and Stanford, or to start up and sort of, you know, entrepreneurial culture, garage based culture, and manicured California suburbs. And you decenter that geography, and give us another kind of ecology instead. You know, the kind of ecology where spaces like Kansas City, like Atlanta, like Washington D.C., like the historically black colleges and universities network play a different kind of role and seed a different kind of model for what geek culture might look like.
Could you talk to us a little bit about the means by which you're sort of opening up this other geography of computing and geek culture? And talk to us a little bit about your discoveries around creativity and self-determination in relation to tech. And maybe also reflect a little bit, because it seems like you're gesturing towards this, about what kinds of lessons they also underscore for us nowadays, especially those of us who are parts of institutions and thinking about this way of building out more "inclusive" tech cultures, et. cetera. But what are the sorts of lessons?
You know, it was again fun and interesting to sort of discover something that invokes a very different narrative than what you know, right? So even when you find people that you didn't know were there, you still might expect them to be of the same kind, as it were, as other folks that we know about in our history. But as I began to find and stumble on a lot of these folks, it was much different. So we could talk about the group of folks that were connected together around this community called the AfroNet, which is in the title of the book. And this is a computer network that was all black, very rigidly policed, late 80s, early 90s, a fairly short history, but started in bulletin board culture and then migrated a little bit. And one might expect, well particularly given the expertise needed and so forth to be involved in this at that time that you would find the same types of people that you saw in the narratives that come out of an MIT or a Stanford.
But I found very different people. They were firefighters, police officers, motorcycle enthusiasts, teachers. Almost none of whom had college educations or if they did, it was more likely to be at a community college or a tech school. And almost uniformly they had a similar kind of story, which was something like this. I saw something called a computer that could do this cool stuff. I wanted to try it. I failed. I had nowhere to turn, so I picked up the user's manual and here I am, having fun. So a short story and complicated, but it was one where, you know, what was in the forefront of folks' minds was less about the tech itself, though they were fascinated by it. They had fun putting it together. They had fun building the tools that they were using. But the reason most of them had so much fun doing it was what it allowed them to do, which was to connect to other folks in their community that they otherwise would not be able to.
And that's what they got out of it, that is, I get to have fun but I get to have fun with you, someone who might be across the coast in California, Los Angeles, somewhere. Or up in Canada, or somewhere else across the country, and so I think what those early networks of folks really emphasized was not so much, you know, this kind of fetishization of the technology itself, the software or the hardware or what have you. But the fact that this was something that could enhance and support those community connections.
Anita Say Chan:
This is my last question before I'm going to turn it over to the audience. This last question has to do with your methods because your methods are really fascinating. And there are really, really some beautiful, qualitative, diverse kind of qualitative data methods at play that we see throughout the chapters. Everything from first person interviews to archival materials, and even some speculative and literary techniques imagining what different historical figures might have been able to say to one another were they able to have that kind of engaged conversation. So this to me brings to mind the work of de-colonial historians like Haitian Michel Trouillot, who has written so much about how the kind of colonial legacy that every archive lives with, and how every archive in a sense is nothing but a "collection of silences” that rest again some official version of history that also mimics that kind of collection of silences. So both you and he seem to be gesturing towards a kind of innovation in methods in a sense. And so could you talk a little bit about how you came to uncover the format of the book?
Yes, I mean in many respects I did not want to do that. That is, these stories began to come to me, and number one I'm hearing them and it's like one could tell when I spoke with someone like Derek, or really all of them, they just told the story so beautifully. Meaning they didn't answer my questions directly. This was something like oh, I’ve been waiting for this. I’ve been waiting to tell about these moments. And so it came out as a narrative, a story about all of these intertwined things going on in their life that intersected around race, and blackness, and technology. And at a certain moment, I had to say, like whose story am I gonna tell? Whose is important? Whose needs to be told, and whose voice really is gonna shine through, right?
So again, many drafts of the book, one of the first ones that I thought I was sort of close to being done I remember leaving with my wife and my son, who were going to take a trip down to D.C. on the train. I was headed off to the West Coast on a trip. She was going to edit for me. I came back, and the first thing my 10 year old said was “Mommy hated your book.” And I was like ahh. And I said, “did you read it?” And he's like “no, it was boring.” So once the pain subsided, it was a moment, and it was a moment of going back to this and wrestling with the question about whose story and whose voice? I'm an academic. I have to explain things. Just telling a story doesn't always sit well with me because in stories you have to explain what's going on, and why this, and why that. And I was compelled to do that, and apparently that's what gummed up the book.
So at a point I had to say whose story has to be there? Whose story has to be told? People have heard my voice. People have not heard these peoples' voices. And so I needed to be in the background offering context and connection, but do everything I could to try to amplify. This is particularly true for the folks and the stories that were in the archives in the 50s, and 60s, and so forth, and people who can't speak any longer.
Anita Say Chan:
Well it's gripping narratives, and also clearly something that works against again this sort of politics of erasure that we tend to see in kind of both dominant US sort of mid-century, 20th century history, but also US histories around computing. And so it's beautifully done. And now this is our moment to get to turn it over to the audience. And so if you would raise your hand we have a mic that we can pass on to you. And please do say your name and affiliation before asking a question given that you're comfortable with sharing that.
I apologize, I left my glasses in my bag. So most of you I cannot see. But I can hear, so that's good enough. I can hear you, not everyone else can hear you though apparently.
So I actually had the honor, I'm thinking in part I am like 33 and my dad was an entrepreneur and had a computer in the early 90s. And I'm really fascinated by tech and politics, and I'm realizing, you know, listening to you and Dr. Ruha Benjamin like that was where the privilege of having access to technology was through his office, like computers and so forth. So when I hear that, that brings me back to my childhood and thinking about that privilege. But one I met, where do you place black planet and Omar, do you talk about that in the book and Omar Wasow, who now is a professor at Princeton. But in his prior life he was a part in the 90s, New York Online was his thing. And the infrastructure, the first wave of the internet, and so where do you place black planet, and Omar, and his contributions? And lastly Dr. Ruha Benjamin often talks about a [libratory] stuff, thinking back to our past, Dubois and other activists.
Like Ida B. Welles as data scientists, like there is a history for this, so connecting it to the current president of Black Lives Matters activists where do you see, like who do you see is like the next wave? Do you see any next wave of black software moving in these next element of the internet, especially with privacy and all that kind of stuff? So I don't know if that makes any sense.
Absolutely, some big questions, I'll start with the first one, Omar Wasow, black planet, extremely influential. You know, I asked that question about the early 90s and what do you think about, you very well could have said Omar Wasow or black planet and it would have been true, a very explosive large community online that was one of the first. Nevertheless black planet is not in the book, and there is a reason. It's not a very good reason. But it has everything to do with sort of the moment of discovering stories, and then trying to figure out how to weave those in. And so at the moment that I come back around to Omar's story and black planet, New York Online, some of the things that were in close proximity, the story had already started to get out of hand.
That was one. The other is the story had always been, still continued to the end of the book to be very much male driven. And so I thought at that, again it was much about timing, and it was do I include another story that is significant and needs to be there? Or do I tell an equally significant story from a voice that is not reflected so much in the book and in the archive? And it's a fascinating question if anyone wants to ask about sort of the gender aspect of these moments. But that's why Omar and black planet are not in the book, except for as a way to talk about another, talk about [Fariah Chinea], for whom black planet and the other online space was a way for her to amplify her new blog, news writing, journalism and so forth. I don't know if I can answer the second question. When I think about Dr. King, Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, many of these folks, they had a lot to say, number one, about technology, which I think not a lot of people knew.
Certainly I didn't, and they could sort of tell the future, right? And it was really because they did not need to have a PhD in engineering or computer science to be able to know what had been true for all of black history up to that present, which was every new technological innovation was going to disadvantage black folks, right? I'm not so sure where that particular message has its place in today's discourse either, in the civil rights community or the tech community. I think it is there but I don't think we have been talking about it in significant ways or certainly not with the kind of urgency that some of our prior civil rights folks have. So I'll leave that there, much more that could be said, but thanks for the question.
So I wanted to follow up, this question kind of came up to me when you were talking about the story of the two men who eventually had beef. One wanted to run the business, wanted to make a lot of money, and the other wanted to [unintelligible 00:58:36] community. And as a software engineer personally I feel like that's always been a scale, right? Like one I could just go work and, you know, make a lot of money. On the other side I could do more product stuff and do more social good, but I feel like it's either one or the other. So I wanted to get your feedback, do you feel like it is that choice [unintelligible 00:59:02] or is it possible to kind of do both? And where do you see yourself kind on that scale if you agree that scale [unintelligible 00:59:10].
I think certainly that jives very well with history and with this formative moment that I talk about in the book, which was the early mid-90s, information superhighway, digital divide, what are we gonna do, right? Here is the moment if there is any for black folks to capitalize, make serious amounts of money, and that is a space opened up by the technology itself. Right, and then you have other folks that see the tremendous opportunity to correct the narratives, that is I can make visible spaces of my own narrative, my own history that counters the sort of representational dominant narrative. But it was interesting to hear this story told, and it was very much told in the same way no matter who I spoke with, which was the sense that not everybody was gonna win. When I say everybody I'm talking about black folks, not everyone was gonna win. There was not room for many folks to be profitable. There might be one or two, and that's what that beef that [Derek] talked about was very much about, which one of us is it gonna be.
But there was also a moment where the pivot towards how do I use the technology towards sort of [liberatory] ends for the cause of building community or fighting for racial justice? You know, it wasn't very prominent at the time. it was part of it, right, and there was this how do we connect to the community. But there wasn't a pivot. The attention was on let me make the money, and how do I profit? And how do we profit? So even though we were talking about the collective it's a story about profit. Long story short to try to answer your question is how many internet properties do we see today that are black owned, traffic in primarily black content, and are commercially successful? I can think of maybe one, and I haven't checked in the last year or so. And it may not be black owned anymore.
So all of that to say certainly, in a way I don't think it's a one or the other. I think from my point of view both are suspect, meaning our ability to advance both economically or politically around the technology are questionable. Given a lot of things that I'm sure you are faced with, which is how do I blaze a path and do what I want to do, whether that is make money or do good, and see that at some point there is a wall to either or both of those? I'm going to stop there on that one.
We'll take one more question.
I really am optimistic a little bit, sort of.
Well give us the optimistic ending.
I lied. No, here is the optimism, and actually I think the optimism is on a slide that I didn't get to. So in prior decades there wasn't this, and this is just a smattering of folks that I could get up on the board. And so in a lot of ways the optimism for me stems from the fact that we are having this conversation, that people like all of these folks represented here are making this conversation something that is central to our discourse on technology. And not simply silo-ed in the arena of civil rights or race and ethnic studies and so forth. I mean imagine when I started writing this book, and if I go back a little bit further to when I sort of pivoted from my early work into this area none of this was here. Right, I came thinking I would find stuff, and I found Lisa Nakamura and a few other folks. But not much given the fact that, you know, problems around race have been around for quite a long time as has technology.
But there was none of this, and so I think the optimism for me comes around that we have folks that are doing both the scholarship. But as many of you have known who have come to see [Ruhow], or Meredith and others represented here folks who can translate this into stuff that people understand, right? That's accessible and that's pushing the narrative and framing the agenda in a way that I think has not always been. So that's where the optimism is for me, along with the fact that folks are pushing. Right, technologists in the room that are folks of color and marginalized that are working on their own or at companies of varying kinds are pushing. And so I find optimism in the fact that we still struggle. And as long as we still struggle there is still reason for hope. Thank you.