Imagining Technology Beyond Silicon Places

As Black and non-Black people of color in America, making tech often isolates us from our communities, but I think tech-making should be a community thing, accessible to all spectrum of abilities, languages, modes of engagement, classes, races, ethnicities, ages, and more. As with anything in tech, this is a reflection and amplification of systemic injustices at large. Isolation from resources is at the core of the power of segregation.

There are places in our communities that resist though. The myriad family units. Churches. Mosques. The block. In fact, any fam/church/mosque/block should be able to build and nurture the resources they need to thrive as a collective. I shouldn’t have to be bused across the city to get a good education and I shouldn’t have to travel to Silicon Valley to find great tech.

Also, I think tech is evolving from a particular way of being that is incongruous with 90% of the world. Artifacts of our technology today are almost always weaponized or used as tools of mass surveillance, and we tax the earth with our e-waste. There has to be a radically sustainable way to build and destroy tech.

There are places outside of ‘the tech industry’ where these ways are emerging. At Woelab, in Togo, inventors have created a 3D printer entirely from e-waste. In Nnedi Okorafor’s delightful YA novel, Zahrah the Windseeker, a society of West Africans have integrated tech into plant life.

Ultimately, the ways we can transform tech lie outside of tech and don’t look like tech at all. The languages and interfaces we need to do this will come from our existing communities and should be allowed to grow organically from those spaces.

Community-nurtured tech has its advantages. Tech-making, for me and for many founders can be lonely. And there’s the tedium. But, I’ve found that community is tedium’s antidote, especially in tech where pushing pixels and slinging code can get reaaaaally frustrating.

We’ve heard of (and hopefully deaded) the myth of the 10x programmer. One thing I don’t often see in these conversations is how normative, white male culture allows these programmers to flourish. From the idioms that find their way into the code, to the culturally specific gifs, all of it happens in a space and culture that allows a certain kind of programmer to thrive.

But I think that everyone of us should be able to manipulate computers. I think my mother should be able to tell a computer to download all the Nigerian Christian choir videos on the internet on her own. I think she should be able to create an interface that lets her to do this that makes sense to her because none of these smartphones currently allow for that.

This can’t happen the way tech currently comes to us. My communities are currently reacting to tech, consuming it, being consumed by it, struggling to prevent it from eating all our resources. It’s not enough to uproot us and plant us in a monoculture of tech that alienates us from our upbringings and ways of knowing. We need a radical ownership of our tech that can thrive autonomously.

When our communities are owners of their tech pipelines, the ways we innovate and scale and talk about innovation and scale look different. Specifically, we would organically create anti-capitalist ways to design and make tech. Tech that doesn’t need to scale as much as it needs to heal and connect. Tech-making that is a consequence of our various love languages.

This kind of tech-making already exists, but it doesn’t look like what we’ve come to know as tech. I don’t have to look far to find it either. I get clues from how my parents and their generation use tech. More clues can be found in the how: how we share/spread/use these tools in our communities. This is the life of the margins. We’re constantly hacking systems that were not designed for us in order to the make them work for us. We ‘queer’ technology and hack norms in order to thrive. Eventually it becomes cool, and corporations package it for resale, but initially it’s just another way we survive.

We need many more different ways to tech. Many, many more. You need a way to tech, I need a way to tech, your mama needs a way to tech, your grandmamas need ways to tech, and your Uncle JJ, too.

You get the picture. Back to work!