Why Tech Made Racial Injustice Worse, and How to Fix It

Friday, Jul 17, 2020

Ruha Benjamin shares research from her book Race After Technology, as part of our Now What series.

A month ago today, George Floyd was killed when a Minneapolis police offer put his knee on Floyd's neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while Floyd pleaded that he couldn't breathe. That's led to a global outcry for people, communities and governments to reexamine long-standing issues around racial injustice. And the tech community has a role to play.

The technology industry is often centered on the idea that science and tech can solve many of humanity's biggest problems and overcome longstanding obstacles to progress. In recent years, that narrative has been called into question as systems like artificial intelligence and facial recognition have reinforced the racial divide and made the problem worse. 

As part of CNET's Now What series, we explore the impact of tech on race relations with Ruha Benjamin, professor of African American studies at Princeton University and author of the book Race After Technology. Benjamin is a sociologist focused on technology and she brings a unique perspective on the impact of technology on race relations. 

We talked about where technology is making the situation worse when it comes to race and social justice in America. That includes facial recognition systems that give false positives for people of color by a factor of 10x to 100x more than Caucasians, according to research from the US government. It also includes hiring systems that are meant to screen candidates in an automated, unbiased way but end up reinforcing existing divisions and biases. 

We also talked about how people of color have long proposed an alternate narrative on the societal impact of technology. Martin Luther King Jr. once warned, "When scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men." 

Benjamin has positive prescriptions for how we can better design the systems of the future to overcome the current injustices.  

"We need to look at who's actually developing the technology and within what kind of incentive structure [and] what kind of ecosystem," says Benjamin. "The fact is much of our technology is being developed and conceived of by a small sliver of humanity, and this sliver of humanity has projected onto everyone else its own vision of the good life." 

The tech industry's current panacea is to diversify its workforce and companies are setting aggressive goals to transform themselves. Benjamin asserts that won't be enough to drive meaningful change. We need to "not only consider diversifying who's behind the screen," says Benjamin. 

"That's important but it's not sufficient, because if the ecosystem remains the same," she says, "if the context and the incentive structure in which that diverse workforce is developing technology remains the same -- where the profit imperative trumps other kinds of public goods -- then you can have as diverse a workforce as you want and you're still going to get many of the same problems we see today." 

As a sociologist, part of Benjamin's attention has been on the concept of "discriminatory design." In her 2015 TED Talk, Benjamin said, "At the heart of discriminatory design is this idea that we can create technological fixes for social crises ... Rather than dealing with the underlying conditions, we create short-term responses that get the issue out of sight, out of mind." 

Benjamin's appeal is to get the tech industry and the broader society to think bigger and more critically about the role technology is playing in our lives and in the modern communities we're building. 

"Part of what I want us to think about is not just focusing our attention on creating better technology that's less biased, that works better, but thinking about the entire ecosystem," she says. "What would it mean to develop technology in the public interest, for the public good, not just in rhetoric. ... I mean literally in the incentive structure, in the economic and social governance of technology -- that we create an ecosystem that doesn't rely on the good intentions of an individual designer." 

For more on Benjamin's perspective on how to reverse course on the impact of technology on racial injustice, take a look at her book Race After Technology.

[Originally published on June 25, 2020 via CNET]

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