Since summertime is conference time, I wandered the halls of the Washington Hilton Hotel in mid-July taking in the atmosphere of the World Future Society conference. Futurists from around the world had ideas about the way education, economics, transportation, and even crime might be different in the 21st century — about the ways technology will transform everything from the way we communicate to the way we count.
Absent from much of the discussion was the future of race relations and the civil rights movement, and few had explored the question of whether technology will exacerbate or eliminate tension between African-Americans and others in society.
In casual conversation, some futurists shared that they think income, not race, will make more of a difference in the 21st century. People with money will have access to technology and to change, while those who have little money will have even less access.
That hit home for me when I shared a podium with a banker who asserted that “everybody” would bank by computer by the year 2000. With more than a third of white families having home computers, while just 10 percent of Black households and even fewer Latino households have them, exactly how is “everybody” going to bank by computer if “everybody” doesn’t have access to the technology? After some dialogue, the banker acknowledged that when he said “everybody” he really didn’t mean “everybody.” He meant “everybody who had enough money to afford a computer and therefore to add to a bank’s bottom line.”
Indeed, banks have tried their best to get away from serving customers with little money. The banks that used to offer cheap accounts for children have eliminated “kiddie accounts.” Automatic teller services, once encouraged, now often cost a dollar or so per use. Other banking services, once free, now often carry a fee. And “everybody” is going to bank by computer for yet another fee!
Of course, everybody could bank by computer if computers were more accessible. If, for example, computer stations were available at more public libraries, schools, and community centers, then some of those who can’t afford home computers could still have access to the Internet and other interactive services, and, perhaps, bank by mail. But the issue of access is not at the top of the list in terms of the new technology. Engineers are making computers faster and lighter, but ethicists are not involved in making computers more available to a broader range of people. And people are talking about policy in the broadest of terms, talking about “everybody” having access to a technology that many can simply not afford.
The ways the new technology will change our communications system is also interesting. When a ride was late a few weeks ago, I tried to track the driver down by walking to a pay phone to make a call. I was frostily informed by a rather myopic young woman that my trek to the pay phone was not necessary because “everybody” had a cellular telephone. To be sure, cellular telephones are incredibly common on the East Coast, but there are some people who have never seen a cell phone, much less owned one. Between the cell phone, beeper, computer, and pager, it is possible to “be in touch” with “everybody” at all times. We can get information, but few have focused on the quality of information. So skinheads and members of the militia can put recipes for making bombs on the Internet and instigate church burnings through electronic hate. But there is little communication that is a force for good, instead of a force for evil.
It has been posited that race will matter less in the electronic world. I’ve heard futurists suggest that if we do business on the Internet, you’ll be able to judge me on my competence, not my color. But it may take more than technology to break up some of the old-boy networks that are exclusionary. And we can’t hide behind technology and assume that it will solve a whole array of problems.
Indeed, technology might widen the gap between Black and white, have and have-not, instead of narrowing it — especially when the issue of access is considered. At the very least, African-American scholars and researchers need to begin to grapple with ways technology may reshape our futures. And we must begin to look at how the civil rights movement, affirmative action and other important issues change because of technology. We may want to ask if creative uses of technology can change some of the institutions that have come to dominate our society because of our lack of imagination.
For example, more dollars are now being spent constructing prisons than classrooms — more resources focused on warehousing people than on changing their lives. If technology is as powerful as we have been led to believe, how might we use it to reduce the size of the prison-industrial complex? Instead of locking people into jails, why can’t a bracelet or leg wire be used to restrict them to one or two rooms of their home. And if we want to lock young people up anywhere, why can’t we lock them in schools instead of in jails? But, as my grandma used to say, “It is too much like right” to use technology that way. Instead, we find technology being used to create jails that are so automated that inmates need not look at another person for days at a time.
As long as society is biased against African-Americans, the application of technology will reflect those biases. African-Americans have to be clear that technology is neither deity nor magic dust. It is a tool, like so many others, that can be used at society’s pleasure. Our future is not a function of technology, but of the principles that dictate the division of resources in this country. Right now, the principles dictate that the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and that issues concerning African-Americans should be ignored, not addressed. Technology won’t change those trends.
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