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?

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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.

As they worked their way down the northwestern African coast, the Portuguese came up against what seemed at first an insurmountable problem: strong winds and currents from the north meant that a ship returning to Lisbon would have to travel long distances against the wind. Enter the caravel, with its three masts and large sails -- a perfectly designed solution to the problem, and the machine that allowed Portugal to rule the waves from West Africa to India for a hundred years.

The Atlantic slave trade was one of the industries that emerged from this new capability. Western technology was involved with the rise of black slavery in other ways as well: Arab and African slave traders exchanged their human chattels for textiles, metals, and firearms, all products of Western technological wizardry, and those same slavers used guns, vastly superior to African weapons of the time, in wars of conquest against those tribes whose members they wished to capture.

The slave wars and trade were only the first of many encounters with Western technology to prove disastrous for people of African descent. In the United States, as in South America and the Caribbean, the slaves were themselves the technology that allowed Europeans to master the wilderness. Then, in 1793, as the efficiency of the slave economy on cotton plantations (where slaves cost more to maintain than they could generate in profits) was being questioned in some quarters, Eli Whitney, of Connecticut, invented a simple gin that allowed harvested cotton to be picked clean of seeds -- an essential step before milling -- on a far greater scale than had previously been possible.

Suddenly rendered cost-efficient, cotton farming became a way to get rich quick. Thousands of black Africans were imported to do the work; in Mississippi alone the number of slaves increased from 498 in 1784 to 195,211 by 1840. Here were the roots of the millions of African-Americans who would come to populate the industrial Midwest, from Kansas City to Chicago to Pittsburgh to Buffalo. Those blacks, in the great migrations following the world wars, would compose the urban proletariat that is both pouring forth black success stories and struggling with social pathologies so difficult as to seem unsolvable.

The largest northward migration of blacks took place during and after the Second World War. This exodus was largely a result of the invention of the mechanical cotton picker, which enabled three or four workers to perform a task that on some farms had required hundreds if not thousands of hands. Displaced by machinery and no longer needed in the underdeveloped American South, where they had been brought solely to do this kind of work, they went north to the industrial cities, where they encountered another kind of technology -- the great factories of mass production. It was a violent shift for many whose families had known only agriculture for hundreds of years. And the Irish, Slavic, German, and Italian immigrants who were already there, felt they'd done their time, and were ready to move up resented the new competition that drove down wages. Many of the most vicious and enduring stereotypes about blacks were born of this resentment.

When those northern factories began closing and moving offshore, owing to the information and communications revolutions of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, blacks were left behind in the inner cities of the Rust Belt, suffering from the metamorphosis of our society into a series of suburban megalopolises. Improvements in communications and transportation have struck the further blow of rendering the city irrelevant as a business and economic center, allowing mainstream money to be pulled out. The resulting isolation and deprivation, most eloquently outlined in the theories of the Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, account for the desolate urban landscapes we now see in parts of Detroit, Chicago, and Gary, Indiana.

Technology in and of itself is not at fault; it's much too simple to say that gunpowder or agricultural machinery or fiber optics has been the enemy of an entire group of people. A certain machine is put to work in a certain way -- the purpose for which it was designed. The people who design the machines are not intent on unleashing chaos; they are usually trying to accomplish a task more quickly, cleanly, or cheaply, following the imperative of innovation and efficiency that has ruled Western civilization since the Renaissance.

Yet another aspect of technology's great cost to blacks should be considered: while the Gilded Age roared through the last part of the nineteenth century and Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and others made the first great American fortunes as they wired, tracked, and fueled the new industrial society, blacks were mired in Reconstruction and its successor, Jim Crow. This circumscription limited their life prospects and, worse, those of their descendants. As the great American technopolis was built, with its avatars from Thomas Edison to Alfred P. Sloan to Bill Gates, blacks were locked out, politically and socially -- and they have found it difficult to work their way in.

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Blacks have traditionally been poorly educated -- look at the crisis in urban public schools -- and deprived of the sorts of opportunities that create the vision necessary for technological ambition. Black folkways in America, those unspoken, largely unconscious patterns of thought and belief about what is possible that guide aspiration and behavior, thus do not encompass physics and calculus. Becoming an engineer -- unlike becoming a doctor or a lawyer or an insurance salesman -- has not been seen as a way up in the segregated black community. These folkways developed in response to very real historical conditions, to the limited and at best ambivalent interactions between blacks and technology in this country. Folkways, the "consciousness of the race," change at a slower pace than societal conditions do -- and so a working strategy can turn into a crippling blindness and self-limitation.

Some blacks -- like my father, who worked for nearly fifty years in a factory that, ironically, recently moved from Illinois to the low-wage Mississippi he left as a boy -- have been able to operate within these narrow parameters, to accept slow and steady progress while positioning their children to jump into the mainstream. But blacks are also Americans, and as such are subject not only to notions of a steady rise but also to the restless ambition that seems a peculiarly American disease. Not channeled to follow the largely technological possibilities for success in this society, black folkways have instead embraced the sort of magical thinking that is encouraged by the media and corporations whose sole interest in blacks is as consumers.

You, too, can be Michael Jordan or Coolio -- just buy the shoes, just have the right look. No need to study, no need to work, the powers that be are against you anyway. Young blacks believe that they have a better chance of becoming Jordan, a combination of genes, will, talent, and family that happens every hundred years, than of becoming Steve Jobs, the builder of two billion-dollar corporations, the first one started with his best friend while tinkering in his garage. They also don't dream of becoming programmers at Cisco Systems, a low-profile computer giant that hires 5,000 new workers a year and scours the globe to find them. Blacks make up 13 percent of the population in this country, yet in 1995 they earned a shockingly low 1.8 percent of the Ph.D.s conferred in computer science, 2.1 percent of those in engineering, 1.5 percent in the physical sciences, and 0.6 percent in mathematics. As I lamented earlier, the very opportunities that would allow young blacks to vault over decades of injury and neglect into the modern world go unclaimed -- even unseen.

Mastery of technology is second only to money as the true measure of accomplishment in this country, and it is very likely that by tolerating this underrepresentation in the technological realm, and by not questioning and examining the folkways that have encouraged it, blacks are allowing themselves to be kept out of the mainstream once again. This time, however, they will be excluded from the greatest cash engine of the twenty-first century. Inner-city blacks in particular are in danger, as "clean communities" -- such as Du Page County, outside Chicago, and the beautiful suburbs that ring the decay of Hartford, glittering cybercities on the hill, the latest manifestation of the American Dream -- shed the past and learn to exist without contemplating or encountering the tragedy of the inner city.

But all dreams end, and when we wake, we must face reality. Despite these trends, and the dangers they imply, not all is lost. What might be accomplished by an education system that truly tried to educate everyone to excellence, not just the children of elites and of the suburbs? Why not a technological Marshall Plan for the nation's schools? Even in this time of fiscal constriction and resistance to public expenditure -- at least, any expenditure that does not directly benefit those doing the spending -- such a plan is feasible. What if ubertechnocrats like Bill Gates and Larry Ellison (the billionaire CEO of Oracle) used their philanthropic millions to fund basic math and science education in elementary schools, to equip the future, instead of giving away merchandise that essentially serves to expand their customer base? That would be a gift worthy of their accomplishments, and one of true historical weight in the life of the nation.

And blacks must change as well. The ways that served their ancestors through captivity and coming to freedom have begun to lose their utility. If blacks are to survive as full participants in this society, they have to understand and apply what works now. Otherwise they will be unable to cross the next technological threshold that emerges in human civilization. Blacks have to imagine ways to encourage young people into the technological mainstream, because that looks like the future. In fact, it always has been the future, and blacks, playing catch-up yet again, must reach for it to ensure themselves a place at the American table.

Anthony Walton is a writer in residence at Bowdoin College and the author of (1996). He won a 1998 Whiting Writer's Award.

Illustration by David Plunkert

The Atlantic Monthly; January 1999; Technology Versus African-Americans; Volume 283, No. 1; pages 14 - 18.