Race as Technology

This is an invitation to consider racism in relation to other forms of domination as not just an ideology or history, but as a set of technologies that generate patterns of social relations, and these become Black-boxed as natural, inevitable, automatic. As such, this is also an invitation to refuse the illusion of inevitability in which technologies of race come wrapped and to “hotwire” more habitable forms of social organization in the process.

Race critical code studies, as I develop it here, is defined not just by what we study but also by how we analyze, questioning our own assumptions about what is deemed high theory versus pop culture, academic versus activist, evidence versus anecdote. The point is not just to look beneath the surface in order to find connections between these categories, but to pay closer attention to the surfaces themselves. Here I draw upon the idea of thin description as a method for reading surfaces – such as screens and skin – especially since a key feature of being racialized is “to be encountered as a surface.”99 In anthropologist John L. Jackson’s formulation, thin description is “about how we all travel … through the thicket of time and space, about the way … both of those trajectories might be constructively thinned, theorized, concretized, or dislodged in service to questions about how we relate to one another in a digital age.”100 He critiques the worship of thick description within anthropology, arguing that it “tries to pass itself off as more than it is, as embodying an expertise that simulates (and maybe even surpasses) any of the ways in which the people being studied might know themselves … one that would pretend to see everything and, therefore, sometimes sees less than it could.”

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Thinness, in this way, attempts a humble but no less ambitious approach to knowledge production. Thinness allows greater elasticity, engaging fields of thought and action too often disconnected. This analytic flexibility, in my view, is an antidote to digital disconnection, tracing links between individual and institutional, mundane and spectacular, desirable and deadly in a way that troubles easy distinctions.

At the same time, thin description is a method of respecting particular kinds of boundaries. According to Jackson,

If thick description imagines itself able to amass more and more factual information in service to stories about cultural difference, “thin description” doesn’t fall into the trap of conceptualizing its task as providing complete and total knowledge … So, there are secrets you keep. That you treat very preciously. Names of research subjects you share but many more you do not. There is information veiled for the sake of story. For the sake of much more.