I was one of those kids who watched Back to the Future and was mesmerized by the idea of flying cars and hoverboards. A utopian sci-fi fan, I believed in the promise of technology. At age 13, I fell in love with the Internet and knew the future had arrived. I discovered chat rooms and spent hours connecting with people across the globe, learning about their lives. The age of technology was here, and I was excited.
At age 16, I found Napster and discovered whole new communities of folks sharing files and building online friendships. I downloaded as many albums and music files as I could, exploring the world with new energy – until the day I got a letter from the government demanding that I cease and desist or face criminal liability. The idea of government surveillance was not new to me, but that I could face criminal charges for connecting with others online was.
Growing up as a politically conscious Black person in the U.S., I’d heard about the FBI’s counterintelligence program and how it was used to hunt and spy on Black activists. I grew up in Black neighborhoods where the trees were cut down so police helicopters could more easily find people. My entire childhood in Oakland, CA, was spent watching police cars creep along side streets, not looking for anything in particular. Instead, like the overseers who preceded them, these black and white vehicles were there to ensure that people like me remained in our place.
In the 21st century, the overseer has jumped from outside on the street to online in your home. Without technology leaders and strategists dedicated to racial justice, Black communities – both citizen and migrant – will continue to bear the brunt of discriminatory policing, now in the high-tech world of the Internet.
Black people and communities of color are more watched than we are helped.
Devices and data are not neutral, because people are not neutral.
It has often been asserted that technology is neutral. But we’ve now seen algorithms currently being used to drive predictive policing technologies based on historical crime data – data that are generated based on systemic policing practices that have disadvantaged Black people and other people of color for generations. Just as policing practices have been deadly for Black communities, this new and flawed technology, based in the biased practices of police, is no doubt lethal for Black folks as well.
Additionally, police technologies like predictive policing have exacerbated fear in crime-ridden neighborhoods, rather than bringing a sense of safety. Slowly replacing the loud chopping sound of helicopters, silent remote controlled drones sneak up on their targets and clandestinely monitor people in their homes. Body-worn and dashboard police cameras watch us. Stingray technologies listen in. And license plate readers track us wherever we go. Black people and communities of color are more watched than we are helped. We can feel it. And like it has always been for us, being watched so closely creates anxiety, not comfort. And the anxiety that we are being targeted is real in us, because we have also always been real targets.
Technology, like guns, in the hands of those who would use technology to kill is deadly. And, as with gun regulation, we need rules that keep vulnerable communities safe from the overreach of already troubled and racially biased law enforcement agencies.
We must become the digital activists and data warriors we’ve been waiting for.
There has been a lot written about how activists and organizers use social media to combat police violence. – from adapting to the technology of one’s time, to making use of social media in social justice work, to large-scale global social media uprisings. There have also been countless thought pieces about the use of Black Twitter and about the lack of diversity in tech companies.
But I’m more interested in whether the digital age and the era of big data can advance our vision for justice, freedom and equity – or will the technology of the 21st century be used to crush this dream? I’m calling technologists in to commit to strengthening and advancing the Movement for Black Lives. Even as an information economy pushes potential allies to stockpile wealth in Silicon Valley or side with an authoritarian government, we can keep fighting for justice in the streets and online.
We can start by making digital technologies and the data we need available to the masses and not simply to a minority owning class. Over 100 million people in this country aren’t connected to broadband at home in large part because of the cost, the majority of those not connected being from Black, Latino, Native and rural communities – This must change. In a society that relies heavily on the Internet to find jobs, do homework and check medical records, affordable access to modern communications systems is a cornerstone of equity.
We can keep fighting for justice in the streets and online.
In a speech at the 2015 Computer, Internet and Society Conference, Center for Media Justice Director Malkia Cyril said, “whether the Internet disrupts the status quo or reinforces it is up to us.”
Yes, we can be the tech leaders we need.
We can demand, win and build an Internet that makes it harder to criminalize, trace and track religious, racial and ethnic minority groups, and that makes it harder to concentrate communications power and profits in the hands of the richest 1 percent. While we may also fight for laws that help keep the Internet equitable, communities of color know that technology is never neutral. We must be the ones to ensure that technology is on the right side, bending the moral arc toward a safer, more secure and less surveilled future.
For our sake, may we make the winning side be justice.
This post is part of the Black Futures Month blog series brought to you by The Huffington Post and the Black Lives Matter Network. Each day in February, look for a new post exploring cultural and political issues affecting the Black community and examining the impact it will have going forward. For more Black History Month content, check out Black Voices’ ‘We, Too, Are America’ coverage.