Ruha Benjamin

Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code

Polity, 2019

172 pages


Reviewed by Hannah Robbins Hopkins

Borne out in headlines and in laboratories, much of our contemporary data practice is concerned with what we, or rather computers, can see. We train machines to erase distance and scale: combing through massive datasets for trends, searching through thousands of pages for the mention of a single word, making meaning from the glimpse of a stranger’s face in a faraway place. Our lives are increasingly shaped by Big Data, high volumes of varied information moving at breakneck velocity. Corporations and governments deploy Big Data to tune and refine purchasing decisions, state violence, social associations, job prospects, and our most infinitesimal tastes. In pursuit of creating machines that can see straight ahead to—and perhaps through—our encoded present and future selves, we use Big Data to seek out what Donna Haraway calls the god trick, the illusion of omniscience without the burden of a subject position. Our desire for a determinist objectivity erases the very real ramifications of that invisibility, particularly when discriminatory systems of domination put lives on the line. In Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, Ruha Benjamin argues that “invisibility, with regard to Whiteness, offers immunity.” Benjamin’s masterful work in Race Against Technology resists a weaponized white invisibility, calling instead for intentional, equitable “socially just imaginaries” in the face of technological production that would instead fight for quick, cheap hegemony.

As Benjamin shows, the very algorithms that have everything to do with our daily lives are often those that are black-boxed, their inner workings invisible from view in order to mask their operations. This invisibility is redoubled in Benjamin’s “anti-Black box [which] links the race-neutral technologies that encode inequity to the race-neutral laws and policies that serve as powerful tools for White supremacy.” Like Haraway, Benjamin foregrounds that technological seamlessness and algorithmically rendered objectivity work together to uphold the same racism that some algorithms pretend to dismantle as tools for white supremacy. For Benjamin, race is a “set of technologies that generate patterns of social relations, and these become Black-boxed as natural, inevitable, automatic.” Here, Benjamin brings forward the ‘New Jim Code’ as a rubric for the “new technologies that reflect and reproduce existing inequities but that are promoted and perceived as more objective or progressive than the discriminatory systems of a previous era.” Under the New Jim Code, “the desire for objectivity, efficiency, profitability, and progress fuels the pursuit for technical fixes across many different social arenas.” New Jim Code fixes interlock with existing infrastructure and yield a host of “discriminatory designs—some that explicitly work to amplify hierarchies, many that ignore and thus replicate social divisions, and a number that aim to fix racial bias but end up doing the opposite.” Out of Benjamin’s race critical code studies, Race After Technology sets forward four dimensions of the New Jim Code: engineered inequity, default discrimination, coded exposure, and technological benevolence. In delineating these facets of the New Jim Code, Benjamin is quick to point out that design does not necessarily contain within itself the best or only way forward. In the same tradition that encourages us to interrogate what the black box conceals, Benjamin asks, “In the breathless race for newer, faster, better technology, what ways of thinking, being, and organizing social life are potentially snuffed out?”

The four dimensions of the New Jim Code structure each of the book’s four sections. In each, Benjamin illustrates several instantiations of the New Jim Code’s effects, examining each through the framework of race critical code studies. In the first section, “Engineered Inequity: Are Robots Racist?” Benjamin argues that “robots exemplify how race is a form of technology itself.” Whether marketed for sex, policing, military activity, or household chores, robots are emblematic of “social bias embedded in technical artifacts, the allure of objectivity without public accountability.” As Benjamin points out, this allure is captured and concealed in part through the machine learning processes that undergird robots’ capacity to perform tasks: if the models on which machines are trained are racist, those proclivities are only amplified in the robots’ learning. Through the interweaving of mid twentieth-century advertisements for then-futuristic domestic robotics and the relationship of the carceral state to both robotics and Black bodies, Benjamin raises the notion that those “who believe in a more egalitarian notion of power, of collective empowerment without domination” might consider how their “relation to robots offers a mirror for thinking through and against race as technology.” In this section, Benjamin deploys cases from government and science fiction to approach digitally-managed social credit systems as regimes of robotic or automated control. She insists that “when bias and inequity come to light, “lack of intention” to harm is not a viable alibi.”

In the second section, “Default Discrimination: Is the Glitch Systemic?” Benjamin “probes the relationship between glitch and design, which we might be tempted to associate with competing conceptions of racism” by way of several instances in which technologies erase or elide groups of people. Rather than take glitches as isolated mistakes, Benjamin asks what valuable insight we can gain from the system’s pain points and misfires. Returning to practices of prediction, Benjamin takes up predictive policing and recidivism calculations as one site of the New Jim Code whereby Black bodies are disproportionately algorithmically forgotten. In a world so dominated by algorithmic decision-making, Benjamin cautions that “the danger with New Jim Code predictions is the way in which self-fulfilling prophecies enact what they predict, giving the allure of accuracy.” This accuracy is over relied-upon, particularly when glitches can be easily explained away. Benjamin goes on in this section to argue that “whereas racist glitches are often understood as transient, as signals they can draw our attention to discriminatory design as a durable feature of the social landscape since this nation’s founding.” Sight returns to the fore in the fourth section, “Coded Exposure: Is Visibility a Trap?” in which Benjamin interrogates “who is seen and under what terms” in the era of the New Jim Code, particularly when white bodies’ status as a default means that their non-white counterparts are treated as either deviant or invisible altogether. In this section, Benjamin also elucidates the relationship between eugenics and contemporary robotics and machine learning paradigms, arguing that “racial representations engineered through algorithmic codes should be understood as part of a much longer visual archive.”

Part of Benjamin’s innovation in Race After Technology has to do with its implementation: it is a toolkit, a field guide, and perhaps an unanticipated anti-design manual in the fourth section, “Technological Benevolence: Do Fixes Fix Us?” Benjamin cites that the “conceptual toolkit we build around a race critical code studies will be useful [. . .] for analyzing a wide range of phenomena [. . .] through which Whiteness becomes the default setting for tech development.” Benjamin’s toolkit is an expressly abolitionist project, unfettered by zeitgeisty phraseology around engineering liberation. She writes that a liberatory method ground in and identified by its linkage to the “ethos of design” precludes one from “[breathing] in ways that might be useful.” Indeed, Benjamin’s critique of “discriminatory design” approaches the issue from both ends: just as she exposes the discrimination inherent in contemporary digital objects, she also questions our relations to and with design. She poses the question that perhaps, rather than “liberatory designs,” we might instead “demand [. . .] just plain old liberation.” At the start of her toolkit, Benjamin asks: “Are you ready?” If the only way to practice abolitionist imaginations in the face of racist designs is to act in solidarity with one another, creating new kinships and communities, then Benjamin’s early question is in fact our call.