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Ch 10: Race & Technology Field Notes Miscellaneous

Becoming Shapers of Change

                We want change to have an end goal. Even the language we use around change lends itself to sustaining this hopeful delusion: working towards a more ______ society, becoming a more ______ person, creating a world where ______ is no longer an issue. The problem isn’t the desire found in these visions of change, it is in the notion that eventually there is a place of rest from striving for them. Deep down, each of us hears the whisper that these future societies and selves aren’t necessarily ever going to manifest in a finished product; whether consciously or unconsciously, we know they will be something we will need to constantly work to attain and maintain.

                Whispers of truth are often pushed down by fearful needs for certainty, relief, and closure. We long for the places of rest found in the visions of the future. Though this all may sound dismal and depressing, I would argue that once we accept that change isn’t some static reward waiting in the future, then we can be more free to work towards sustainable and real change that is aware of how easy it is to lose ground. As Octavia Butler’s character Olamina in Parable of the Sower describes in her EarthSeed writings,

“God is Change…

A victim of God may,

Through learning adaption,

Become a partner of God,

A victim of God may,

Through forethought and planning,

Become a shaper of God.

Or a victim of God may,

Through shortsightedness and fear,

Remain God’s victim,

God’s plaything,

God’s prey.”

                Though a fictional religion, Butler’s descriptions of being a shaper or victim of change are anything but fiction. Her vision of change as both the force of life and destruction is incredibly pertinent to the conversations we are having around the future of technology, our society, and the post-pandemic university. As I considered the talks around tech and bias that we watched this week, I could see the forces of change at work and both the good and chaos that can be brought about based on who is behind it all.

                 In Joy Buolamwini’s talk on bias in algorithms we return to the idea I mentioned a few blogs back about the idea of tech not being an “empty container” like technology of the past. The very make up of our technology is filled with the ideas, backgrounds, desires, and lived experience of those who are writing the code and creating the algorithms. As Buolamwini points out, when those who are making the technology are (whether it is intentional or not) coming at programing and creating from a singular (read white and male) perspective, that shows up in the technology in ways that contribute to further oppression. Bulamwini proposes that in order to change this dynamic of built in discrimination, we have to start with the very make up of tech and purposefully include diverse voices, faces, experiences, etc.

                The difficultly in making these changes is that the forces behind instances like tech not picking up on dark faces and skin are benefiting from things being this way. Ruha Benjamin addresses this specifically in her talk “Pandemic, Policing, and Portals”: “Racism and related systems of domination are productive. Not in the sense of being good, but in their literal capacity to produce things of value to some even as they wreak havoc on others.” As is often brought up in conversations around antiracism and race, racism serves a purpose. It isn’t accidental; it is born of and has survived because of its ability to serve the purpose of those in power. So how do you change what is being maintained so ferociously by those who hold the power of change but who themselves are unwilling to?

                I found the hopefulness of Bulamwini and the practical steps of Benjamin in response to this question to be inspiring. That said, the idea of the stages of change came back to me as I considered the things that Benjamin said about all the change that has come about this last year out of the pandemic. As she points out, some of these issues were well know for a long time (stage of contemplation), but only now did they change when it served the purpose and pockets of those in charge (stage of action). Her proposal is that small groups of people creating small changes can help continue this surge of change out of the last year, but only if this change is “substantive” and not just “performance.”

                This idea of channeling the power of small substantive changes is intriguing. When Benjamin was discussing the changes occurring in her department at Princeton, it was interesting the way she talked about the feeling she got when she saw all the changes that were being presented for consideration. “They want everything!” was the spirit of what she knew people would read into the requests. And it is this energy that brings me right back to the hopeful delusion of an end goal when it comes to change. “We gave you this, we are already doing so much of that, why can’t you just be happy now?” is the message that goes with an end goal mentality of change. And the emotion behind this is often fear and discomfort with having to make change. By not being shapers of change, those who are resistive are becoming victims of it, all the while bringing down those who need it so desperately with them.

                 I don’t know how all of this should look in the post-pandemic university, but I know that we need to take with us the substantive change model that looks at change as a force to be maintained. In order to do this, I think there is a very long road ahead. When you are placed in a space of feeling there is no end, you can begin to fall into the depths of despair. We feel we need an end in sight to make it through the rough patches; the purpose that having an ‘end’ fulfills is it gives us hope for the future to be better. But what I am offering is the idea that we don’t need a vision of change that ends in utopia to have hope. Instead, hope comes from the possibility of positive ongoing change that makes us “partners of God” and “shapers of God” – basically, that makes us active participants instead of passive observers in the maintenance of positive change. Though the path is obviously not clear or easy, there is hope for the future of our society and our education, especially with people like Benjamin and Bulamwini leading the way.

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