“Technology is amoral, but it requires humanistic values to steer it in a way that's empowering, and not detrimental to social progress. It's up to us to maximize the good and minimize the bad.”
In 2020, America is crumbling under the weight of two pandemics: Covid-19 and police brutality. Both universalities wreak physical and psychological violence. Both disproportionately kill and debilitate people of colour. And, both are animated and propelled by technology that Silicon Valley designed, repurposed and weaponized; whether it’s contact tracing, facial recognition, artificial intelligence or social media. We often call on technology to help solve the most critical challenges facing humanity. But, when society defines, frames, and represents people of color as “the problem,” those solutions can often do more harm than good. We’ve designed facial recognition technologies that target criminal suspects on the basis of skin colour. We’ve trained automated risk profiling systems that disproportionately identify Latin people as illegal immigrants. We’ve devised credit-scoring algorithms that disproportionately identify minority groups as risks and prevent them from buying homes, getting loans, finding jobs and actively participating in the digital economy. By the end of the 1960s, targeted surveillance campaigns had helped create what came to be known as “criminal justice information systems.” These systems evolved and proliferated through the decades, laying the foundation for racial profiling, predictive policing, and racially targeted surveillance. They also left behind a legacy that includes millions of black and brown women and men incarcerated.
When contact tracing first cropped up at the beginning of the pandemic, it was easy to see it as a necessary but benign health surveillance tool. The coronavirus was a universal problem, and we began to design new surveillance technologies in the form of contact tracing, temperature monitoring, and threat mapping applications to help address it. But, something both curious and tragic happened. We discovered that black people, Latin people, and indigenous populations were disproportionately infected and affected. Suddenly, these same populations also became a national “problem”; as they disproportionately threatened to spread the virus. This tragedy was compounded when the tragic murder of George Floyd by a white police officer sent thousands of protesters into the streets. When the looting and rioting started, black people were again seen as a threat to law and order, a threat to a system that perpetuates white racial power and the continued proliferation of economic inequality. It makes you wonder how long it will take for law enforcement to deploy those technologies we first designed to fight Covid-19 to quell the threat that black and brown people supposedly pose to the nation’s safety. Will humanity continue to design and deploy technological tools that serve the interests of entrenched racial and incumbencies or will we finally apply a more ethical moral blueprint to the digital foundations of our next economy? If we no longer wish for our technology to be used to perpetuate racism, then we must ensure that we don’t conflate social problems like crime, violence or disease with people of colour. When we do that, we risk turning those people into the problems that we deploy our technology to solve and the very threat we design it to eradicate. We have landed men to moon, made cars that drive themselves and can connect people around the globe instantaneously. Surely, we can create an ethical technology blueprint that serves all of humankind.