Soap Dispenser

That said, there is a straightforward explanation when it comes to the soap dispenser: near infrared technology requires light to bounce back from the user and activate the sensor, so skin with more melanin, absorbing as it does more light, does not trigger the sensor. But this strictly technical account says nothing about why this particular sensor mechanism was used, whether there are other options, which recognize a broader spectrum of skin tones, and how this problem was overlooked during development and testing, well before the dispenser was installed. Like segregated water fountains of a previous era, the discriminatory soap dispenser offers a window onto a wider social terrain. As the soap dispenser is, technically, a robot, this discussion helps us consider the racism of robots and the social world in which they are designed.

For instance, we might reflect upon the fact that the infrared technology of an automated soap dispenser treats certain skin tones as normative and upon the reason why this technology renders Black people invisible when they hope to be seen, while other technologies, for example facial recognition for police surveillance, make them hypervisible when they seek privacy. When we draw different technologies into the same frame, the distinction between “trivial” and “consequential” breaks down and we can begin to understand how Blackness can be both marginal and focal to tech development. For this reason I suggest that we hold off on drawing too many bright lines – good versus bad, intended versus unwitting, trivial versus consequential. Sara Wachter-Boettcher, the author of Technically Wrong, puts it thus: “If tech companies can’t get the basics right … why should we trust them to provide solutions to massive societal problems?”54 The issue is not simply that innovation and inequity can go hand in hand but that a view of technology as value-free means that we are less likely to question the New Jim Code in the same way we would the unjust laws of a previous era, assuming in the process that our hands are clean.

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