WEEK 3: RACE AND CODE
CRITICAL CODE STUDIES WORKING GROUP 2018
Write-Up by Catherine Griffiths
Race and Black Codes
Main Thread: Race and Black Codes
Week 3 of the Critical Code Studies Working Group 2018 was led by Safiya Noble, Jessica Marie Johnson, and Mark Anthony Neal. In their opening provocation, they asked the group to think about how code interacts with, constructs, and impacts race. Forking off a discussion that arose in Week 1 regarding the separation of gender and code, they proposed an intersectional discussion where race cannot be separated from gender, sexuality, ability, power, and precarity, or the structures that enforce them. If race is understood as “a matter of socially constructing hierarchical power systems that differentiate people according to ethnicity”, how can critiquing racial code be used to “turn the operating system against itself”. They point to racial binaries between White privilege and anti-Blackness, and the history of slave code databases, and google algorithms, where Black code studies has interrogated such codes “as a means of control that apply in multiple material contexts--from the use of public facilities, to unequal education and healthcare, to digital life on the internet”. They ask what opportunities there are to hack these codes, how can code be used as an oppositional practice, to speak back to power, where contemporary programming and computational platforms instantiates or reifies racial codes?
@jmjafrx kick started the conversation by offering a black code studies playlist!
Mark Anthony Neal offered an excerpt of the sheet music from Black Codes, an album by Wynton Marsalis, and compared it with Black Science, the album by Steve Coleman, to consider “the unsayable and unspeakable in the tradition of black abstractionism”. Neal asks us to think beyond the commercial vs the artistic comparison, “Instead, it is to think more broadly about Black Codes, and the Codes that are Black, and the Black that is Code(d), and Code Black (as opposed to Red) as the unspeakable and unsayable in plain sight”. @ebuswell offers an analysis of the sheet music, and writes “there is the relationship between system and improvisation, code and freedom, a mutual antagonism as well as a dependency. ... history is largely the mechanism whereby a series of attempted universalisms reveal themselves as particularities. On the other hand, it is an erasure of music as such into genre music, theory into mechanism, and musicians into black musicians.”
Continuing the discussion of race and music @markcmarino asks about the connection between programming, code, agency, interpretation, and music. What is the dialogue between music and code as expressive systems? Forking from the discussion in Week 1 on Westworld & Code, he offers the opening credits of Westworld featuring a proto-computer piano player and AI hosts struggling for self-determination. @ebuswell responded that “one thing we can say about the player piano: unlike musical scores, the player piano does not encode velocity/expression information. ... This has everything to do with ragtime's popularization; Scott Joplin swept across the USA right along with the player piano.” He connects the distinction between improvisation and composition to the separation of intellectual and manual labor - as a raced separation.
@jmjafrx offered Mendi Obadike’s ‘keeping up appearances’ hypertext project and its source code to consider ideas about fugitivity and marronage. The computational artifact offers a “simple way of critiquing code by using it to show what isn't normally seen, which in and of itself is also a critique of antiblackness (which renders racial violence invisible and white supremacy as the default).” @markcmarino points out the use of hex color codes to make words visible and invisible, which in itself reflects the loaded racial subtext of the work. He also points out the use of the white gloved hand as a cursor in Mac OS browsers to trace/reveal the words of the piece, and the suggestion that the white glove is used to conceal race. @jmjafrx connects the white gloved cursor to “labor covering hands that are meant to serve” and to computers and code to histories of labor, unseen and marginalized. @jmjafrx picks up on @markcmarino’s point that the source code of the work includes netstatbasic traffic tracking to surveil each visitor, which complicates a work that addresses race and the unseen, to the experience of surveillance by black people. Stat counters create a tension between surveillance and finding a way of being seen and belonging to the world.
Forking from the Week 1 discussion on Gendering the Apollo 11 Onboard In-Flight Software , @JudyMalloy posted a photo of the Apollo 8 programming team, to identify the single black engineer from the MIT Instrumentation Lab. Whilst @markcmarino posted an excerpt from the source code to discuss the importance of the BURN_BABY_BURN--MASTER_IGNITION_ROUTINE name in the context of incendiary racial and socioeconomic tensions of the time. He asks whether a black code has been written into the code of this lunar exploration? “Lunar exploration, in one view, diverted resources from more terrestrial programs that could have improved the lived conditions of those who were uprising in Watts.”
@jmjafrx Offered the Power and Control Wheel a nd the Respect Wheel, created by the Digital Alchemists, “to extend our conversation about ethics and accountability as a fundamental premise of Black Code Studies” and think through the experience of violence and cultivation of respect online.
Race and Code Critique Threads:
Black Code/Database/Humans posted by Jessica Marie Johnson
@jmjafrx presented the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade Database, Codesheets for Slave Databases, and the work of Gwendolyn Midlo Hall on the Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, a database of over 100,000 enslaved and free Africans and people of African descent transported to (or freed) in Gulf Coast Louisiana between 1718 and 1820. Continuing the discussion around spreadsheets and code, she asked the group to consider that the work happening in histories of slavery is happening in a world of databases and network analysis, and considering the historical relationship between black codes as slave codes and what Lauren Cramer and Alessandra Raengo distinguish as "black coding" or the ore self-conscious hacking of systems and code by black and other racialized subjects, it is worth taking a moment to explore what assumptions we make about what code and race do.
How does a team of researchers code (or encode) enslaved women, children, and men in a context where their existence was seen a problem? What kind of critical gaze did the team apply to the analysis and also salvage some of the humanity of the enslaved?
Chimeria: Gatekeeper by Fox Harrell posted by Mark Marino
@markcmarino presented the game Chimeria: Gatekeeper and its source code. Chimera is an interactive narrative application to help people better understand social categorization phenomena such as marginalization and the dynamics of group membership.
The experience takes place in a realm with two imaginary races: Sylvann and Brushwoods. The player is a Sylvann and comes to a gate of entry, run by a Brushwood. The player then has a choice: try to project the character of the Brushwood and get through or perform the cultural identity of the Sylvann. This game raises many issues of identity performance, especially performativity and passing, as the player finds themselves playing a version of the Turing Test. It offers a take on racial and other identity profiling as well as the shibboleths that we routinely encounter on the Internet.
The Beloved Community License posted by Fred Hampton
@fredhampton presented the text from the Beloved Community Software License to ask questions about our assumptions about open source and race. https://douglass.io/
Current “open” source licenses for code are ahistorical and have been created within libertarian and neo colonial ideological frameworks that reinforce Racial Capitalism.These licenses allow for the development of code without any responsibility for its current and future negative outcomes. The “Beloved Community License” is a proactive ethical framework for developers and users of technology. At its core the BCL links historical context, social activism, and the Black radical tradition to the development and usage of technology that seeks to create new emancipatory political and economic space.
The three code critique sessions: Gender and Programming Culture, Creative and Critical Coding, Race and Code; are open until Wednesday February 14th. Please continue the discussion or add your thoughts if you haven’t yet had an opportunity to contribute.