The Animating Force of the New Jim Code

The animating force of the New Jim Code is that tech designers encode judgments into technical systems but claim that the racist results of their designs are entirely exterior to the encoding process. Racism thus becomes doubled – magnified and buried under layers of digital denial. There are bad actors in this arena that are easier to spot than others. Facebook executives who denied and lied about their knowledge of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election via social media are perpetrators of the most broadcast violation of public trust to date.23 But the line between bad and “neutral” players is a fuzzy one and there are many tech insiders hiding behind the language of free speech, allowing racist and sexist harassment to run rampant in the digital public square and looking the other way as avowedly bad actors deliberately crash into others with reckless abandon.

For this reason, we should consider how private industry choices are in fact public policy decisions. They are animated by political values influenced strongly by libertarianism, which extols individual autonomy and corporate freedom from government regulation. However, a recent survey of the political views of 600 tech entrepreneurs found that a majority of them favor higher taxes on the rich, social benefits for the poor, single-payer healthcare, environmental regulations, parental leave, immigration protections, and other issues that align with Democratic causes. Yet most of them also staunchly opposed labor unions and government regulation.24 As one observer put it, “Silicon Valley entrepreneurs don’t mind the government regulating other industries, but they prefer Washington to stay out of their own business.”25 For example, while many say they support single-payer healthcare in theory, they are also reluctant to contribute to tax revenue that would fund such an undertaking. So “political values” here is less about party affiliation or what people believe in the abstract and more to do with how the decisions of tech entrepreneurs impact questions of power, ethics, equity, and sociality. In that light, I think the dominant ethos in this arena is best expressed by Facebook’s original motto: “Move Fast and Break Things.” To which we should ask: What about the people and places broken in the process? Residents of Silicon Valley displaced by the spike in housing costs, or Amazon warehouse workers compelled to skip bathroom breaks and pee in bottles.26 “Move Fast, Break People, and Call It Progress”?

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