⚡ New Event: Black Software

Professor Charlton McIlwain's new history of race and the Internet

I think there's always something auspicious about the first book of the year.

For me, it was Dark Matters: On The Surveillance of Blackness by Simone Browne, a critical-theoretical exploration that traces the modern surveillance state to the policies and tools once used to monitor and control slaves. It's a dense, jargon-y read, but worth the effort: chock full of references to other authors, media, and even radical art pieces that will change the way you understand surveillance. So I hope that's how 2021 will go. History-burdened, certainly not easy, but ripe with potential if we're willing to do the work.

(P.S. Please take 1 minute to fill out our 3-question feedback form. Only 1.5% of our subscribers did so far, so it means a lot to hear what you think.)

📖 black software by charlton mcilwain

Last summer, social media helped catalyze Black Lives Matter protests in all 50 states, leading even corporations to renew their commitments to racial justice. Mere months later, Google fired leading AI fairness researcher Dr. Timnit Gebru for pushing on those very commitments.

In Black Software: The Internet and Racial Justice from AfroNet to Black Lives Matter, McIlwain tackles this strange duality through a historical frame. He showcases the Black technologists who built modern computing alongside the white-dominated power brokers who used technology to reinforce racism.

Join us next Tuesday 1/12 for a Q&A with Charlton on whitewashed histories, racist tech, and reaching beyond D&I in Silicon Valley.

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🔊 our take: the history you haven't heard

By Deblina Mukherjee and Jessica Dai

Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the Afronet to Black Lives Matter is divided loosely into two books. The first follows the development of what McIlwain calls "The Vanguard" since the 1960s—a group of black technologists at varying distances from the white-and-Asian-male-nerdery that defines the power center of Silicon Valley. The Vanguard is comprised of black people who make software about and for black people (everything from clip art, to the Universal Black Pages, to the AfroNet). On the flipside, though, the second book covers the development of carceral technology—predictive policing, the technologies of surveillance and control—and the "Committeemen" that wield it. The Committeemen are powerful corporate and federal leaders, and in their hands, black people become data points and statistics, all the narrative glory of the past book reduced to tables.

McIlwain explains the analytical difference that necessitates the two separate books by distinguishing between "cocaine code"—"software designed to create an array of potential user applications, [code] designed to provide pleasure, stimulate entertainment, prolong mental acuity and allow people to stay away longer and work more hours in a day"—and "crack code", which is used to identify, isolate, target, remove and solve a specific problem. Well, mainly just one problem. "America's greatest problem:," McIlwain writes. "Black People." Standing against crack code are the members of the Vanguard — people like William Murrell (one of the first black engineers at IBM, who becomes the owner of MetroServe Computer Company, Boston’s largest computer store) and Kamal Al-Monsour, a lawyer who had worked as an administrator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, before creating AfroLink software to distribute information and clip art about black and African history, culture, and politics. Black Software thrives on these hidden gems and the stories of people who felt out of place in mainstream computing history.

While each book individually has a clear central theme, it's not clear what we're meant to make of the two books taken together. There are some unanswered questions that add to this ambiguity (for example, near the end of the book, McIlwain says that the communities described in the first book simply disappeared—but to where?). That distinction between cocaine code and crack code is also one of the only editorial distinctions made explicit in the book, and we wish there had been a more in-depth discussion of the relationships between software, its purpose, and the people who participate in its creation. (Is there anything but shallow comfort in the idea that a crime database could be coded by a black engineer?) That being said, however, understanding computing today requires understanding computing history, and black computing history should not be erased from the record. Though we're ultimately left with more questions than answers, Black Software is still a critical read.

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🌀 microdoses

💝 a closing note

Another year, another Goodreads Reading Challenge to crush. Today, I asked the Reboot team: "What's your reading resolution for 2021?"

  • Jasmine: Every year, I do a big analysis of how much I read, about what, and by who. I was shocked that 70% of my nonfiction was from white authors, so in 2021 I'm hoping to push that to half.

  • Ben: I want to read more books that weren’t written in the past 10-20 years

  • Deb: My reading resolution is to try and put more of what I read to use (aka more synthesizing).

  • Jessica (she's back!): I would say it's to read more veggie books,* but I'm pretty happy with how many veggie books I read last year so just... keep reading? [*veggie books: intellectually engaging, expose me to new information, but not the most riveting or the #1 book i feel the need to finish at any point in time].

Have a fantastic new year, y'all.

—Jasmine & Reboot team