Without the cellphone, the Black Lives Matter movement probably would never have become a household name.
“I can’t breathe” might not be on the minds of so many Americans enraged by the sight of killers in blue choking the lives out of peaceful Black people.
And America’s Kluxer-in-Chief would not stand as strong a chance of losing the 2020 presidential election and ending up behind bars—thanks in part to the country’s anger over murderous cops.
But the cellphone, the Internet, and other high-tech changed the landscape or at least complicated life for the offenders. Toted by millions, even low-income Americans, the cellphone made it far easier to chronicle defacto tax-supported hate crimes against Black people.
Via social media like Twitter and Facebook, activists could spread links to videos of killer cops. In fact, Black Lives Matter itself began not as a traditional movement but as a hashtag on Twitter.
So how did we get here? You’ll find the much-forgotten history in Black Software: The Internet and Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter, by Charlton D. McIlwain, a New York University professor and founder of the Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies.
Clearly, BLM’s ongoing success has made Black Software timely, given the importance of cellphones and other Net-connected tech in the fight against police brutality.
But just what is “black software”? The phrase in a racial context came up several decades ago in a chat between William Murrell III—a Black computer store owner in the Boston area—and Kamal Al Mansou, founder of CPTime Online and AfroLink Software. Now forgotten is who used it first. Whatever the case, I’m delighted to see Murrell, whom I’ve known since 1993, recognized for his major role as a promoter of Black technical achievement. He also used his own database skills on a campaigner in for a Black mayoral candidate named Mel King.
Just a few of the many other heroes are Derrick Brown, creator of the Black equivalent of the original Yahoo index, as well as David Ellington and Malcolm CaSelle. Brown and CasSelle cofounded AOL’s NetNoir, which competed with Go Afro, a Black area of CompuServe in which William Murrell was involved.
The late and much-missed Art McGee, whom I met online along with William while promoting the TeleRead national digital library vision, compiled a crucial directory of online bulletin board systems for Black people. Self-trained female computer geeks like AfroNet’s Idette Vaughn were key players. William’s BlackSoftware.com offers a timeline mentioning some of the others in the “Vanguard,” as McIlwain calls it.
Like William, many had tech school rather than college educations. Or they attended historically black universities and colleges even though exceptions existed, such as Brown, an alum of Clemson and Georgia Tech. Not until 1969 did Charles “Skip” Ellis become the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in computer science, and this paucity of Black people in the industry helps explain why companies like IBM ended up so wretchedly misunderstanding them for the most part in the early years. M.I.T., then and perhaps still the premier tech university in the U.S., also failed to get up to speed on first try.
Early on, “black software” referred to, say, clipart where Black computer users could find images of people who looked like them. It could also cover pioneering Black bulletin boards and other tech used decades ago. But McIlwain expands the meaning. In his book, “black software” refers to “the programs we desire and design computers to run. It refers to who designs the programs, 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.”
McIlwain, in fact, tells the two stories—of both good and evil Black software. The good kind has brought jobs and in some cases even wealth to Black people while also empowering them politically and culturally. The bad kind has enabled law enforcement agencies to treat Blacks and poor people as objects to track and control. I’m all in favor of effective policing, but that’s a long way from oppressive racial profiling.
Similarly, we need to remember that at the same time LBJ was signing civil rights legislation in 1965, his labor secretary was presciently warning of computerization costing the jobs of the many of the Black people the landmark law was supposed to help.
Civil rights leaders such as Roy Wilkins were writing of the paradox even early on. Decades later, right now in 2020, the warnings still apply, one reason I’m wildly in favor of a universal basic income for people of all races. We also need to think about some form of race-based reparations based if nothing else on redlining alone.
McIlwain’s trail-blazing work should be essential reading for serious Black studies students, as well as for policymakers interested in learning from the past. I’d love to see it inspire book club discussions by people of all races. The catch is that the 312-page book, available in electronic and hardback editions from Amazon and Barnes & Noble and audio from the former, is more for an academic audience than the general reader even though I hope public libraries will carry it. Later in this review I’ll propose a solution for Oxford University Press to popularize Black Software.
I just wish McIlwain had written far more on the power of smartphone videos combined with modern social media. Didn’t the Black areas on electronic bulletin boards, CompuServe, AOL, and the like help pave the way? Still, McIlwain’s big point still comes through loud and clear—the empowerment that technology can offer, and the need for mastery of it as a protest tool and more against repressive forces enabled by tech. Better to learn how computers work than to smash them. McIlwain’s passages on IBM and its role in the surveillance state are especially fascinating to me. Suppose IBM itself had helped build databases not just for the usual “crime control,” but also for documentation of police brutality and the comprehensive blacklisting of killer cops?
Yes, that’s a mere dream, but we can always fantasize about what might have been. Remember, IBM didn’t just help construct the Black-hostile infrastructure (the same as it secretly cozied up to the Nazis in the punch card era). As McIlwain amply documents, it also lobbied in a major way for the infrastructure’s creation. Leaders in government, media, and the corporate world were too obtuse to understand the full role of police brutality in provoking the unrest the IBM tech was to control. Not to mention the harm from such government-encouraged practices as redlining, which deprived many a Black person of a loan needed to buy wealth-building real estate, potentially a stabilizing force. Redlining went on at least through the 1970s.
More money for education and jobs, of course, not just the end of redlining, also would have helped keep the peace. But don’t play down the anti-Black brutality. How can you have genuine “community policing” and eternal peace in Black communities if cops’ legalized thuggery is lethal to the people they’re supposed to protect? One report on law-enforcers’ killings noted that “victims were majority white (52%) but disproportionately black (32%) with a fatality rate 2.8 times higher among blacks than whites.” Given the stakes, law enforcement agencies particularly need to avoid race-related mistakes in the era of databases mixed with image recognition and artificial intelligence.
Another point comes to mind in my reading of the McIlwain book. CompuServe, AOL, and the rest were not paragons, but they were deeply interested in Black voices for business reasons and others and were 1,000 times more responsible than Facebook and its brethren in today. Can you imagine CompuServe letting itself be used as a major tool for our racist president to spew his hate in an election year?
In Oxford University Press’s place, I would give McIllwain a chance to publish an updated version. This time he could include the very most recent developments and adapt the book to a broader audience. He could speed up the pace and farm out some of his scary documentation to an open access multimedia website.
Perhaps a chart could show how the major Black players interacted with each other. In the opposite direction, another could visualize IBM’s outsized influence—both the positives and the negatives. Same for another of the book’s villains, the Simulmatics Corporation, whose profiling techniques paved the way for more recent spying and manipulation by political campaigners, including Trump’s.
The new edition could include a list of the players, a brief summary of each person’s importance, and, of course, their photos in one place. Maybe even with accompanying audio or video recollections on the Web site? Plus, a good timeline.
In addition, the new edition could correct some factual issues. For example, an IBMer described as a “religious nut” was actually “a religious nun.”
OUP lacks unlimited resources, but I suspect the market would be there for a new edition with yet another helping of publicity and assistance from civil rights organizations. The key is to popularize the material, making it more readable and otherwise easier to absorb. I wonder if a foundation somewhere would be willing to help finance the popularization of Black Software if OUP otherwise hesitated.
One way or another, the world needs to know that even as early as 1995, 5.2 million Black Americans owned home computers, not so bad when you consider that only 40 million whites did then. I myself won’t avoid the phrase “digital divide” while talking up the beneficial use of tech for the poor and minorities, just as a matter of simplifying my message. Remember, Blacks and other minorities lag badly in areas such as broadband.
At the same time, I agree with McIlwain’s concern that the phrase “erases” history. Black pride should encompass past technical achievements—and the related activism online—to encourage more of the same in the future. Same for any racial or ethnic group pushed around by the usual suspects. But you don’t have to be Black—I’m not—to understand the special need for a Black software history.
Related: Audio of talk and Q&A with Charlton McIlwain. Includes transcript.
Note: Black Software appeared last year. I’m reviewing it now because it’s so timely, and because it originally did not get the attention it deserves. Might the attention deficit be yet another sign that the book world—-reviewers as well as publishers—could be more responsive to the needs of Black Americans?