How much of tech history involves Black history?

Here's what some tech educators think the current and future intersection of technology and race looks like for Black Americans.

Many of today's 21st-century innovations came from the 1950s and 1960s. Inventions like the microchip, computer programming languages, and satellites are the foundation of services and devices we take for granted today — the internet, smartphones, artificial intelligence, virtual learning, remote work, and social media. 

While these innovations were taking shape, America was in the midst of its 20th-century civil rights movement. Unfortunately, like many other aspects of public policy and culture, most tech innovations were developed without consideration of how they might affect the lives of Black Americans.

We asked three computer science professors to weigh in on how the development and use of technology influence Black American's past, present, and future. Here's what they said:

How much of 20th-century tech history involves Black history?

The 2016 film Hidden Figures told the true story of three African American women whose minds helped get America's space program off the ground in the 1960s. Tech history is filled with many other hidden figures, according to Juan Gilbert, an endowed professor and department chair of the University of Florida's Department of Computer, Information Science, and Engineering. 

Gilbert said it's hard to say how much of 20th-century tech history involves Black history.

"Tech history has been told from one perspective for decades, leaving out contributions by Black Americans. Dr. Mark Dean, a mentor and friend of mine, is often referred to as the invisible man because his contribution to the invention of the computer is not told. There are other hidden figures as well, so we must do a better job of revealing the contributions of Black Americans in tech." 

Julian Brinkley, a professor at Clemson University's School of Computing, echoed that sentiment. "Tech history is Black history and vice versa," Brinkley said. "One of the most significant factors with any new technology is consumer acceptance and adoption," he continued. "Black Americans are often on the forefront of consumer trends in the tech space as some of the first and earliest adopters of new technology."

Brinkley said the Black community's influencers also play a role in the adoption of new tech. 

"New technologies are often useless if people don't want to use them. Historically, Black Americans don't just make new technologies acceptable — they make them must-haves."

Brinkley continued: "The marketing impact of Black entertainers and athletes highlights the value of the Black community in making new technologies broadly acceptable. Despite the significant societal barriers that Black Americans have faced historically, the reality is that what becomes trendy and 'hot' in the Black community often becomes highly sought after in the US and globally."

How do yesterday's tech decisions affect today's public policies?

Tech shapes the world in ways we may not see. Your ethnic background, culture, gender, and other intersecting identities will influence how you experience technology.

"Past and current news gives us a good sense of the spaces and places where marginalized communities have been left out of technology's creation," said Shaundra Daily, a professor in Duke University's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

She pointed to facial recognition technology as an example of how tech fails to serve everyone equitably. Facial recognition algorithms frequently misidentify Black and brown people. Voice recognition systems are sometimes unable to recognize women. And many technologies and daily experiences remain difficult or inaccessible for people with disabilities.

"If these communities would have been included during the design phases of these technologies, then the harm could have potentially been avoided when they were released into the public," Daily said.

Gilbert also says the development and use of facial recognition technology remain problematic.

"These applications were deployed and used as part of public policies, specifically, in the criminal justice sector. We now know that these technologies had biases toward people of color. This is why it is important to have a diverse group of people at every stage of the technology pipeline from conception to implementation to public policy."

Brinkley also focuses on issues of accessibility.

"In doing this work, the relationship between tech decisions and public policy is clear," he said. "Many of the tech decisions made today may have a significant impact on society and often lead to specific policies that govern tech design and use. But oftentimes, even the most well-meaning policies come too late. Technology is always rapidly evolving, and efforts to craft policies often fail to recognize and keep pace with this rapid advancement."

As the US marks African American History Month, Brinkley said a different approach to diversity and equity in tech could focus on people instead of on creating policies, 

"In designing a socially responsible autonomous vehicle, for instance, an area that I work heavily in, the socially responsible decision might be to make a design choice that might be slightly more expensive to implement but one that may render the technology more broadly usable by older adults and persons with disabilities."

Brinkley continued: "How can we cultivate socially responsible engineers and tech designers who are commited to making better choices in the design and implementation of new technologies? I think if we can get more people in the building who put people first and put the needs of society before the need to profit, we will not only have better tech, [but] we will have tech that is socially responsible." 

Brinkley said having diverse tech development teams who are committed to social responsibility could be significantly more impactful than the creation or enforcement of a new policy. Gilbert agreed, saying diversity can lay the foundation for a more equitable, inclusive future with technology.

"As a nation, we are at a point where we can recognize there is bias in technology, and diversity can improve technology," Gilbert said. "When I was a graduate student, my colleagues thought that technology was unbiased because we worked with bits and bytes, not people. Now, we know that's not true. Engaging a more diverse group of people in technology serves us all. It improves technology for everyone and helps advance our nation. It's not only the right thing to do; it's the best thing to do."

This article was reviewed by Angelique Geehan

Angelique geehan smiles while leaning against a tree.

Angelique Geehan works to support and repair the connections people have with themselves and their families, communities, and cultural practices. A queer, Asian, gender binary-nonconforming parent, Geehan founded Interchange, a consulting group that offers anti-oppression support. She organizes as part of several groups, including the National Perinatal Association's Health Equity Workgroup, the Health and Healing Justice Committee of the National Queer and Trans Asian and Pacific Islander Alliance, QTPOC+ Family Circle, and Batalá Houston.

Angelique Geehan is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network. 

Page last reviewed on January 28, 2022.

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