Review: Black Software, The Internet and Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter by Charlton McIlwain

Review: Black Software, The Internet and Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter by Charlton McIlwain

I devoured the brilliant Charlton McIlwain’s Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter.

Much is said about the '1970s Homebrew Club pioneer' mythology (attended by Wozniak, Jobs, Gates et al), but McIlwain seeks to document the forgotten, or more insidiously, ignored rich history of African American innovation in the early days of personal computing.

What's clear from the book is that tech was a hostile space for African Americans from the outset, and no sooner had technology been invented it was utilised as a tool to oppress or over police minoritised communities. This is evidenced most famously by the Simulmatics company in the 1960s and 1970s, who sought to 'model' the African American population by reduce population characteristics into racialised descriptors stored in databases.

These data were then sold to law enforcement and touted to political parties as political indicators with propensity voting scores. The story of Simulmatics' interaction is told refreshingly from the perspective of the subjects of their data collection and is positioned as an invasive orientalist-esque, techno-anthropological endeavour. For more reading Jill Lepore does an excellent job in documenting just how problematic Simulmatics' data collection was and the deleterious downstream effects this had on the African American population story in her book, If Then.

During the early days of the networked computing revolution, black innovators saw the potential for culture to transcend into the networked space - beyond the standard bulletin boards - before any other user base. Parallels can be drawn with how Black content creators' work is appropriated by the wider TikTok user base today.

The prevailing narrative that early days of Silicon Valley was shaped by a privileged few is patently untrue at best. Black designers and engineers were key to the adoption and innovation of the new and emerging technology - despite the backdrop of the civil rights movement and racial discrimination.

Efforts to improve representation in the software industry may seem like a modern phenomenon, but this has been an on-going struggle as old as the industry itself. Kamal Al-Mansour, an ex Nasa engineer founded AfroLink software in 1988 (yes, 1988) to improve representation in and better access to the software industry for African Americans and diaspora by creating interactive software published in multiple languages. As far as I know, Kamal published the first digital Quran in 1993. A true pioneer to whom we owe a great deal.

I would urge any technologist, or anyone involved in the industry to read the book to furnish a more accurate understanding of how the industry was shaped. At the very least to draw parallels from the early days of computing to the dire state of representation in the industry we see today. Highly recommended.

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