Technical Coding of Software Programs

What happens when this kind of cultural coding gets embedded into the technical coding of software programs? In a now classic study, computer scientist Latanya Sweeney examined how online search results associated Black names with arrest records at a much higher rate than White names, a phenomenon that she first noticed when Google-searching her own name; and results suggested she had a criminal record.16 The lesson? “Google’s algorithms were optimizing for the racially discriminating patterns of past users who had clicked on these ads, learning the racist preferences of some users and feeding them back to everyone else.”17 In a technical sense, the writer James Baldwin’s insight is prescient: “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”18 And when these technical codes move beyond the bounds of the carceral system, beyond labeling people as “high” and “low” risk criminals, when automated systems from employment, education, healthcare, and housing come to make decisions about people’s deservedness for all kinds of opportunities, then tech designers are erecting a digital caste system, structured by existing racial inequities that are not just colorblind, as Alexander warns. These tech advances are sold as morally superior because they purport to rise above human bias, even though they could not exist without data produced through histories of exclusion and discrimination.

In fact, as this book shows, colorblindness is no longer even a prerequisite for the New Jim Code. In some cases, technology “sees” racial difference, and this range of vision can involve seemingly positive affirmations or celebrations of presumed cultural differences. And yet we are told that how tech sees “difference” is a more objective reflection of reality than if a mere human produced the same results. Even with the plethora of visibly diverse imagery engendered and circulated through technical advances, particularly social media, bias enters through the backdoor of design optimization in which the humans who create the algorithms are hidden from view.

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