Black Software: Black Communities and the Early Internet and Racial Justice and Technology Today

In an interview, from February 2021, Charlton McIlwain talks about how software and technology have long saturated our daily lives and the feedbacks that exist with sub culture but also society at large. The discussion kicks of with an investigation into the role of early adopters also from black communities tracing back to the 60s in addition to the more familiar invention stories of the internet that consider mostly government and scientific research centers and private enterprise.

The discussion then continues to critically look at technology as a tool in law enforcement as well as potential ethical challenges that result from deploying such systems and the risk of manifesting societal biases, also stressing a tendency to be overconfident in technical solutions. Also raised is the danger of loosing sight of the human as a case becomes merely a collection of files on a screen. McIlwain also raises the point that while recently more commonly discussed, cooperations between, for example the NYPD and IBM have existed for decades. As such he anticipates more adoption and investment of compute power for example in support of facial recognition, which has a HPC tangent, although not discussed in the interview as such.

Yeah. I think about this often, and my mind goes back to… I forget what the outlet was. It might’ve been ProPublica. It may have been a different source… but about two years ago, who broke this story about the NYPD sharing its video surveillance system with IBM and IBM’s purpose of trying to build an AI system to power its facial recognition and identify criminal suspects based on the color of their skin. I remember reading that report, and the bombshell was, A, this is happening, and the second one was, this has been under wraps for five years that NYPD and IBM have been colluding to do this. I remember just having a chuckle and thinking, “Wow, you guys really missed it. This was not a five-year arc. It was a 50-year one in very specific detail,” and it is. It’s in terms of the relationship between NYPD and IBM.

Charlton McIlwain, in How Black Communities Shaped The Internet with Nilay Patel

Also discussed are the relationships of the large tech platforms with their user-bases and black culture and content creators in particular. On the one hand these platforms emerged as useful tools to less gatekeeped public discourse or also allowing artists to build a global audience, but at the same time many content creators can not make a living from their activities while the startups and platforms enjoy comfortable revenue. Related to to startup funding McIlwain also raise the point in an asymmetry in access to funding opportunities.

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