Blog Post

Ch. 3: Rayvon Fouché, "From Black Inventors to One Laptop Per Child: Exporting a Racial Politics of Technology"

 

Part of the Distributed Book Review of Race After the Internet, ed. by Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White
 
Review of Chapter 3, "From Black Inventors to One Laptop Per Child: Exporting a Racial Politics of Technology," by Rayvon Fouché
 
Audio Intro:

 
<partial transcription of intro>
As I was reading this essay, I found myself reflecting on the Technologies of Representation and Representational Technologies class I took this past semester.  I spent the class occasionally bringing up the question of blackness and technology and the troubled relationship, starting with slavery, noticing that most of the films that we watched placed the character's in a role the very closely resembled, or was identical, to the narrative we have about black slavery in the United States.  My final project for the class attempted to examine this relationship.  How happy was I when I came across the following quote in Fouche’s essay:
 
“To think broadly about the connections between race, science, and technology it is important to move from the simple discussions of how and why specific scientific and technological design decisions were made to subjugate African Americans, to how slavery was a scientific and technological system in which African Americans played the role of a replenishable resource” (68).
 
I found myself saying “OMG! Yes!!!!!” in that format, with those exclamations during this reading.  So many things that are assumed are challenged as we are taken through a quick journey from slavery through One Laptop Per Child (OLPC).
 
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I found video of Mary Lou Jepsen discussing OLCP at the following location http://www.scribemedia.org/2008/02/20/greener-gadgets-jepsen/
 
I am including it because I always find it helpful to hear stakeholders discuss their projects in their own words.  Also, when we think of technology intiatives, we often don't associate the product with actual people.

 

<-- End Video Break-->

Though the case study of this essay focused on OLPC, I found myself more drawn to the history section.  The essay starts with the rhetoric, that we still hear in the press today, about the always assumed laziness of black people in the United States.  While this seems like a trivial thing, this meant that even when black people came up with inventions, they were often described as a way to get the inventor out of work.
 
As we move forward in a linear timeline, and get to the point of having black history, often when technological innovations of black people are explored, we only look at the positive, top level implications of the work and do not dig deeper.  On black inventors and how they are remembered, “This historical reduction conceals the difficulties they endured while gaining the patent protection that would in the best situations, enable them to profit from their work. This historical reduction also denies black inventors their humanity-- their frailties and strengths-- and produces disembodied icons celebrated merely for their patented material production” (65).
 
The link to material production is extremely important as we move towards modernity, and the global economy, and reach of technology, both real and imagined.  It is also important that we keep this in mind when thinking of the early rhetoric of the digital divide in the United States, and how that rhetorical tool was then spread to all of the “third world” (Global South).  This is where OLPC becomes the perfect case study.
 
Technological colonialism vs. Participatory Design
 
In many open source communities, often there is an absence of the populations these technologies are claiming to empower.  Instead, we see people who have existed, learned, and developed, in the historical mode that makes technology neutral and empowering, divorced from slavery, Jim Crow laws, and colonization.  This mode of thinking prevents them from entering the realm of the participatory design, where those who are constituted as marginalized globally can once again be saved, this time by a messianic notion of technology.   OLPC serves as the case exemplar for this movement.  Though the “third-world” (global south) populations targeted by the OLPC project are not African American, the desire of the creator to move beyond the limits of US race relationships, the country of origin for the project, led them to the poor brown and black people of the world, who were seen as “blank slates”, slates that could be molded in to a very specific, western imagined, white, mostly male, highly privileged, technological future.
 
Additional/Interesting Reading from the Essay Available Online:
 
The Colored Inventor by Henry E. Baker: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/21281 Where do we go from Here? by Martin Luther King Jr.: http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/kingpapers/article/where_do_we_g... FALLING THROUGH THE NET: A Survey of the "Have Nots" in Rural and Urban America http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/fallingthru.html

 

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2 comments

Hi Jade! First off, I love the way you integrated new media into your review. It not only demonstrates how effective the future of reviewing can be in a digital form, but it also adds some personal intimacy that we can all appreciate. :-)

I agree with you - I really think the idea of bringing a Western technology into a developing country which lacks resources is problematic on many levels. First, if there two things  that I learned for my Networks and International Development Class (last fall), it is that  one size does not fit all and you cannot tell people they have a problem and offer them a solution - that never ends well. Instead, the coommunity has to identify issues and develop their own solutions from the bottom up. The key to innovation is heterophilous communication, which involves some form of a weak link, and more often than not, it entails an outsider coming in to assist a community. But before this happens, it is important that the leaders of the community desire or ask for help. Secondly, merely giving a child access to a laptop will not ensure that it will be properly used. One also need the teachers and proper language instruction to integrate the technology to it's full potential. Thirdly, it will involve some contextual research for design - were the laptop designed based on the local symbols or cultural norms? How will they make sense of the interface? Or moreover, how can local people be involved in the design process? 

Here is good article on how mobile phone were developed based on locat context: Lalji, Z., & Good, J. (2008). Designing new technologies for illiterate populations: A study in mobile phone interface design. Interacting with Computers20(6), 574-586. doi:10.1016/j.intcom.2008.09.002

I am currently in a course on the digital divide called, "Technology & Social Exclusion," in the class one of my classmates brought in one of the these laptops (the one in the video) to test - and the interface is very hard to use! I cannot even imagine what it is like for others that have never even used a computer.... 

Your piece was very insightful and reminded me a lot about the serious problems with current international development practices and how important academic research on these issues is at this time! Thanks! 

cheers,
Kelsey

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This essay reminded me of a section in the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin in which the master of the slave George comments on George's invention of a machine that makes his work more efficient by stating "a machine for saving work, is it? He'd invent that, I'll be bound; let a nigger alone for that, any time. They are all labor-saving machines themselves, every one of 'em" (Stowe 17). The idea that African Americans are lazy non-humans or "labor-saving machines" has definitely been a part of the rhetoric that defines and comments on the African-American race for many years. In relation to this idea, I also think it is interesting to think about the technological aspects, because Black inventors are not always being seen as a human but as "disembodied icons" or an extension of his or her machine/material production. Building upon the idea of slavery, the Black inventors body, and intellectual property as a part of the body's mind, is commodified.

At this time I am in a course titled "Globalization" and I think the idea of giving technology, such as laptops, to people in third world countries has positive and negative aspects to it. To some extent it is positive because it gives people that are usually not represented in the world a chance to engage in the "digital democracy" through the Internet. At the same time, the fact that we have moved towards a place where in order to be represented in the world it is necessary to have such technologies implies a hegemonic conception of modernity in which all countries should be moving towards the same technological goals and aspirations. Although we are moving ahead I think it is important to remember that everyone is not moving at the same technological pace, and I am not sure that giving laptops to people in different countries will truly help with them progress.

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