On the afternoon of Friday, Dec. 4, students and faculty members gathered in PAC 001 to participate in a discussion titled “Racism, Technology, and Social Protest: A Community Dialogue.” The aim of the discussion was to foster dialogue surrounding the applications and implications of technology in social justice movements, both historical and more recent. Two professors, both of whose areas of expertise center on the use of technology in sociocultural theory, facilitated the discussion.
Anthony Ryan Hatch is an Assistant Professor of Science and Society who has most recently written about food politics and critical race theory. Jennifer Tucker is an Associate Professor of History, Associate Professor of the Environmental Studies Program, Associate Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and Associate Professor of Science and Society.
“Professor Tucker and I, along with our colleagues in the Science in Society Program, examine the complex ways in which sciences and technologies emerge within and actively shape knowledges, cultures, economies, polities, societies…” Hatch wrote in an email to The Argus. “We see questions of freedom and social justice as central to this field given the pivotal role that sciences, technologies, and knowledge have played in structuring our societies, and in our imaginings of future, perhaps more egalitarian, worlds.”
Hatch began by playing the music video for “Police State,” by Dead Prez, which uses video footage and audio recording of state violence, social protests, and historic speeches to demonstrate the vast inequalities faced by marginalized groups throughout the country and the world-at-large.
From here, he segued into an introduction of critical race theory. He offered a host of definitions for the discipline. He emphasized the activist component of critical race theory as one of its defining characteristics.
“Critical race theories aren’t just a means for analyzing racism; they are a form of intellectual activism that aims to identify pressure points for anti-racism struggle and serves to challenge racism through ongoing analysis,” Hatch said. “It’s not just an analysis, it’s an analysis that [exists] in service of practice, in service of ongoing struggle of racist [practices].”
In addition to critical race theories, science and technology studies examine the role that technology plays in social movements. The advents of television, radio, film, and other forms of media have shaped and continue to shape the ways in which anti-racism struggles are viewed by the world. One early use of technology to further a social cause occurred in response to the killing of Emmett Till in 1964, where photos of his beaten and bloody body were placed on display for the world to see in Jet magazine.
“It was very important to see [the brutality faced by Till], and here the media technology was used to distribute these ideas,” Hatch said.
Then Hatch moved into the uses of technology in anti-racism protests with which many students and Americans have become familiar.
His final point concerned the surveillance applications of ever-advancing technology. He referenced CitiWatch, a program that set up monitoring cameras throughout the city, from which thousands of arrests have emerged.
He also acknowledged that surveillance technology is a double-edged sword. Though movements like Black Lives Matters have the potential to be impeded by social media surveillance, the very same technology is integral to its organization.
With that final statement, Hatch turned the stage over to Tucker, who opened with a call for questions.
“[I want to] see the questions that you all have at the outset…[and find] out how you’re all thinking about technology and its relationships to campus,” Tucker said.
One student addressed the unequal distribution of technology and how that affects one’s access to knowledge of social justice movements. Another discussed the relative exclusion of black women, who have been much of the driving force behind the Black Lives Matters movement, in mainstream media discussion.
Julia Gordon ’18 posed one overarching question relating to how this knowledge can be translated back into productive thought and action.
“What questions should we be posing to answer later on?” Gordon said.
With that question, Tucker launched into a discussion of the use of visual technology, particularly photography, in the documentation of social movements.
Today, the multitude of photographic and video evidence has led to some debate over what is appropriate to share with the public as well as who owns certain pieces of information. One such example of this is the use of dashcam videos, which recently made headlines again with the release of a video showing police shooting Ronald Johnson to death in late 2014.
“There’s a time delay and also not all the images go viral, though some of them do,” Tucker said. “That was the video of Ronald Johnson. And that was a dashcam video…which was recently released after a judge ordered it be made public, which sparked outrage and protests. Actually, the courtroom use of dashcam videos is not a decided issue.”
There is still a fraught relationship between theory and practice, as evidenced by the contested media presence in anti-racism protests at the University of Missouri. She concluded by noting that the evolution of media in social protests is a learning process.
“We’re living in this moment, we’re studying social movements,” Tucker said. “How can we think critically about social movements now, [and] learn from the past?”
Following the discussion, Gordon posed a potential answer to her earlier question.
“Examining the relationship between race/racism and technology is especially relevant and important at this time, given how instrumental technology, specifically social media, has been in connecting but also alienating people in the face of sociopolitical movements such as Black Lives Matter,” Gordon wrote in an email to The Argus.
Hatch also sees great value in connecting the theoretical framework with real events at the University and the greater world.
“I think that having such discussions is critically important for a handful of reasons,” Hatch wrote. “Freedom movements have taken shape on university campuses partly in response to unequal conditions in university and intellectual life, but mostly in the context of unjust conditions in broader societies. It is important for students, professors, and other University staff members to exchange ideas about how we can work together to foster a better world for each other. For students, who represent the next generation of civil and human rights leaders, it is important that they understand the role that technologies have played in freedom movements historically and begin to think through how technologies will shape both current and future movements.”