Twenty years ago, dotcom evangelists wouldn't shut up about the web as a land of milk and honey, an egalitarian Eden. But their utopianism hit a reckoning in 2002: “Future Texts,” Alondra Nelson's watershed essay about race and technology.
“That race (and gender) distinctions would be eliminated with technology,” wrote Nelson, who was then a graduate student, “was perhaps the founding fiction of the digital age.”
Nelson was right; this was fiction. Techno-prophets of the 20th century envisioned a future free of bodies, and especially bodies that groan under the weight of social baggage—female bodies, Black bodies. But it wasn't to be. Not only, as Nelson pointed out, would our “burdensome social identities” follow us online, but a new digital ruling class would frame those identities as obsolete among the “raceless”—male and white—avatars that set out to dominate the internet. Race, of course, never went away. Nelson, who now teaches at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and serves as a deputy director in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, concluded that “racial identity, and blackness in particular, is the anti-avatar of digital life.”
In certain circles, not much has changed. What Nelson called “the raceless future paradigm” still excites many manly gurus, some of whom have started claiming that anyone who doubts this paradigm is not just wrong but insane. Last spring Sam Harris, the distinguished atheist and popularizer of psychedelics, called deep identification with one's race “a form of mental illness.”
But while the priesthood of certain internet precincts has been busy not seeing color, or seeing uniquely trippy colors, Nelson's work from the aughts has inspired a more serious and sustained inquiry into the social history of technology—including, or especially, the repressed parts. As part of this broader investigation, Edward Jones-Imhotep, a historian of science and technology at the University of Toronto, and author of The Unreliable Nation: Hostile Nature and Technological Failure in the Cold War, has studied the unnerving phenomenon of “Black androids”—an array of 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century machines that take Black human forms, almost always as racist caricatures.
His team's research brings home Nelson's central contentions. The first is that our social identities have not evaporated in digital space; they've been crystallized for us. (Lately, it's been data-and-targeting operations classifying everyone.) The second is that there has always been a delta between, as Jones-Imhotep puts it in an email, “how Black people understood and defined themselves in relation to technology vs. how those same technologies were deployed to define Black people externally (and in ways that denied or contradicted their own experience).”
Black androids replicate the actions of human beings, especially in the performance of onerous chores. One notable example from Jones-Imhotep's research is Dederick's Steam Man of 1868. The head and torso of the android, which is powered by a steam engine, takes the form of a Black man pulling a cart, a replacement for a draft horse. In New York City, Jones-Imhotep says, Black androids like Dederick's Steam Man “clustered along Broadway, where they formed part of the culture of minstrelsy, blackface, and racist spectacle.”
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In the 1930s, Westinghouse produced “the mechanical Negro,” which was also known by a racist slur. Powered by electricity, that android bowed to white users, who were then invited to shoot at him with a play bow and arrow.
“The androids' surface appearance portrayed Black people as naive and non-technological—part of the mythology that portrays technology as opposed to blackness,” Jones-Imhotep says. “But their internal technologies—steam, clockwork, electricity—were part of an incredibly rich technological life of Black New York.” The extreme subjugation of Dederick's Steam Man reflects in part an effort to repress an inconvenient fact: Real-life Black technologists were not victims of steam tech but masters of it, and even used steam as “a fugitive technology” to commandeer steamboats and escape.
Like all androids, the Black ones don't impose humanity on anyone—a quality that might force someone to care about them. But they're not faceless machines either. The racist dressing on the androids functions like racist images on shooting targets: It amps up the user's contempt for them. A user is thus free to abuse these androids because they're not human and free to relish that abuse because they're in blackface. (Maybe by “raceless space” white internet architects meant “guiltless space”—as in, social space that carries no moral obligations to others at all.)
Which brings us to the Tesla bot. Unveiled by Elon Musk as an idea in August, Tesla's first “bot” was actually an unidentified dancer in a white pantsuit, worn off the shoulder, covered in a shroud of black décolletage with a black face. Or was it blackface? At least one observer, Davi Ottenheimer, a digital ethics expert, likened the robot's appearance and loose-limbed dance number at the unveiling to a minstrel show. Jones-Imhotep concurs: “Musk's presentation seems doubly regressive … It obviously evokes minstrelsy and blackface. And in doing so it also returns the Black android to some of its late 19th-century forms under the guise of progress.”
At 5′8″ and 125 pounds—programmed to be “friendly” and built so you can “overpower it,” in Musk's words—the Tesla bot, Ottenheimer proposed, seemed to express a white male fantasy of being waited on by an uncomplaining and entirely controllable Black woman whom he can dominate without conscience.
Musk, who called the bot Tesla's “most important product” in January, emphasizes that it is designed to do “dangerous, repetitive, and boring” tasks, notably deadlifting, which Bloomberg, in an article about the bot, identified as “bending over to pick something up.” This recalls a sworn statement made in 2018 by Teshawna Stewart, a former Tesla employee, in which she complained about “African-American employees being required to get down on our hands and knees and scrub the floor” while workers of other races sorted machine parts. Employees have regularly cited Tesla for alleged racist abuse, which the company denies. Just this past fall, a federal jury ordered the company to pay $137 million in a racial discrimination lawsuit.
“One of the things we forget about ‘innovations,’” Jones-Imhotep says, “is they're cast as material or technological advancements, but they're often social or cultural regressions.” When tech overlords claim to have no idea they're resurrecting racist tropes, that's not innovation; that's rehash—and historical illiteracy. Blackness is only the “anti-avatar of digital life” when digital life is monopolized by reactionary ideas, from fantasies of “racelessness” to reprisals of minstrelsy. Elsewhere, Blackness is the main-stage avatar, as on Twitter, where Black users have built what Jason Parham called in WIRED a “prophetic machine” of “news and analysis, call and response, judge and jury.”
Black androids designed by companies like Westinghouse and Tesla tell one story, and it's a monotonous one that ignores the plain facts of technological history. The design of slight, controllable, racialized bots to do degrading tasks expresses fear of both useful AI and actual autonomous Black thinkers, who are wielders of technology—as engineers, programmers, inventors, and intellectuals—rather than somehow antagonists of it.
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This article appears in the March 2022 issue. Subscribe now.
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