California’s Gang Database

Most important, then, is the fact that, once something or someone is coded, this can be hard to change. Think of all of the time and effort it takes for a person to change her name legally. Or, going back to California’s gang database: “Although federal regulations require that people be removed from the database after five years, some records were not scheduled to be removed for more than 100 years.” Yet rigidity can also give rise to ingenuity. Think of the proliferation of nicknames, an informal mechanism that allows us to work around legal systems that try to fix us in place. We do not have to embrace the status quo, even though we must still deal with the sometimes dangerous consequences of being illegible, as when a transgender person is “deadnamed” – called their birth name rather than chosen name. Codes, in short, operate within powerful systems of meaning that render some things visible, others invisible, and create a vast array of distortions and dangers.

I share this exercise of how my students and I wrestle with the cultural politics of naming because names are an expressive tool that helps us think about the social and political dimensions of all sorts of technologies explored in this book. From everyday apps to complex algorithms, Race after Technology aims to cut through industry hype to offer a field guide into the world of biased bots, altruistic algorithms, and their many coded cousins. Far from coming upon a sinister story of racist programmers scheming in the dark corners of the web, we will find that the desire for objectivity, efficiency, profitability, and progress fuels the pursuit of technical fixes across many different social arenas. Oh, if only there were a way to slay centuries of racial demons with a social justice bot! But, as we will see, the road to inequity is paved with technical fixes.

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Along the way, this book introduces conceptual tools to help us decode the promises of tech with historically and sociologically informed skepticism. I argue that tech fixes often hide, speed up, and even deepen discrimination, while appearing to be neutral or benevolent when compared to the racism of a previous era. This set of practices that I call the New Jim Code encompasses a range of discriminatory designs – some that explicitly work to amplify hierarchies, many that ignore and thus replicate social divisions, and a number that aim to fix racial bias but end up doing the opposite.