by Codi Renee Blackmon
Black Software: The Internet and Racial Justice, From the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter by Charlton McIlwain begins with the question, “When will black lives really matter?” McIlwain’s work answers this question by making the argument that Black folks have always managed to enact their inherent belonging and expertise in the digital space beyond the opposition. In other words, Black folks have always had to work to make their own lives matter. The histories we’ve been taught are those of the colonizers, and the technologies we use are those of the privileged. Black Software provides the history and reality of technological oppression and resistance. Blending narrative and archival research, this book builds upon several interconnected threads of cultural rhetorics: digital spaces, racial justice, and activism. McIlwain chronicles Black America’s changing relationship with growing technology since the 1990s “computer boom.” Interweaving the history of computer science, print and digital archives, and personal interview transcripts, McIlwain narrates how Black people built diverse networks of Black activists, journalists, public officials, and a mass of anonymous Black strangers to distribute Black content in digital spaces. Addressing the need to inform and organize Black audiences, they manipulated algorithms to enhance public visibility and get attention to their racial justice causes. McIlwain’s Black Software proves Black people belong in tech, as they’ve long been using the digital toolkit to build digital communities. Many of these same digital tools help move forward today’s causes of racial justice.
McIlwain is joining a long line of scholars (Safiya Noble, Ruha Benjamin, Lisa Nakamura) who have examined the supposed objectivity of digital technologies. I classify Black Software as a Black study, unpacking and rewriting a more culturally informed historiography of information technology and online rhetoric. McIlwain’s book tells the story of Black racial justice as central to developing and using digital Internet systems. Black people’s relationship to the Internet and computing technology is what he calls “Black software.” This includes Black folks developing, building, and/or using the tech but also Black content and Black culture being represented in the Internet’s social development.
An early example of Black people working in technology to create Black software was the Universal Black Pages (UBP), developed in 1994 as the first Black-oriented Internet search directory. Prior, the categories and topics relating to the African diaspora did not exist on the Web, so creating those pages resulted in a greater presence of Black content and increased the number of Black people using the Internet. AfroNet (1980-1995), a network made up of self-trained African American dial-up hosts, is another example of Black people making their mark in cyberspace, a world that, even as it was being created, was already permeated by racism, anti-blackness, and white supremacy. In this new digital world that proved just as hostile as the real world, Black people began to find and cultivate safe spaces with each other (96-97).
Black Software also documents computer technology used to keep Black people at a disadvantage and destroy Black agency. One example of the latter is the CAD, the computer-aided dispatch, an algorithm used by police patrol units. McIlwain describes that the model, and therefore the police community, rated crimes with a ranking system that resulted in profiling Black people in certain areas. These types of Black software reveal that those in positions to do so—the power players within government, tech corporations, and educational institutions—have always wanted “to engineer national order” (194) in a way that disadvantages Black people.
The book is written in two parts. Book One tells how hobbyists, entrepreneurs, activists, and others formed the Vanguard, a group of Black people injecting Black folks, Black content, and Black culture into the early days of the Internet’s formation and growth, beginning in the ‘70s and ‘80s through the developments of the World Wide Web in the early 2000s. McIlwain curates personal stories and testimonies of Black technophiles like Derrick Brown, one of the first Black students to receive a degree in computer science and technology, or William Murrell, who experienced first-hand the harsh realities of racial discrimination in employment at International Business Machines (IBM) and later opened his own successful computer store in the ‘80s. At this time, IBM was publicizing efforts to recruit Black employees in response to the EEOC’s demand for equal opportunity, yet those jobs advertised to Black folks in the late ‘60s and ‘70s as part of IBM’s commitment to affirmative action were at the bottom of the ladder as technicians, not key science and engineering jobs in programming, research, and development.
Since the dawn of the computer, Black people have been strategically disadvantaged regarding computer technology. When science and engineering universities began designing and building computing systems, prestigious institutions, such as MIT, limited Black enrollment. As MIT and other elite science and engineering schools pioneered developments in computer software and networking systems and developed algorithms, these tools were not being designed by or for Black folks: “They were building the technologies and machines that would soon begin to govern the nation. And they did it with little care or concern for black people…” (55).
Readers of Black Software learn the history of the technological revolution through factual stories that weave through big tech names like IBM, ARPANET, MIT, and AOL; Black software developments such as Afrolink Software Inc., the Universal Black Pages, NetNoir, and Black Voices; and also student-led movements to fight racial discrimination, including the one that birthed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The Vanguard grew out of these Black pioneers in tech, wanting to create something which helped others like them. They were connected and spurred on by “a calming, central focus, which is Afrocentricity” (77).
Chapter Eight was particularly eye-opening. McIlwain tells of “The Battle for Black Cyberspace,” which was the struggle to attract Black people to the Web and provide digital spaces for Black users and content. Congresswoman Maxine Waters and the specially created exposé website Dark Alliance singlehandedly raised the Web’s profile among Black folks by publishing content uncovering the real story of a federal conspiracy to flood LA and every major Black urban community across the US with crack. This online outing of the US government’s complicity in damaging Black communities gained Black America’s attention, motivated the Black community to uplift, and rallied the Black Internet agenda.
Book Two talks about how white people sanctioned computing technology that kept Black America disproportionate and disadvantaged. Beginning in 1960 at MIT and continuing through the support of presidents, computing industry corporate titans, and science and engineering institutions, white supremacy was coded into computer systems. Governments across the globe began to use computer systems programmed to target citizens of color. The “Book of Life,” an IBM identity register, was essentially digital surveillance allowing government control of Black South African movements. In 1965, the Committeemen, members of the US government’s science and technology task force, pushed the purchase of billions of dollars worth of technology in the form of automated criminal justice information systems to quickly and radically transform court procedures, police work, and law enforcement. The CAD, such as Kansas City Police’s ALERT II system, turned Black people into abstract data for the criminal justice system. McIlwain’s treatment of this topic makes it clear that these technological advancements in law enforcement information systems were aimed to protect white American citizens from criminalized others.
In 2012, the Web, Facebook, Twitter, and other online platforms connected Black people and gave visibility to Black concerns, giving rise to a new wave of digital activism that began to combat this systemic oppression. McIlwain’s history book ends with such recent stories as Trayvon Martin’s and Mike Brown’s murders and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and how new digital media gives citizens, activists, organizers, and young people a way to counter the traditional images produced by Hollywood and mainstream news media. Black citizens armed with their cell phones now flood the Internet with a different narrative. Those who were portrayed as the most feared historically, Black people and Black men, in particular, are now shown as victims of police bias and violence, helping frame Black people as targets of a larger system, a disadvantage that led to today’s racial justice movement.
McIlwain’s archival work illustrates how throughout the history of digital technologies, Black people have always learned how to master technical worlds and make software to help each other, providing more culturally informed narratives to the history of the Internet. Even something as simple as putting their own Blackness and Black interests onto the Web in the 1990s and the 2000s was a radical act. Big names like Google became a dominant filter of information, where Black people, culture, knowledge, and businesses were not in the top search results. Thus, Black people’s visibility expanded on the Web, developed and spread by Black people making Black content and connecting with other Black Internet users and creators, even at a time when Black content was not on mainstream platforms and search engines and, therefore, Black people were not shown or highlighted on prominent tech forums.
Ending with recent developments in Web protests, notably #BlackLivesMatter and the social justice turn, McIlwain turns attention to a movement that solidifies and makes visible Black Liberation and Black people’s relationship to technology. We see this with the advent and proliferation of Black digital spaces such as Black Twitter and the prominence and success of hashtag activism, such as those associated with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, further illustrating the confluence of Black Liberation and Black tech. Rhetoric and composition studies have analyzed these intersections of cultural rhetorics, activism, and digital technology, so this book would be useful to rhetoric and composition scholars interested in knowing more about the hidden histories of digital spaces and social networking platforms and to those scholars interested in social justice, digital activism, and racial and cultural studies. Social justice issues have become increasingly relevant to technical and professional communication scholars, and McIlwain’s story of Black people as technological innovators and their various forms of digital expression is dedicated to “all those who labor in the struggle for racial justice.”
McIlwain, Charlton D. Black Software: The Internet and Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter. Oxford University Press, 2019.
About the Author
Codi Renee Blackmon (she/her/hers) is a second-year Ph.D. student in Rhetoric, Writing, and Professional Communication at East Carolina University. She earned her B.A. in English from the University of Texas at Arlington and her M.A. in Professional and Technical Writing from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She is most interested in digital cultural rhetorics, race and ethnicity, social justice, and Black technical and professional communication.
I offer gratitude to Dr. Charlton McIlwain and other Black scholars doing the work for the culture. I want to thank Dr. Erin Clark Frost and Steven Amador, who provided critical feedback and support at different stages of development. Thank you to the constellations editors who worked with me to achieve my first academic publication. To those who are not named but aided, listened to, and engaged in this book review, I offer gratitude.
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