Decolonizing Technology on Martin Luther King Day 2021
18 January, 2021 - 10 min read
Last updated: 20 January 2021
Days before the Inauguration and days after the United States' Capitol was stormed in a violent and deadly insurrection (2), on MLK Day 2021, we evaluate the necessity of antiracism in technology. In order to create a landscape dedicated to all races, colors, creeds, we must first dare to dream of an industry openly embracing the tenets that uphold justice and is held accountable. We are the authors, the Open Source contributors, of a new future -- one that is whole and can be passed off to future generations with a legacy that doesn't require immediate tending to the irrevocable harm. We must be brave enough to see it and strong enough to demand it of ourselves and others. In this article, authored at the nexus of ethics, economics and technology, I will discuss Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's unsanitized legacy, describe in academic terms the meaning of decolonization, elucidate how society still suffers from colonial ideologies in the technology industry and how At The Root hopes to be one of the many tools to address this toxicity. This requires the discussion of antiracism, anti-Black racism, White Supremacy, White Privilege and class in the U.S., just as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was influenced by global decolonization in his time.
This is your call to action to invest your acumen in actively antiracist technology.
Dr. King was not a stranger to decolonization efforts. We'll define in more academic terms what "decolonization" means in the section below: Our Future Depends on the Decolonization of Our Technology. Gandhi's struggles against political and economic injustice inspired people all over the world, including MLK. Gandhi's anti-colonialist work was clear in his writings: "My ambition is much higher than independence... Through the deliverance of India, I seek to deliver the so-called weaker races of the earth from the crushing heels of Western exploitation".
Our Future Depends on the Decolonization of Our Technology
Colonization, and its "colonial complex" includes but is not limited to White Supremacy and privilege, and is codified in systems that even without active guidance, continue to actively cause harm. Marger, in Race and Ethnic Relations 5th Edition, highlights four key traits of this complex: "1. Colonization begins with a forced, involuntary entry; 2. the colonizing power basically destroys the indigenous culture; 3. members of the colonized group tend to be governed by representatives of the dominant group and 4. the system of dominant-subordinate relationship is buttressed by racist ideology"(1).
This complex perpetuates a cultural hierarchy and supremacy and calls for an intersectional approach. Any true redress of antiracism must be intersectional; any call to action that is not fully informed will still perpetuate colonial ideologies and White Supremacy. Accepting Marger's definition of colonization, to decolonize is to reconnect with indigenous culture, instill self-governance and remove the dominant-subordinate relationship that comes with racist ideology. This can come through teaching of traditional knowledge, values and lifestyles. We're specifically encouraged as we look outside of Western, educated, industrialized, and rich countries to gain insight on how colonialism, racism, and particularly anti-Black racism manifests in other contexts and how other communities across the globe organize to buck their colonial conditions (7).
At The Root's Role in the Movement for Antiracism
At The Root imagines an alternative to the status quo, in order to strive for that future. We analyze the question "What does antiracist software look like?" and attempt to empower the individual contributors to Open Source projects, to be aware that the consequences of their code will be to build a world they would like to live in.
We play a distinct role in the activist movement as "Reformers" and "Change Agents" (4), informing our two-fold approach:
- Reformation: Use tools of lobbying and legal action to encourage adherence to antiracism, while monitoring its success to ensure enforcement. This normalizing and expansion of success guards against backslides of cultural status quo. Our primary product to address reforming our current system is the At The Root License, which has not yet had its first release. It is an ethical license to impose accountability in an enforceable way. ATR adamantly believes in self-determination as we define the future of this license internally. We currently have an external partnership with Ethical Source as peers in the ethical source community striving for industry responsibility.
- Agents of Change: As ATR develops a larger following, we aim to gather subject matter expertise from a variety of industries that intersect with Open Source projects to contribute to our At The Root Checklist with specific, actionable guidance for actively antiracist projects.
How Do We Decolonize Technology in 2021?
We can't rewrite the past or even try to return to a pre-colonial society. Decolonizing is the process of dissecting and removing colonialism. Most theory surrounding decolonization is based on decolonizing the colonized, but the colonized can't and shouldn't cut themselves off and only decolonize themselves. The colonizer must also remove the dominant-subordinate relationship. In short: All spaces must be actively antiracist.
Alexander Dirksen highlights "we cannot extricate the online spaces of today" that we share with dominant culture "from their deeply colonial roots..." because "the seeds of Silicon Valley were planted in part by military defense spending" (5) among other pivotal armed forces investments into technology starting in the 1960s. It isn't a coincidence that the military, a clear extension of colonial objectives, was the impetus for this technology hub.
Historical evidence presents a tech industry that is not neutral, and in our present it is even harder to claim tech as "neutral" or "apolitical". At the time this was written, Parler -- a social media platform popular with The Capitol insurrectionists and White Nationalists -- is back online (with a static landing page) (9) under the domain Epik, which also hosts the similar far-right social media network Gab. The IP address it used is owned by DDos-Guard, that also provides services to the Russian ministry of defense (10), after being banned from AWS January 11th 2021. Before its very public demise, the platform had a rush of users after inciting Trump tweets and pushes for social media accountability, that led to technical difficulties for the app. (11) In eerie fashion, the firm resolve of Facebook and Twitter to remain "neutral" platforms and claim little responsibility for the content posted resurfaced through the mouth of Parler CEO, John Matze, Jr. Matze bills the app as a "free speech" alternative. It would be optimistic to think that Big Tech were shocked into morality, seeing the inevitable conclusion to their laissez-faire approach (that was good for Facebook and Twitter's bottom lines). It is more likely that they saw a groundswell of support for moderation and jumped on the opportunity while public opinion was on their side. Regardless of motivation, large platforms rapidly removed Trump's accounts or accounts affiliated with pro-Trump violence like QAnon and #StopTheSteal. Parler is still not found on Google and Apple's mobile app stores. If you're interested in more reading on the discourse, check out Jack Dorsey's Twitter thread (12) on the subject, posted after nearly a week of silence post January 6th attack. Whether you believe the carefully-trod rhetoric about open social media standards and a commitment to pursue them, Dorsey publicly recognizes the dangers that come from misinformation and unmoderated content. Without public pressure, technology firms are eager participants in capitalist colonial systems.
We can't omit race from any software that "allows racist systems, laws, and policies to continue operating within the status-quo" -- CSSP (6)
The January 6th insurrection may or may not have surprised you based on your experience with virulent and indignant racism in the United States, but what surprised most is the degree to which this incident escalated. We cannot separate these events from the impact that Black voters had on the US 2020 election. (13) The second most powerful figurehead in the United States was figuratively thrown overboard by the President and his supporters (14) at the indirect threat to White Supremacy--confirming the election results--and led to makeshift gallows and a noose outside the Capitol building.
"I fear that I am integrating my people into a burning house." -- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In order to prioritize the human experience of those affected by White Supremacy and White Privilege, At The Root aims to use an informed, experience-driven approach to defining The At The Root License and The At The Root Checklist. We must call out the historical role of enslavement, colonization and genocide of Native and Indigenous people. We must evaluate the modern context of White Supremacy in technology that has allowed Dr. Timnit Gebru to be mistreated by Google (15) and allowed GitHub to perpetuate antisemitism (16) and inhumane immigration policies (17). This approach acknowledges that there is a reservoir of power for White people and seeks to question the motivations of institutions and their role in maintaining oppression based on identity.
At The Root aims to be one of the viable ways forward in a highly interconnected antiracist movement.
Ways to Get Involved
- If you're a Black person interested in helping craft the language in the first release of The ATR License, please get in touch by emailing contact@AtTheRoot.dev. We are taking our time, reaching out to industry, community and thought leaders in order to shape our vision. We take the endeavor seriously and look forward to the insight of our interdisciplinary, antiracist community. We intend for The ATR License to have future iterations as the discourse and impact grows.
- If you'd like to contribute monetary or subject matter resources, we have a partnership with Ethical Source, earmark At The Root.
- If you are a Black person with discipline-specific subject matter expertise on actionable steps to make projects actively antiracist, please consider contributing to The ATR Checklist.
“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice” -- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
- (1) Marger, Martin N. Race an Ethnic Relations 5th Edition. Belmont: Woadsworth, 2000
- (2) NPR Updates - Insurrection at the Capitol
- (3) Kortright, 2003 The Anarchist Library
- (4) The Commons Library - The Four Roles of Social Activism
- (5) Dirksen, Decolonizing Digital Spaces
- (6) CSSP, Antiracist Frame, 2019
- (7) Decolonizing Civic Tech
- (8) Recognizing Race in Language: Why We Capitalize "Black" and "White" - CSSP
- (9)Parler back online
- (10)Parler website partially returns with support from Russian owned technology firm - The Guardian
- (11)What is Parler explainer - Mashable
- (12)Jack Dorsey's Twitter thread regarding banning President Trump - Twitter
- (13)Black Americans Power - Politico
- (14)Mike Pence Donald Trump Attack - Vanity Fair
- (15)Google AI ethics research paper forced out Dr. Timnit Gebru - Technology Review
- (16)Github fired over nazi concern - Mashable
- (17)ICE contract Github sparks developer protests - The Atlantic