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