Toward a Liberatory Design: Safiya Umoja Noble and Ruha Benjamin’s Call to Action at the Intersection of Technology and Oppression

In explorations of the intersection between technology and societal structures, Safiya Umoja Noble and Ruha Benjamin emerge as crucial voices unveiling the deeply embedded issues of racism, discrimination, and oppressive systems within the digital landscape. A few key chapters from Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression and Benjamin’s Race After Technology provide their insights into the discriminatory designs that perpetuate racial hierarchies, gender biases, and power imbalances. We currently find ourselves at a critical juncture where technology and societal structures intersect. The revelations presented by these scholars force us to confront the uncomfortable reality that discriminatory designs are not accidental but deeply rooted in historical biases and power dynamics.

Chapter one of Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology comments on the way “social bias [is] embedded in technical artifacts” (53) and the ways in which discriminatory design and coded inequity is intimately related to “the broader context of racial classification and political oppression” (67). To act under the guise that technology is somehow separate from the cultural and institutionalized biases is thoughtless and allows its designers to escape accountability – as Benjamin states on page 61, “we must separate “intentionality” from its strictly negative connotation in the context of racist practices, and examine how aiming to “do good” can very well coexist with forms of malice and neglect”. That is to say, these systems do not exist in isolation and intent does not outweigh impact. 

There are many discriminatory designs or technological developments that exist in a gray area: the design of a new app or technology was created as a “public good” and its creation harkens back to harmful ideologies and biases because of the sociocultural context within which said design exists. This applies twice over to the contextual history of robots – as a way to, of course, discuss dehumanization and domination – and the racial and economic hierarchies that have loomed over humanity and influence the systems, institutions, and technologies that exist today. This example is driven home through the description of automated soap dispensers and predictive crime algorithms with concepts of hygiene being directly related to eugenics and racialized vocabulary (66). What Ruha Benjamin emphasizes throughout the “Engineered Inequity” chapter of this book is that despite developers and coders fighting vehemently against their designs being racist, the creation of a piece of technology into a system and context rife with biases and racialized dynamics makes it harder for that piece of technology to remain a part of anti-discriminatory design. This is what Benjamin calls the “New Jim Code”, a manifestation of discriminatory design where racist values and beliefs are built into the designs of technological systems. What we should be doing is being in conversation with technology to understand the ways in which the New Jim Code is reinforced and baked into its design, to hold it and ourselves accountable and responsible for potential biases and inequity, and think critically and intentionally about ways to rectify the harm that has been caused. 

Ruha Benjamin’s reflection on “design as a colonizing project” underscores the entirety of the chapter “Retooling Solidarity, Reimagining Justice” which addresses the prevalence of outlined examples of discriminatory designs and coded inequalities found within the rest of the text (176). At the heart of these designs and technologies, all manifestations of the New Jim Code, are the following methods: the impartiality of the design that rises above human subjectivity, its ability to provide personalization, the merit-based ranking system it applies to people, and it promises social progress within its enterprise (161). The combination of these four design implementations results in coded inequity being positioned as a site of profit and what we, as a society, should aspire to be. The result of this, however, are systems and designs that are unjust and replicate the oppressive systems of patriarchy, racism, capitalism, white supremacy, etc. Benjamin describes digital tools that are directly related to social justice and abolition, like the app Appolition that crowdfunds donations to acquire bail out money for those experiencing incarcerations. This is a direct contrast to the app Promise which is portrayed as a tool for social betterment but ultimately contributes to and upholds the prison-industrial complex. In both cases, I was most drawn to the perceptions of what design was versus the reality of design as a monopolized entity.

The field of design and the idea of design thinking prioritizes the knowledge economy which, in turn, silos knowledge and is “in sync with the maintenance of capitalism” (179). Earlier on the same page, Benjamin reflects on the ways in which design is prioritized and idealized over creativity and practice. On that same note, actual practice and implementation, and those who have provided labor to the creation of said designs, are often consumed and disregarded under that same “liberatory design.” Not only are the laborers disregarded, entire existing systems, ideas, and practices are consumed and disregarded as well. It creates an endless cycle that replicates many of the oppressive systems and infrastructures that it seeks to change and transform. And one of the ways that this vision of liberatory design can be actualized is if we decenter coloniality and Whiteness and center alternatives like Afrofuturism and other aesthetics and philosophies from diverse backgrounds of resistance, survival, and liberation.

Ruha Benjamin’s comments on discriminatory design, which she explored more deeply in relation to AI and the like, are mirrored in Safiya Umoja Noble’s research on search engine optimization. By drawing comparisons between the ways Black women and girls are perceived and socialized in society to narratives constructed and replicated by popular culture, “we can see the ways in which search engine technology replicates and instantiates these notions” (69). This is just one piece in a larger reflection on structural exploration, media stereotyping and sexualization, and the need for technological justice which Noble addresses throughout her study. Without deepening our understanding of the intricacies of the systems of oppression that exist in our society, and its implications and impacts for and on historically marginalized communities, we can never truly move forward in a purposeful and intentional way that minimizes harm and replicability.

Noble states, “The leading thinking about race online has been organized along either theories of racial formation or theories of hierarchical and structural White supremacy”(79). This should come as no surprise to anyone – we live in a white, capitalist, ableist, patriarchal, colonial society and the effects of it are both damning and normalized. The racism, colorism, classicism, misogyny, and misogynoir that people experience constantly in a society that upholds white supremacy, of course, manifests itself into the technological and digital sphere where “commodified forms of representation are being transacted on the web and…are not random or without meaning” (106). As Professor Vilna Bashi Treitler explains, you cannot exist in our current society without a race because we are a racialized society, with some groups being afforded more privileges while the others receive less and are constantly engaged in competition to receive more and deny others more privileges (79). Thus, the manifestations from our current reality translate over to the digital sphere and technological systems. 

As we grapple with the New Jim Code, it becomes evident that dismantling oppressive systems within technology requires not only critical awareness but also intentional efforts to decenter coloniality and prioritize diverse perspectives. The call to action is clear: we must engage in meaningful conversations with technology, holding it accountable for the biases it may perpetuate. Moving forward demands a collective commitment to dismantling the New Jim Code embedded in our technological landscape. By doing so, we lay the groundwork for a transformative shift towards a future where technology aligns with justice, equity, and the dismantling of systems that have historically marginalized and oppressed communities. The path to a technologically advanced future lies not only in innovation but also in the deliberate pursuit of justice and liberation.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Ruha. Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Polity Press, 2019.

Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. NYU Press, 2018.