Graduate Summer 2021: Jerome Clarke

Digital Colorline: Racializing Informatics and the Black Critique of Technology

Department of  Philosophy & African American Studies 

Digital Colorline: Racializing Informatics and the Black Critique of Technology updates W.E.B. Du Bois’ famed prognosis by marking informational racialism as a key problem for social theory and the 21stCentury. I assess the ethical, political, and structural aspirations of market and state applications of information science as they augment the racialization of black Americans from the turn of the twentieth century to present day. I do so by examining three histories of information processing: the real estate appraisal’s Jim Crow backstory, the saga of facial recognition systems in policing, and the constellation of racially insensitive computer vision in consumer technologies. My dissertation draws on Frankfurt School Critical Theory’s methodology of immanent critique to problematize and render contingent the normative self-understanding of racialist real estate and governmental computer vision. Core to my historical study is a broader critique of the Frankfurt School for its generational departure from accounting the intimacies of racism and technology in capitalist society. I argue that recent iterations of long-standing Critical Theory categories (alienation, reification, and system) fail to describe the role of race information in capitalism and the singular estrangement it produces. I ask: if a statistician renders a black (U.S.) freeperson into a ‘raw’ race datum—soon to be processed as information—how distinct is that abstraction from atomizing captives into freight units soon to be valorized on the auction block? Moreover, how might, at each end of so-called black box algorithms, stat and statistics serve as racist bludgeons, and what does that social problem imply for the design and use of algorithmic technologies?