Technology Versus African-Americans

From the caravel to the cotton gin, technological innovation has made things worse for blacks. Will the information revolution be any different?

A FRIEND of mine owns a one-man computer firm specializing in the design and construction of Internet Web sites -- those commercial, entertainment, and informational junctions in cyberspace that can be visited from personal computers around the world. From time to time he contracts for more work than he can handle, and then he posts an electronic want ad stating the number of lines of computer code to be written, the requisite computer language, the specific functions of the program being built, and the pay he's offering per line.
This ad is often answered by programmers from, as might be expected, Silicon Valley towns like San Jose and Palo Alto, or from Austin, Texas, or Cambridge, Massachusetts. The respondent might be someone recently laid off from Digital, a hacking grad student at Northwestern, or a precocious thirteen-year-old who learned the C++ language as an extra-credit project in middle school. The work is sent out over the Internet, and sent back ready to be incorporated into my friend's project. These programmers, whoever they are and wherever they're from, have proved reliable and punctual; their transactions, miraculous to the uninitiated, are so commonplace in the digital kingdom as to go unremarked.

Shortly after my friend began hiring extra help, he started getting responses from programmers in India. The Indians, often from the subcontinent's technological center of Bangalore, were savvy, literate, and, best of all, both fast and cheap -- a contractor's dream. Accordingly, he has parceled out more and more programming to them and less and less to Americans. Not so patriotic, but isn't that what GATT and NAFTA are all about?

Stories like this are usually presented as cautionary tales about the loss of American jobs to the hungry masses of the Third World. But there is another troubling aspect to this story, one that loomed larger for me as I learned about what my friend did in his business and how he did it. Why weren't more African-Americans involved in these developments, this business revolution? The activity was so clean, so sophisticated, and so lucrative; not least of all, it was the future.

I was reminded of the computer journalist Robert X. Cringely's documentary film (1996), about the creation of the current cyber-elite. Cringely spent time with young people at swap meets, watching them become entranced with electronics and the technological future, building their own machines and dreaming of starting the next Apple. There were no blacks in sight. Young black Americans, who could have been cashing in on the bonanza that was then buzzing through cyberspace, didn't appear to be aware of it. What kind of job could be more appropriate for a technologically literate inner-city youth than to perform this kind of service? Conceivably, it could be done without any capital outlay: one could surf the Net at school or the library, get the assignment and specs, and send the finished work back. Democratic guerrilla capitalism. A good job at a good wage, as the presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis used to say.

There are high school kids working part time utilizing high-tech skills and college kids who are dropping out of school to work in the industry, if not starting their own companies. And as for the kids at Cringely's swap meet, it's not likely that any of them will start the next big thing, but it is at least possible. Apple, Hewlett Packard, and Oracle were all started with almost no capital by folks fooling around in their garages.

Where are the armies of ghetto youths ready to meet the innovation and programming needs of an exponentially expanding electronic frontier and get rich in the process, in what is perhaps the last gold rush in American history?

*  *  *

The history of African-Americans during the past 400 years is traditionally narrated as an ongoing struggle against oppression and indifference on the part of the American mainstream, a struggle charted as an upward arc progressing toward ever more justice and opportunity. This description is accurate, but there is another, equally true way of narrating that history, and its implications are as frightening for the country as a whole as they are for blacks as a group. The history of African-Americans since the discovery of the New World is the story of their encounter with technology, an encounter that has proved perhaps irremediably devastating to their hopes, dreams, and possibilities.

From the caravels, compasses, navigational techniques, and firearms of the first Portuguese explorers who reached the coast of West Africa in the 1440s to the never-ending expansion of microchip computing power and its implications for our society, the black community has had one negative encounter after another with the technological innovations of the mainstream. Within American history this aspect of blacks' experience is unique. One might argue that the disadvantageous situation of blacks vis-à-vis technology has as much to do with issues of class and wealth as it does with race, but such a critique verges on the disingenuous. As a group, blacks still lag well behind whites economically, and they have often suffered from the uses of technology in ways that other groups have not. In fact, they were often intentionally singled out to suffer. Poor whites, non-black Hispanics, and Asians were not dragged from their native lands to work as slaves and then buffeted for hundreds of years by the vagaries of technology and an economy they did not control. The historical experience of each ethnic group is unique and composed of its own problems and opportunities (or lack thereof).

What is intriguing, and deeply disturbing, is that blacks have participated as equals in the technological world only as consumers, otherwise existing on the margins of the ethos that defines the nation, underrepresented as designers, innovators, and implementers of our systems and machines. As a group, they have suffered from something that can loosely be called technological illiteracy. Though this has not been the point of technological innovation, it has undeniably been its fallout. It is important that we understand and come to terms with this now; there are technological developments in the making that could permanently affect the destiny of black Americans, as Americans and as global citizens. The dark possibility presented by the end of highly paid low-skilled labor, ever more powerful information machines, and global capitalism renders current policy disagreements over welfare, affirmative action, integration versus separatism, and the like trivial by comparison.

These issues, in my view, go to the very marrow of black experience in North America. They may also become a matter of survival for blacks as a group and for the nation as a whole, since those two fates are inextricably connected. As the world gets faster and more information-centered, it also gets meaner: disparities of wealth and power strengthen; opportunities change and often fade away. How can black Americans achieve the promise of America when that promise is largely predicated on the sector of the country's economy (and history) that has proved most costly to them -- when the disturbing outcome of their almost 500 years of encountering Western technology and its practitioners is that many regard them as at best the stepchild of the American experiment?

*  *  *

Europeans had prowled the Mediterranean for 2,000 years, sailing from Greece to Rome, from Rome to Egypt, from Spain to Morocco, and on hundreds of other routes, before any systematic sailing craft or technique was developed. In the 1400s the Portuguese prince who came to be known as Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) dispatched a series of voyages to make maps and chart data; by the mid-1440s the Portuguese, in search of new, unexploited trade routes, had reached Cape Verde and the Senegal River.

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