Many of the tropes of Western modernity uphold a binary between race and technology, framing them within a civilization narrative that “naturalizes” racialized bodies as a contradistinction to “cultured” technological modernity. Using historical examples and science fiction, literary scholar Louis Chude-Sokei collapses this oppositional model by foregrounding their mutually configured conceptualization.
Western modernity, indeed much of Western culture has been predicated on a binary separation between race and technology. In this dualism, the former is hyper-organic and primitive, and the latter inorganic and hyper-rational; where the former is the alleged source of rhythm, sex, and the body, the latter affirms abstraction, industry, and its complex methods of representation. This admittedly simplistic opposition belies or betrays much. For one thing, each side of the binary has always been dependent on the other for the contrast, which produces meaning as well as for those relationships of power that materialize meaning. For another, this dependence invites intimacy: after all, technology is as productive of race as race is desirous of technology.
This collusion between the two regimes of knowledge is particularly salient in the nineteenth century. That is when our contemporary understanding of race and technology were stabilized after having been forged in the crucible of the biological sciences, urbanization, and imperial expansion. And two of the most pressing concerns in the trans-Atlantic world of that time ‒ crucial to establishing how the separation between race and technology becomes naturalized ‒ were industrialism and slavery.
Yet those oppositions would simultaneously blend, beginning a process that can be traced via a series of distinct technologies. First, the slave ship, which on the one hand denatured black slaves while expanding the material bounds and needs of modernity, as well as its conceptual and social possibilities; second, the plantation, what Caribbean thinkers from CLR James to Antonio Benitez Rojo and Sylvia Wynter have proclaimed central to the construction of regimented, modern subjectivities in advance of industrial processes; and, thirdly in America, the cotton gin, which helped engineer the industrial revolution while entrenching slavery via those very industrial processes.
As the aforementioned thinkers have claimed or suggested, these “machines” were creolized by their products, as impacted by the presence of blacks as well as the racism that rendered them dependent on specifically African bodies. In their interaction with these machines, blacks were not negligible to their function and productivity. The history of innovation is also a history of attempts to modify technology in order to respond to the resistance of blacks as well as adapting or appropriating their own contributions to the development of these technologies. This is as true for how African traditions of agriculture impacted plantations as it is for how black sounds forced recording technologies to expand their possibilities.
Yet we must add to this ambiguity, this crisis of categories. We must add to what Caribbean poet Aimé Cesaire called “thingification.” Given that slaves were essentially prosthetics for a white, allegedly more rational intelligence and deemed incapable of reason, their status hovered in a zone between human, animal, and also machine.
It should then be no surprise to discover that in the evolution of technology one can find moments of fusion where race is either, grafted onto the machine or racial meanings used to render inorganic life as human. Understanding creolization as a process that occurs as much between races or cultural groups as it does between the putatively human and inhuman (or between human beings and different forms of technology) these fusions are inevitable. The value of race also becomes clear: those deemed marginal to technological development are ever deployed to provide a contrast for a fetishized newness (or modernity). And those who have been excluded from “the human” are ever evoked to give it value.
Race indeed haunts technology, and has always been there in how machines are embodied, from science fiction to cybernetics. Here a few examples that never grow mundane. The first comes from a nineteenth-century work often figured as one of the earliest articulations of the possibility of a sentient technology: Samuel Butler’s Erewhon: or, Over the Range (1872) and its precursor essay, “Darwin among the Machines” (1863). Not only is this where it is first argued that machines were too subject to evolutionary processes, but that upon achieving self-awareness would inevitably kill their masters. Thus begins the most reliable trope in Western Science Fiction: the machine uprising.
The term master was chosen carefully by Butler, colonialist as he was; because in his narrative not only are machines a subservient class, but their uprising is figured as historical comeuppance against their oppressors. Most importantly, Butler is careful to describe machines for the first time as a race. And in doing so describes them in the only language that made sense at the time, that which was available from the lexicon of chattel slavery.
This is perhaps why when Karel Capek introduces the word “robot” into the English language via his 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)—a neologism from the proto-Slavic root word robota, meaning hard work, drudgery, or slavery—it seemed so natural as to evade notice. The play is, like Erewhon, also about an uprising in which a servile, inhuman caste rise up and destroy humans (read: whites). It features abolitionists who attempt to liberate the machines that they call “brothers,” and turn them into wage laborers as well as give them voting rights. The robots are popular among missionaries, anarchists, and the Salvation Army until they create their own political movement. The makers counter via a “divide and conquer” strategy by making robots of different races, nationalities, and languages in the hopes that prejudice will keep them from organizing. This fails, the robots rise up, the makers are slaughtered, and the era of “the human” is proclaimed over.
One more example is worth noting—this from cybernetics itself. Its racial poetics and politics have gone utterly unmentioned, which to be fair is also the case with Erewhon and R.U.R. due to the faulty belief that race and technology operate in entirely distinct historical spheres. Consider Norbert Wiener’s 1954 text introducing the science of cybernetics, The Human Use of Human Beings. Throughout the text and in other works such as his 1950 presentation to the American Academy of Arts and the 1960 essay “Some Moral and Technical Consequences of Automation,” Wiener makes references to blacks, slavery, and racism. Race was central to his attempt to establish an ethics of cybernetics—that crucial development in the movement from robotics to Artificial Intelligence.
Because slavery haunted cybernetics as it did Butler and Capek; it was a profoundly human example of what must not be done with these new creations due to the moral crimes of what had already been done to blacks.
Though these examples feature conceptual and poetic transgressions of the binary between race and technology, creolization as a mode and methodology should not be seen to stop there. It is through the poetic that material relationships become renegotiated as, say, race is seen as now intrinsic to technology and technology is taken more seriously for how it operates in and through racism.
But these poetic transgressions suggest something far more crucial than the falsity of a dualism. They emphasize the historical contingency of the categories themselves, as it is the destiny of both to continually transform and transform each other. Rather than be fixed in historical configurations, race and technology inevitably escape our current frames of reference and become alien to our political and social hierarchies. That is where “the human” will always be found: mixing among or within those who’ve had to fight for the very designation.