"Many people Disparage the value of talking about race and racism in technological spaces, ”said Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race, which tops the New York Times bestseller list two and a half times in paperback non-fiction years after his first published in January 2018. "… I don't think there is a more important space to talk about it."
Oluo and I talked to One Cup Coffee this January just before the global pandemic: a no-frills "more than profitable" café that shares a shop front with a church and is right next to a methadone clinic. The café is not far from Oluo's house in Shoreline, Washington, a city north of Seattle.
"I've seen the very best and the worst of race and racism in America on the Internet," continued Oluo, "in a way that had real-life consequences for me and the people I love. " (The Internet) is a space that is as real as the face to face space. And it is imperative that we look at it politically and socially, how it contributes, how we deal with each other and how we tackle problems of inequality and injustice. "
I had driven to Shoreline from the posh neighborhood in Seattle, where I had explored Amazon's growing campus – which in Harvard and MIT, the two locations where I work as a chaplain, topped everything that glittered architectural fluctuations did – straight to get past what are probably the biggest homeless camps I've ever seen in my life. And I got interfaith groups of students to study in large homeless camps and volunteer.
When we were talking about religion and belief, Oluo and I started our 90-minute conversation (edited highlights below) by talking a little about our shared interest in "humanism," a semi-organized movement of atheists, agnostics, and allies who try to Doing good, connected and living meaningfully without believing in a God. I work as a humanist chaplain in Harvard and at MIT, and I write about humanistic philosophy as a kind of secular alternative to religion.
For her part, Oluo received an award for feminist humanism from the American Humanist Association in 2018. She gave her acceptance speech to a predominantly white-liberal crowd that tended to consider themselves to be enlightened and open-minded, and therefore accepted it. They opened up by telling them to buckle up while putting chicken breasts on white plates and ate black tablecloths, eagerly handed rolls and butter, and accidentally clinked their water glasses. But when Oluo told them, "I have to go looking for the damage you are doing, not the damage you are doing." My friend Ryan Bell tweeted at the time: "You could hear a pin drop in here. "
Back to last January: When we drank simple cups of coffee and tea, I told Oluo about the thesis that I developed here during my plus year as theinformationsuperhighway's “Ethicist in Residence”: the world we call “technology” has grown than any other industry and more effective than a single culture. Technology has become a secular religion: possibly the largest and most influential religion that humans have ever created.
As you will see below, Oluo kindly tolerated the idea, perhaps even enjoyed it, and considered several possible comparisons between technology and religion. Like this one:
One thing that Tech has in common with many religions, at least in America, is that it's a white version of Utopia. And above all, technology cultically adheres to a white man's vision of a utopia that fundamentally disempowers and endangers women and people with color.
I consider myself an agnostic (not necessarily an atheist) to this new religion of technology because I want to see technology the way I've always tried to look at traditional belief: a mixed bag, something that is both good and harmful can wreak havoc, depending on the circumstances. But as a multi-billionaire, entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos are gaining power; Because misinformation on social media affects the fate of democracies as artificial intelligence infiltrates the judicial systems. and since the current pandemic is driving more of our online life, I sometimes wonder if I will be forced to re-evaluate my own possible "prophecy". If we're not careful, technology could become the most dangerous cult ever.
Just a little more context before the following interview, which Oluo and I agreed to name after their book "So you want to talk about Race in Tech" – that was already a great success, but has now achieved cult status nationwide of George Floyd's murder .
This article is the last part of the approximately one-year series I created for theinformationsuperhighway. It provides an in-depth analysis of people and problems in the ethics of technology. Let me just mention that my editors and I have written 38 articles with over 150,000 words about mainly women and colored people who happen to be leading the efforts to reform and revise the ethics of our new technological world.
The series included interviews Anand Giridharadas on "Silicon Valley's inequality machine"; Taylor Lorenz on “ethics of internet culture”; and James Williams about "the controversial machine of persuasion" of his former employer's efforts – among other things – to distract us to death.
CEOs and venture capitalists revealed childhood trauma before discussing the moral merits of their creations. Employees and gig workers telling painful truth to their powerful employers; as well as deep insights into perspectives on tech feminism, intersectionality and socialism as well as heroic efforts to combat cultures of abuse and violent immigration police within the industry.
Now to the interview with Oluo: The interview was completed weeks before the current crisis, but is even more relevant today. To paraphrase self-described venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, another Seattle resident with whom I met the same week as Oluo, the pitchforks have finally come for American plutocrats. We have reached a point in this country where my white people and I are not talking about race and racism because we have woken up or because we want to do everything we can to make the world a "better place". But because we fucking have to do it. As Kim Latrice Jones says in her viral video, which has become symbolic for this time, we are "lucky that black people seek equality rather than revenge".
This is perhaps twice as much in the technology world, where maybe not all of our neighborhoods and offices are literally on fire right now, but where there is most to lose because … they could be. Tech is not immune to COVID-19 or pitchforks. If blacks cannot achieve more sustainable forms of equality in the technology world in the coming years, revenge could become the next goalpost. And it could be justified.
But I trust that nobody wants to go there. As Malcolm X once said when visiting Coretta Scott King while Martin Luther King Jr. was in a Birmingham prison:
Mrs. King, tell Dr. King. . . I didn't come to make his job more difficult. I thought if the whites understood what the alternative was, they would be ready, Dr. King listening.
MLK has rightly become an almost literal civil rights deity in recent generations. But one day, hopefully in a long and peaceful time, we can look back on the life and work of Ijeoma Oluo (together with some of her colleagues, including many black women) who have achieved a level of influence and inspiration that is at least with approaches King & # 39; s.
And while some readers may need to buckle up to understand what to say, they should remember that their vision is the more optimistic alternative for the way things go in the coming years.
So you want to talk about races in technology? Let's talk.
Editor's Note: This interview was edited for clarity.
Greg Epstein: To what extent has your work overlap with the tech world, especially since your book So You Want to Talk About Race was published?
Ijeoma Oluo: I wrote the book as a black woman who grew up in Seattle, such a tech-centered city, and worked in tech for over 10 years before moving on to writing. So it is very much shaped by these environments – environments that believe they have overcome race and racism and clearly have not, and also a place where colored people are extreme minorities, especially colored women.
So the tech industry was very present in the book, even if I wasn't talking about tech. Because many technicians recognized themselves and their colleagues in the examples used in the book.
Probably one of the most watched videos of a talk I gave is the one I gave on Google. And much of the technology industry, especially here in Seattle, immediately accepted the book and said, "Oh, she lives here. Let's read this, this will be what we do for the year in terms of race and racism. "
But when I go into a technical room, I think about it like I think about any other room with a white majority and a liberal focus. This means that I can only do a very limited amount while I'm there. The best thing I can do is reinforce what the extreme minority of the colored feel and experience in this room. Because I have lived it to an extent that many other speakers cannot.
(The idea of the book as technically relevant) also applies because, as a black woman and as a writer, I would not be (where) I am today if it were not for social media, the access it gave me.
But the cost that (social media) had and the way that technology provides exactly the same, if not larger, platforms for hatred, division, and abuse, especially for colored and colored women, and for the LGBTQ community something that needs to be discussed.
In technology there is this argument that everyone can be successful in this area. You have lifted all limits of prosperity. But the truth is, they have shifted their own personal boundaries and left all boundaries to colored and feminine people because they simply don't exist in these stories of origin as anything other than props.
Many people disparage the value of talking about race and racism in technological spaces. I don't think there is a more important room to talk about it. I have seen the absolute best and the absolute worst of race and racism in America on the Internet in a way that has consequences for me and the people I love for real life. It is a space that is as real as the face to face space. And it is imperative that we look at it politically and socially, how it contributes, how we deal with and deal with each other politically, and how we tackle problems of inequality and injustice.
Epstein: Great summary: (tech as) the best and the worst. I mean, I've learned so much from Black Twitter, which is extremely helpful. Then there is White Supremacist Twitter. And then there’s just the kind of White Supremacist Lite Twitter, kind of… Twitter.
Oluo: It is interesting (what you are talking about) to consider (technology) like a religion. I think one thing that technology has in common with many religions, at least in America, is that it's a white version of Utopia. And above all, technology cultically adheres to a white man's vision of a utopia that fundamentally disempowers and endangers women and people with color.
Epstein: I love this picture; I would love for you to brainstorm with me: what are the characteristics of the vision of this white man from Utopia that we see in technology culture?
Oluo: It begins with the mythologization of the white-male struggle that forms the core of the technology culture. The idea that these men were outcasts, building things out of nothing – the avoided ones. And they will fix the problems that stand in their way. This is their success story, their rise. So what stands in their way are colored people, the women who don't sleep with them, the popularity and wealth that they don't automatically receive, structures of the old class that keep them away from the new class structure (based on) who has those skills that they have as white men?
And the mythology that builds on it feels very cult, very religious. There is this whole story of origin that is not true.
If we look at the foundation of our greatest technological advances, we will see a lot of extreme privileges, and this idea that there are rules, merits that are purely good (things) that you can do to rise in these spaces, they will revolutionize things. And in the technical field, these people really say (the criteria for admission are): how well can you program? Can you discuss better than this person?
What starts with this is a basic centering of white masculinity. And the goal is the rise of white masculinity. People with color can help, they can imitate it, or they are in the way of being overcome. In technology there is this argument that everyone can be successful in this area. You have lifted all limits of prosperity. But the truth is, they have shifted their own personal boundaries and left all boundaries to colored and feminine people because they simply don't exist in these stories of origin as anything other than props.
If you can't bring your shit together primarily for the people in the office, you will never bring them together for the products you serve.
What excites me is for a dogma who likes to talk about change and adaptation as much as about technology, how completely closed they are to actual changes, especially for any kind of ideological changes, and how frightened they are to look around in a room and not seeing people who look exactly like them, getting to the point and asking, did we do it right?
There is nothing revolutionary about what many technicians currently call revolutionary. And a lot of complaints about organized religion – "Wait, we're still sticking to those rules 2000 years ago? We're still at risk of change and progress?" – are things you can see in technology. Given the recent development of this industry, it is worrying that (we are already seeing technology leaders) say, "No, no, no, it has always been done that way."
Then where does the change come from? Do we join this prototype and say that it was always done this way? For what, the last 20, 30 years? It is ridiculous.
But the passion with which I saw white men defending (this status quo of the past 20 to 30 years) and the way they talked about threats also have that kind of religious passion – the same passion that the Internet – too for people who are beyond religion.
Epstein: To what extent have you spoken or written publicly about your work in the technology industry?
Oluo: I don't write much about (my experience in technology). There are a few anecdotes about work in my book; Every time I write about work, it was probably in the technology industry, but it's not specific.
The only thing I will definitely say is that I have never been harassed in my life as sexually as (while) I work in technology. I have never received more open accusations about my race and whether this helps my career or hampers it than I did in engineering. I was literally asked to my face, "Do you think you got this promotion because you're black?"
I've never felt like an outsider more than I do in technology, and it's an incredibly gas-lit environment because it likes to pretend to have figured it out.
Do you think racial justice has a profitable future? Do you think you can develop racial justice products and goals? Do you think people with color are your customers?
I've worked in places where race and gender matter. And they clearly suck in a way that you know (what you're getting into). I worked in the auto industry: I knew what I was getting into there. But in technology, they say, "Oh no. It doesn't matter here. That is not a problem here." And it is certainly a problem. A lot of people think that everyone joins technology because they love technology, and that will be what brings them all together, right? This great passion will help you realize that gender doesn't matter, sexuality doesn't matter, race doesn't matter.
This is absolutely not true, because the danger that technology poses is the same as that of any other company or group in America. Which is the idea that true diversity and racial justice will be painless for whites and there will be no adjustment. And that people with color want exactly the same things that they want and appreciate the same things that they appreciate. And somehow they'll still somehow see you as superior in the end. None of this applies to true diversity, true race and gender equality.
And we have to talk about it because it's not just a work environment. I spoke to some of the largest tech or tech-related companies in the world: Not just real people who go to an office every day and face the realities of a space that doesn't want to acknowledge racism and racism issues Sexism, but (the same company) creates products that shape the way we interact with one another in the world so that the same problems are repeated.
If you can't bring your shit together primarily for the people in the office, you will never bring them together for the products you serve. You cannot have a pure white male environment or a predominantly white male environment and think that the product you have will not reproduce prejudice and harm.
And you can't create a product that you believe will remove bias and harm while having a work environment where the people who do it suffer extreme stress, exclusion and harm. Both must be addressed at the same time. And often I find that environments try to do one or the other and not well, and it is impossible. And the consequences, if you don't attack it in technology, harm more than just the people who sit in the cabins and do the work. It really hurts everyone.
Epstein: When you say "It really hurts everyone", are you talking about the lack of commitment to real justice?
Oluo: Yes. And the lack of appreciation for marginalized people. Even if we look not only from a "Do you like your neighbors?" But also from a profit-oriented point of view.
Do you think racial justice has a profitable future? Do you think you can develop racial justice products and goals? Do you think people with color are your customers? Do you think your product should adapt to them instead of adapting to your products? Would you like your children to use your products and your grandchildren to use your products? Would you like them to make you feel welcome and well served?
When we look at capitalism – and this is a capitalist company, we cannot act as if it were separate from it – it is important.
And even those platforms that don't think they're related to capitalism think they don't sell anything: it's bullshit. It's all part of the capitalist world. And it's about what you appreciate. Do you think the voices of people with color are important? Because if so, the way you tackle harassment and abuse problems looks very different than if you only value the voices of white men.
Epstein: One last question I asked everyone I interviewed for this theinformationsuperhighway series on ethics: How optimistic are you about our shared human future?
Oluo: I'm no more or less optimistic than ever. I am anxious. I am concerned about how easy it is for people in the western use of technology to feel like technology, which means that they don't have to see anyone face to face and they don't have to make deep connections to people or try to be real people build alliances or tie their future and sense of security and community and belonging to other people.
The only thing I would definitely say is that (there) is an incredibly western-oriented view of technology. I am Nigerian American. The way technology is used in Nigeria is completely different than here. In Nigeria, it's all about utility. And to bring people face to face, to make African businesses run more smoothly, and to reverse the legacy of colonialism that destroyed the physical infrastructure. Build this infrastructure online so that it can exist anywhere.
If we even look at how Nigerians use the Internet to get across the diaspora, it is fundamentally different from the Western view of what the Internet is for and how it should be used, and I think there is so much to be learned there got to. If you want to see where real pioneering work is done, see how technology and the Internet are used in Central America, South America, African countries, and many Asian countries. Look at what it looks like when color communities say, "I'm going to develop technologies that solve the problems we have within these boundaries of the white supremacist structure."
See what it looks like when you create the Internet in a society that values the group above the individual. What does the internet look like then? Because it is not the dream of extreme independence in Nigeria, it is not the goal of the Internet, it is not a goal, it is not what you want for your children or your family, it is not what you set out to do . What does the internet look like if you have a different social structure? If you think maybe it's not the idea that we're all pulling our bootstraps here, maybe we're pulling up our communities, what about when you build platforms? Entire platforms created for this? You have to be here if you want to be hopeful of what technology can do.
Epstein: What a nice answer to this question. Thanks a lot. In many ways, this is the best answer I have received to this question, and I have asked many smart people.
Oluo: Oh thank you.
Epstein: Thank you for taking the time on behalf of me and theinformationsuperhighway.