Charlton McIlwain’s Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter1 is a recent addition to a growing literature on computing and identity. The book asks us to confront an awkward truth: How a person is racially marked can help to account for how that person is likely to fare in relationship to digital technologies. Digital tech has a problem with ‘race’. Facial recognition software is least accurate when presented with facial images of dark-skinned Black people. Microsoft ended development of its AI driven Twitter bot Tay in 2016 when the bot began to spew sexist and antisemitic tweets. What went wrong? It seems Tay learned from a vast tweet data set how to engage in toxic online discourse.2 When researcher Safia Noble searched for images of ‘Black girls’ in 2011, Google returned mostly images spanning the mildly sexualised to the pornographic. Google searches on ‘White girls’ returned images mostly of childhood and adolescent innocence. For Google search, it seemed that Black girls were neither children nor innocent. Whilst reminding us we should not overlook the problematic online representation of all females, Noble found Black females were the most negatively portrayed in search results.3
Social identities affect how people relate to computing and how computing impacts on people. Historians and social scientists have shown how this works, but big tech players have a mixed record on processing the implications of social identities for their field. Why is not hard to understand. Computer science is informed by different epistemological starting points than socio-cultural identity theories: mathematical and logical rather than interpretive epistemologies. Even allowing, as we should, that this distinction is ideal-typical (and much recent research is working across the divide) it does mark two contrasting ends of a continuum. There remains in big tech circles a close attachment to instrumentalist and behaviourist understandings of identity, to seeing identity as one more set of variables in a statistical model. Historian Jill Lepore shows that this stubborn instrumentalist operationalisation of identity in computing has its roots in the 1960s. In Lepore’s narrative of the rise and fall of Simulmatics corporation (1959 – 1970) we see how naive faith in instrumental rationality underlay the failure of the first specialist data analytics firm.4 More recently, a combination of venality and hubris led to the Cambridge Analytic scandal.5 The two cases are separated by five decades, but both show that computing has a problem with computing social identity.
Cultural critics’ and political activists’ widespread mistrust of big tech would seem to be well-founded then,6 and more so when gendered or racialised social identity of tech users maps to a protected category. From a gender perspective, we now have the benefit of a substantial and expanding body of research on how computing came to be shaped through a masculinist lens, one consequence of which was that women’s work has been marginalised in narratives of computing history.7 Growing from a smaller base we find literature on how ‘race’ interacts with computing, often in ways that are harmful to people racialised as Black. It should come as no surprise that the work on gender and race intersects: Black women’s role in US computing history has been rendered invisible.8
What is Black Software?
What is Black software? And why should we care? For Charlton McIlwain, Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, Black software:
‘conjures the myriad ways that we mobilize computing technology. Black software refers to the programs we desire and design computers to run. It refers to who designs the program, for what purposes, and what or who becomes its object or data. It refers to how, and how well, the computer performs the tasks for which it was programmed’ (page 7).
McIlwain expands software to encompass code, digital media, databases, skills, and digital and human networks. Some potential readers might stumble over this broad conceptualisation, especially tech-focused readers seeking knowledge about the role Black (as in African American) people played in design and engineering of software. Some of the accounts in the first half of the book might draw such readers in, but Black Software is not a book about building software as such; McIlwain’s accounts of Black geek practice centred on software (and hardware) engineering are subordinated to a wider political story.
McIlwain shows that early networked personal computing was a hostile space for African Americans: no sooner had discussion forums and mailing lists begun to reach the wider public of ordinary non-technical people in the 1990s, that the racism of wider US society reared its head. In response, technically savvy African Americans set out to create Black-friendly spaces on the early web. Intriguingly, the walled gardens of CompuServe and AOL portals, and web page indexes (how we searched the net in the 1990s, before Google popularised generic search), made it easy for African American net users to find Black-focused content and to meet other Black people online. The 1990s was for McIlwain the peak of a distinctive African American presence online.
Black Software argues convincingly that computing was freighted with identity politics from its earliest days, even if most users and developers did not realise this. McIlwain’s text resonates with Rankin’s People’s History of Computing in the United States.9 Rankin constructs a compelling counter narrative to dominant tech origin stories centred on Silicon Valley mythologies, uncovering a history of personal computing in the 1960s and early 1970s that grew from time sharing of publicly funded mainframe computing. This people’s computing was predicated on people as users of public computing resources rather than as consumers of computing commodities; it was built on the base of the Dartmouth Time Sharing System and the BASIC programming language developed by John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz at Dartmouth College in the early 1960s. Kemeny and Kurtz wanted to make learning at university more technologically oriented: irrespective of discipline, they advocated introducing all undergraduates to computing. Rankin explores the tensions between on the one hand, Dartmouth being one of a select group of wealthy universities with a student body mostly White and well-off, with a culture dominated by traditional ideas of gender roles, and on the other hand, the liberal and progressive outlook of many of the faculty who wanted to recruit more under privileged and ethnic minority students. Rankin narrates how gendered social identity influenced this early computing culture, and she makes connections between this people’s computing and the 1960s social movements in the USA.
Every writer on the emergence of computing in the 1960s sees that decade’s social movements through a glass darkly. Rankin does not delve deeply into issues of race and computing, whilst McIlwain’s narrative of 1960s computing and Black politics makes no overt links to the social activist milieu that Rankin evokes. Levy’s canonical account of the emergence of hacker culture has little to say about Black political activism in the 1960s and 1970s, though he references the 1960s counterculture.10 Markoff’s work on how the 1960s counterculture shaped personal computing says little about women’s and Black movements in that decade.11 There is a frustrating lack of identity multitasking in Levy’s and Markoff’s works: hippies, libertarians, communitarians, dudes taking LSD, a rich human tapestry, but mostly men. And why is the counterculture so White? A richer conversation could be had here if researchers were more willing to stray outside their lanes. Fred Turner’s work on the history of personal computing in the USA12 goes further than that of Levy and Markoff, by deconstructing the counterculture into an inward-looking psychedelic branch, and a New Left branch. Turner argues that it was the anti-poltical psychedelic counterculture tendency that influenced early personal computing; that tendency was based on a philosophy of self-transformation and individual empowerment by turning away from mainstream society, often fuelled by mind alternating drugs and repackaged Eastern mysticism. The psychedelics saw personal computing as the ultimate tool for self-transformation; the individualistic orientation of maturing psychedelics opened a pathway for many of them to align with neoliberal technophiles to forge the cyberutopian culture of 1990s Silicon Valley. Think Wired magazine. Turner’s account sheds light on the low profile of Black and women’s movements in Levy’s and Markoff’s accounts of how personal computing was heavily influenced by counterculture. The new left wing of the counterculture overlapped with the Black and women’s movements, but it was the psychedelic wing that overlapped with personal computing. Turner’s work implies that if the psychedelics stand in for the 1960s counterculture, then there is little room for the Black and women’s movements in narratives of early computing.
McIlwain and Rankin push through the door opened by Turner, reconnecting the New Left (Rankin) and Black politics (McIlwain) to the early history of computing in the USA. McIlwain has indeed uncovered hidden African American figures and projects in US computing history. What remains to be done is more synthetic work on the history of computing in the USA that integrates McIlwain’s lane with those navigated by Turner, Markoff and Rankin.
Computing while Black
McIlwain positions himself very much as part of the community about which he is writing. He frequently refers to ‘us’, ‘our people’, and to what we want or what we did. McIlwain uses a personal and conversational style, venturing into the realm of creative nonfiction, going inside the minds of characters, speculating on their interior lives, motives, and emotions. The book leans toward the evocative more than the analytical register of social science writing, which could be divisive for readers who want strictly tech history more than personal narrative. McIlwain positions the book firmly at the social-cultural rather than the technical end of computing history’s continuum, so the geekier reader must engage on unfamiliar terrain.
Despite scattered references to Africa and the African diaspora, McIlwain’s story is an American one. The main narrative timeline spans the 1960s to the end of the 1990s. The text ends with a brief reflection on Black Lives Matter. The text is structured around two books. Book one opens with life stories of African American ‘pioneers’ who saw potential in the microcomputer and the early web, while at the same time being concerned that African Americans were being left behind by the expanding world of computing and digital media. Book two opens with stories of how large-scale computing power was used to monitor and control Black Americans, and in some cases to repress them though racist policy underpinned by information systems. Book Two ends with a wave of digitally savvy Black activists and organisers setting the scene for the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The two books that comprise Black Software are (loosely) connected. An account of different ways in which computing objectified and marginalised Black people runs through both books, but surfaces more strongly in the second, where we learn about why and how IBM and other computing firms began to develop software in the 1960s for social surveillance and ‘management’ of crime. McIlwain argues that the 1960s civil unrest, especially the Watts uprising/riots in August 1965, reinforced long standing associations of blackness and criminality in the perceptions of the majority White population. This in turn enabled a policy environment where African Americans became the targets of computerised surveillance and control systems (some of these systems would be adapted for military use in overseas theatres). As McIlwain puts it, the problem was African Americans, and the solution was large scale computing.
Recovering hidden histories
McIlwain’s work demonstrates why we need more complex histories of computing. Black Software exemplifies one way to do the work of reconstructing marginalised tech actors through interviews and tracking sources across spaces that are not ostensibly about computing. As librarian and computing historian Nelsen13 has noted, the records that a historian of African American work in computing needs are unevenly distributed: the dominant people in the field – middle class men racialised as White – decided whose knowledge was worthy of being officially documented (theirs, mainly), which is why White women and ethnic minorities of all genders have been rendered barely visible in mainstream histories of computing. McIlwain’s book lays down an important marker to guide researchers in reconstructive work on the history of computing, not only for hidden figures in the USA, but for marginalised computing cultures everywhere.
Black Software stakes a claim for a place on a small but growing bookshelf of works that engage with the complex relations of African Americans to tech. Hidden Figures14 as book and then film made visible the work of Black female scientists and engineers who worked at NASA in the early days of the US space programme, women who did their work in spite of petty workplace prejudice and wider entrenched structures of racism that endured into the 1960s. Lisa Nakamura has worked longest in the area of identity and digital technology; hers were among the first works to focus on race online15 Safia Noble studied algorithmic racism alongside substantial engagement with gender and other intersectional issues in tech.16 Andre Brock explored how blackness is articulated on the web, and simultaneously how the web affords enhanced and transformational interrogation and expression of Black cultures.17 Ruha Benjamin has written on how digital technologies exercise discursive power over racialised Black bodies.18 Brian Jefferson examined how digital technology policed African Americans and entrenched structures of racism.19
None of these authors have backgrounds in computing. Nobel and Brock come from information and library studies, while McIlwain and Nakamura are from media studies; Benjamin is a sociologist, and Jefferson works in politics urban studies. Lee Shetterly is a nonfiction writer not affiliated to any academic discipline. Of their works, some focus more on race and ethnicity, while others address gender alongside race and ethnicity. All are predominantly about the US experience, though Nakamura has at times taken a global perspective. Noble and Benjamin are alive to connections from their own work to a reconstructive gender-focused literature on the history of computing that has dealt mainly with the experiences of White women in the English-speaking global North.
This reviewer looks forward to seeing more accounts written by people of colour working in computing as their main occupation, remaining aware of how their social identities mark them as outsiders or at least different from the norm, that explore more deeply the work of making software. I have in mind Ullman’s work, both fiction and non-fiction, in which she – a racialised White woman – takes us deep into coding work while also exploring gender relations in the early US tech industry.20 Reading McIlwain makes me want more about software engineering while Black. And while we are at it, we should widen out Blackness to include Africans, Black Caribbeans, Black Europeans, and Black Latin Americans. And why stop there? We might as well cast our net wider yet to take in tech workers in the Global South (apart from the well-trodden spaces of industrialising Asia), where marginality is not coloured only Black.21
Class, community, and commerce
McIlwain has a concept of a Black community that is too tidy, and he seems too willing to give capitalism a pass. Book one of Black Software, on Black pioneers, is largely about people aiming to build businesses on computing and the early net. In the account, these pioneers assumed that building Black oriented tech businesses would be of clear benefit to Black people as a group. While he raises a question around the presuppositions of this strategy, McIlwain could have taken a more critical stance here. Does sharing ‘race’ mean that the interest of the Black bourgeoisie and Black working class align neatly? Were there any forays into computing by people from the rich tradition of leftist African American activism? There is an exciting possibility to seek threads that might connect the radical workerism of James Boggs and Grace Lee Boggs,22 to stories of how the wider radical Black left in the USA engaged with early computing. There is scope for a deeper class analysis of the ‘Black community’ here.
McIlwain acknowledges social class difference and even conflicting interests among African Americans engaging with computing, but social class but does not seem to do much analytical work in the text. Race seems at time to be a proxy for class, as in several contrasts between Blacks as excluded as a group and Whites as privileged as a group. It might well be the case that social class holds little relevance for the work, in which case a reader might expect to have this said plainly and to have some explanation as to why. McIlwain’s standpoint of identifying with the people he writes about only partly accounts for the somewhat perfunctory treatment of class; we might guess though at where Black Software might sit in US debates about class reductionism vs race reductionism.
For the pioneers in book one, computing was seen as a resource that could empower Black communities by making Black culture more visible online and equipping members of Black communities with digital skills that would enable them to improve their lives. The strong empowerment narrative sometimes sits uneasily alongside the stated desire of individuals to build successful businesses. While some of these Black tech pioneers asserted that what was good for their businesses would be good for the Black community, a reader might well ask if these statements should be treated any less sceptically than the standard Silicon Valley claims that what is good for big tech is good for society at large.
I am not entirely convinced as to the coherence of the ‘Black community’; it works as a rhetorical device, but not so much as an analytical one. McIlwain at times recognises tension if not conflict between commerce and community, but he seems often to slide into broad agreement with the project of Black community empowerment formulated by Black tech pioneers. In identifying as a member of ‘our people’ and ‘our community’, as he does, it is not clear how McIlwain would be able to raise deep criticism of the presumption of a coherent Black community for which Black-owned computer businesses lead to desirable outcomes. Desirable for whom, though? What might be desirable for Black tech entrepreneurs might not be desirable for the Black poor. This is a tension that is not engaged satisfactorily in the book.
McIlwain suggests that computing was built to oppress Black people; he assembles evidence from the 1960s to show that one of the earliest uses of computing power in the US was to manage urban problems centred on Black people. He may be overplaying his hand here: military computing, banking and airline reservations all attracted the efforts of IBM and its competition before the racial turn in computing that the book documents. Was computing in the USA early aimed to control Black people as a central concern? I am not convinced based on this book.
The two books that make up the volume could have been better integrated. The staccato writing style was at times jarring to this reader. And the lack of text citations for long quotations meant that sometimes it was difficult to identity who was being quoted without going back in the text. These stylistic quirks are of little consequence though, as you soon get into the flow of the narrative.
You should read this book
Black Software encompasses interlinked understanding of the inputs into early personal computing and web cultures in the USA of people identified as African American. Black Software is a narration of how computer technology was used to repressively control the Black poor, by enacting surveillance and control over Black bodies. The book is also a narrative historical backdrop to the work of Black anti-racist activists who folded digital tech into their political work. Black software is what Black people do with software and digital media. After reading this book we come away with a deeper understanding of how African Americans engaged with computing and the early web through a Black-conscious frame that enabled them both to see the potential of tech to enrich the lives of African Americans, and to see as well how tech was incorporated into long established systems of structural racism and oppression the USA. Black Software is an exciting and thought-provoking text that should be on the shelf of anyone interested in the social and cultural history of computing.
Abbate, Janet. Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2012.
Benjamin, Ruha, ed. Captivating Technology: Race, Carceral Technoscience, and Liberatory Imagination in Everyday Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019. https://gold.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://dx.doi.org/10.1215/9781478004493.
———. Race after Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Cambridge, England ; Medford, Massachusetts: Polity Press, 2019. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/goldsmiths/detail.action?docID=5820427.
Boggs, Grace Lee. Living for Change: An Autobiography. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
Boggs, James. American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook. New York, NY: monthly review press, 2009.
Brock, André. Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures. New York: NYU Press, 2020. http://opensquare.nyupress.org/books/9781479820375/read/.
Eubanks, Virginia. Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor. Illustrated edition. Picador, 2019.
Jefferson, Brian. Digitize and Punish: Racial Criminalization in the Digital Age. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020.
Levy, Steven. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution – 25th Anniversary Edition. 1st ed. O’Reilly Media, 2010.
Markoff, John. What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. Reprint. Penguin Books, 2006.
Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. 1 edition. New York: Routledge, 2002.
———. Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2007.
Nakamura, Lisa, and Gilbert Rodman. Race in Cyberspace. Edited by Beth Kolko. 1 edition. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Nelsen, R. Arvid. ‘Race and Computing: The Problem of Sources, the Potential of Prosopography, and the Lesson of Ebony Magazine’. IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 39, no. 01 (1 January 2017): 29–51. https://doi.org/10.1109/MAHC.2016.11.
Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: NYU Press, 2018.
O’Neil, Cathy. Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. 1st edition. London: Penguin, 2017.
Rankin, Joy Lisi. A Peoples History of Computing in the United States. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2018.
Shetterly, Margot Lee. Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. William Collins, 2017.
Turner, Fred. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Ullman, Ellen. Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents. New ed. London: Pushkin, 2013.
———. Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology. New York: Macmillan USA, 2017.
Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. Profile Books, 2019.
- Charlton D. McIlwain, Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter (New York, NY: OUP USA, 2020) ↩
- ‘Why We Should Have Seen That Coming: Comments on Microsoft’s Tay “Experiment,” and Wider Implications’, The ORBIT Journal 1, no. 2 (1 January 2017): 1–12, https://doi.org/10.29297/orbit.v1i2.49 ↩
- Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: NYU Press, 2018 ↩
- Jill Lepore, If Then: How One Data Company Invented the Future, 1st edition (John Murray, 2020) ↩
- Christopher Wylie, Mindf*ck: Inside Cambridge Analytica’s Plot to Break the World (London: Profile Books, 2020) ↩
- Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (Profile Books, 2019); Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, 1st edition (London: Penguin, 2017); Virginia Eubanks, Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor,(Picador, 2019) ↩
- Janet Abbate, Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2012) ↩
- André Brock, Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures: 9 (New York: NYU Press, 2020); Ruha Benjamin, Race after Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code (Cambridge, England; Medford, Massachusetts: Polity Press, 2019) ↩
- Joy Lisi Rankin, A Peoples History of Computing in the United States (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2018) ↩
- Steven Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution – 25th Anniversary Edition, 1st ed. (O’Reilly Media, 2010) ↩
- John Markoff, What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, (Penguin Books, 2006) ↩
- Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2006) ↩
- R. Arvid Nelsen, ‘Race and Computing: The Problem of Sources, the Potential of Prosopography, and the Lesson of Ebony Magazine’, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 39, no. 01 (1 January 2017): 29–51, https://doi.org/10.1109/MAHC.2016.11 ↩
- Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race (William Collins, 2017) ↩
- Lisa Nakamura, Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet, 1 edition (New York: Routledge, 2002); Lisa Nakamura and Gilbert Rodman, Race in Cyberspace, ed. Beth Kolko, 1 edition (New York: Routledge, 2000); Lisa Nakamura, Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet (Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2007). ↩
- Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (New York: NYU Press, 2018) ↩
- Brock, Distributed Blackness ↩
- Benjamin, Race after Technology; Ruha Benjamin, ed., Captivating Technology: Race, Carceral Technoscience, and Liberatory Imagination in Everyday Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019) ↩
- Brian Jefferson, Digitize and Punish: Racial Criminalization in the Digital Age (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020) ↩
- Ellen Ullman, Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology (New York: Macmillan USA, 2017); Ellen Ullman, Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents, New ed (London: Pushkin, 2013) ↩
- A discussion of research on tech workers in the Global South is outside the scope of this review essay: though not as well-covered as research in tech workers in emerging Asia, Latin America is seeing steady expansion of research attention; coverage on Africa remains sparse. ↩
- Grace Lee Boggs, Living for Change: An Autobiography (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1998); James Boggs, American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook (New York, NY: monthly review press, 2009) ↩