In fall 2020 I taught a new course, Black Mirror: Race, Technology, and Justice, with generous support of Princeton’s Council on Science and Technology. From everyday apps to complex algorithms, technology has the potential to hide, speed, and even deepen discrimination, while appearing neutral and even benevolent when compared to discriminatory practices of a previous era. In this course, students explored a range of discriminatory designs that encode inequity: by explicitly amplifying racial hierarchies, by ignoring but thereby replicating social divisions, or by aiming to fix racial bias but ultimately doing quite the opposite. Black Mirror guided participants into the world of biased bots, altruistic algorithms, and their many entanglements, and provided conceptual tools to decode tech promises with historically and sociologically informed skepticism.

By integrating STEM literacy and racial literacy, the course contributes to the CST mission of “advancing STEM literacy across Princeton University and beyond” and ensuring “that all members of the Princeton University community, regardless of their background, experience, or discipline, can engage with, appreciate, and apply science in their everyday lives, in their careers, and in society.”

In particular, the course developed an interdisciplinary toolkit that equips students from across the university to address complex issues raised by emerging technologies.

The heart of the course was a practicum in which students met in teams each week to design a sociotechnical prototype that could be used to advance racial justice during the COVID-19 pandemic. Drawing upon a broad notion of “technology” as a tool that can be used to mediate social and material relationships, each group created speculative intervention that challenges existing forms of racial inequity and injustice in one of four broad areas: housing, work, education, or immigration.

The housing team developed the M.A.P (Mutual Aid Project), which combines a tool for tenants to share resources and map the behavior of landlords. The work team created the Essential Stories Network, an app that allows essential workers to share their stories, call attention to exploitative labor conditions, and draw upon needed resources like legal aid. The education team developed the Learning Connective, which is a program that addresses inequities in the public school system by incorporating a mix of tailored learning and random assignment where students have a genuine say in the curriculum. The immigration team created the Digital Underground, which is a gaming app on one level and a counter-surveillance system that allows people who are undocumented to track the movements of ICE officials.

Thanks to CST grant support, course participants were able to engage a number of leading thinkers who visited the course as guest speakers: Ria Kalluri (AI researcher at Stanford), Sasha Constanza- Chock (author of Design Justice), Lauren Klein (coauthor of Data Feminism), Nettrice Gaskins (author of Technovernacular Creativity & Innovation).

Throughout the semester, students applied concepts from course readings and guest speakers to their design projects. They had in-depth discussions about data privacy and justice, paid special attention to how their tools could, at once, protect the anonymity of vulnerable communities and allow people ot share their stories and experiences. The teams also developed ways to redistribute resources and decision-making power to those who are typically left out of design processes. On the final day of class, each team presented their projects and some of our course guest speakers returned to offer feedback in what was a lively closing discussion.

Artifact #1

The Digital Underground is an abolitionist app that enables the formation of a network of organizations and community partners to provide resources to undocumented immigrants. On its face, the app is a fun, accessible game akin to the popular “Subway Surfers.” However, through various access points including the North Star QR code and the Cactus de la Communidad, undocumented immigrants can access the underground layer, which offers redirection to established resources and to our Guerilla AI bots. The bots hijack PredPol to track and predict the location of ICE and local police officers, while also feeding misinformation about the whereabouts of targeted people. The overarching goal is to empower communities to fight against border surveillance by reimagining community support and retooling surveillance algorithms.

The Digital Underground is an abolitionist app

Credit: Masha Miura, immigration team

Artifact #2
For the final written assignment (a public-facing document), Morgan Smith created a fictional magazine, CounterPublics, profiling the housing team’s M.A.P. platform.