Uncovering Coded Structures of Inequality

Designs permeate the world, and the most effective designs operate seamlessly–both present and invisible. Often, people don’t think about why something is designed in a certain way. Instead, people tend to react to designs. Communities react the strongest when configurations break or fail in some capacity. Technology is built upon the codes engineers design, which embed equations that work algorithmically. These algorithms “learn” and adapt as they change in response to public inputs and outputs. When material designs fail, society can point to the designer, builder, or specialist, but how do you hold an algorithmic process accountable when the algorithm “fails”? Ruja Benjamin explores how technology reinforces racism in the book Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Benjamin argues that technology’s algorithmic failures point to the racial social systems and racist ideas already embedded in society, and that these failures are not strictly engineering problems. Racial bias and racial structures influence product development and the ways coded algorithms “learn” and move throughout the world. Benjamin explains that in technology, like most complex systems, the algorithmic medium makes it difficult to hold engineers, designers, and corporations accountable for racist products. 

Benjamin presents numerous examples of technological failures built upon racist systems in their book. They cite that engineering teams were negligent in recognizing how their designs might interact in a racist world due to individual biases. Benjamin advocates examining these technological failures so we can start to understand how systemic racism operates in various coded systems and attempt to correct them. Benjamin’s book is essential reading for technical communicators because communicators can further develop perceptions in recognizing racist associations in coded systems, like language, and make corrections for these associations in their work. Addressing racism involves acknowledging that it exists and that it presents itself in nuanced varieties in practice. Technical communicators make judgements on language to include or exclude in various mediums, which offers an opportunity for genuinely contemplating the origins of our coded language and the racial contexts from which it’s derived. 

Ruha Benjamin pulls back the technological curtain to expose the racialized realities behind technology and assists the community in realizing their existence. Benjamin recommends companies implement auditing systems that examine products; checking for biased and potentially racist coded technologies. Beyond contemplation, the technical communicator can also use this concept of auditing to closely examine coded forms of bias and racism in language. A technical communicator that understands the historical socioracial context and its current situated embodiment contains a powerful tool for reimagining a different future for encoded language as it applies to technical communication.

Resources

Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, by Dr. Ruja Benjamin


Viewpoint Written by Laura Soran, Texas State University

Edited by Grace Larner, Texas State University


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