How algorithms create a 'digital underclass'

There was a time when technology was perceived as neutral. But we now know the technology we thought would save us is actually recreating the same kinds of inequalities we were trying to redress in the first place. Princeton sociologist Ruha Benjamin asks if there's a way to create a new technological reality without a digital underclass.

Princeton sociologist Ruha Benjamin argues bias is encoded in new tech

Sociologist Ruha Benjamin argues in her book, Race After Technology, that the use of technology has the capability to enforce discrimination while appearing neutral. (Shutterstock / maxuser)

* Originally published on September 4, 2019.

We used to think of online and offline as two different worlds — we had to make an effort to "get online." But the seam between real life and digital spaces is growing ever-thinner and what comes with that attenuation is the potential to deepen social inequity, according to sociologist Ruha Benjamin

In her latest book, Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, Benjamin argues digital technologies recreate the same kind of racial hierarchies and segregation we witness in our daily lives. She points out that social hierarchies in the physical world have corresponding virtual ones.

Benjamin adds that it's inevitable we would build into the technologies that run our phones, drive our cars or keep track of our friends, the same codes of good and bad that govern society.

We put so much investment in being saved by these objects we create, by these technologies. But our real resource is ourselves.- Ruha Benjamin

According to the Princeton University professor of African American Studies, tech is the latest iteration of past racist regimes — leading her to dub tech, "the New Jim Code," a term that draws a line of continuity from America's segregationist "Jim Crow" past" to the ubiquitous presence of tech today.

"Architecture is an interesting metaphor for algorithms and the construction of digital space. When we think about the way that our physical infrastructure reflects and reproduces all kinds of values and assumptions, we could also take that lens and apply it to the digital world," Benjamin told IDEAS. 

She suggests we need to ask who's designing these technologies, what their starting assumptions are, and what kind of problems they think are worth fixing. The answers to these questions are reflections of the priorities and values of not only the creators but often of society itself.

'Our real resource is ourselves'

The book, Race After Technology, looks at how emerging technologies can reinforce white supremacy and discrimination. (Polity)
We see these priorities on display as companies increasingly rely on artificial intelligence to make hiring and efficiency decisions on the assumption that technology, unlike people, is unbiased, neutral, and objective. As cuts to public schools make hiring more teachers an impossibility in struggling districts, school boards are turning to tablets and apps to replace human instructors but apparently forgetting that student-teacher interactions are a key component of learning.

All these factors can lead to a sense of fatalism and even paranoia. But Benjamin reminds us we already possess the necessary tools to confront the challenges before us.

"I realize that we put so much investment in being saved by these objects we create, by these technologies. But our real resource is ourselves, our communities, our relationships, our stories, our narratives," said Benjamin.

"If we use the analogy of technology then these are our social technologies — the way that everyday people innovate, change, adapt to, and support one another. And so part of what that looks like in terms of building up that moral imagination is to realize that we already exercise this kind of imagination."

With her book, Benjamin hopes to encourage people to invest in the transformation of our social institutions and relationships and understand that, ultimately, technology will not save us from ourselves.

In this episode:

  • Ruha Benjamin is an associate professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, published by Polity.