Authority and Hierarchy

The desire to see others in a derogatory or in an exotic light, just as much as the practice of invisibilizing them, reproduces long-standing forms of authority and hierarchy. When it comes to representing racialized others, the interplay between desire and derision, longing and loathing can get lost in the strict focus on how visual technologies fail to see darker-skinned people.31 We can overlook the technology – racism – that precedes technological innovations.

In 2015 Google Photo came under fire because its auto-labeling software tagged two Black friends as “gorillas”32 – a racist depiction that goes back for centuries, being formalized through scientific racism and through the association of Black people with simians in the Great Chain of Being. It found its modern incarnation in cartoons of former First Lady Michelle Obama and in Roseanne Barr’s aforementioned racist tweets against Valerie Jarrett and was resuscitated in algorithms that codify representations used for generations to denigrate people of African descent. This form of machine bias extends beyond racialized labels, to the very exercise of racist judgments, as the beauty contest described in Chapter 1 made clear.

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Similarly, in his examination of video game avatars, computer scientist and artist D. Fox Harrell found that, when he attempted to make an African-inspired avatar that looked like him, it “was automatically made less intelligent.” He explains:

Prejudice, bias, stereotyping, and stigma are built not only into many games, but other forms of identity representations in social networks, virtual worlds, and more. These have real world effects on how we see ourselves and each other. Even in systems that have very open identity creation options, like Second Life, there are still different valuations for skins, social groups and categories being formed.33

The impact of having seemingly “racist robots” as judges in beauty contests and as players in video games may seem trivial, but similar biases are built into the technological systems used by police, where they have more lethal consequences.

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