Issue 13.3 - 14.1 | 2016 / Guest edited by Patrick Keilty and Leslie Regan Shade

A Future for Intersectional Black Feminist Technology Studies

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The New Scramble for Africa: An Intersectional Analysis of the IT Sector

In the new scramble for Africa’s resources, transnational information and communication industries are racing to control the minerals and land needed for their aggressive expansion and growth—an echo of earlier colonial pursuits by European nations looking to open new markets for cotton and revitalize depressed Western economies.[20] Neocolonial processes remain intact, particularly in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo. That nation’s history of Western plunder began a century and a half earlier, under the rule of King Leopold II of Belgium, when its rubber and ivory resources were extracted for the manufacture of tires and condoms destined for the sprawling automobile and leisure culture of the United States.[21]

Efforts to reclaim autonomy over the Congo and its natural-resource riches were led in part by the pan-Africanist Patrice Lumumba, whose opposition to Belgian and US control of the Congo resulted in his assassination in 1961. This was but one of many efforts to subdue and effectively put down Black liberation movements on the continent of Africa. The foreclosing of African anti-colonial movements by Western state powers was mirrored in the US government’s simultaneously enacted Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which systematically assassinated and jailed Black feminist and Black Power liberation and civil rights movement activists in the US from the 1960s to the 1980s. Many of these same strategies are being re-enacted in this historical moment under the USA Patriot Act. The North American activists targeted by COINTELPRO were seeking liberation from interlocking oppressions, and developed relationships of solidarity and mutual aid with many pan-Africanist movements. Since the 1940s, pan-Africanists had been actively engaging in conferences and knowledge production designed to unify the interests of oppressed peoples directly affected by imperialist projects around the globe. This is an important intellectual lineage from which intersectional feminist critiques and activism emerged, their origins evident in the statement issued in 1945 from the Fifth Pan-African Conference:

We condemn the monopoly of capital and the rule of private wealth and industry for profit alone. We welcome economic democracy as the only real democracy. Therefore we shall complain, appeal and we will make the world listen to the facts of our condition. We will fight every way we can for freedom, democracy and social betterment.[22]

These intellectual linkages of critique and resistance demonstrate the connection between colonial projects of the past to the neocolonial, transnational, and neoliberal projects of the contemporary moment. Indeed, the neocolonial projects that fuel extraction industries (and their concomitant environmental and human catastrophes) in places like the Congo today persist in a historical trajectory of global capital’s thirst for expansion at the expense of Black life. Pádraig Carmody details the colonial quest for rubber and ivory in the Congo that led to the slaughter of more than ten million people; Carmody estimates that another three to five million were killed from 1983 to 2003 in wars over minerals and the control of coltan.[23] Coltan, short for columbite-tantalite, is a mineral, more potent than steel which is needed for computers and electronics to release electrical charges in small capacitors.[24] Contemporary global communications infrastructure, including the internet and the billions of devices, appliances, electronics, and “things” connected to it, could not exist without cheap access to coltan. Nevertheless, the bloody “conflict mineral” wars over its control—the rape, violence, and loss of human life involved—are largely invisible byproducts to digital tech users in the West.

In the networked economy of resources needed for global communications infrastructure, Black lives are engaged in some of the most treacherous labor essential to the growth and proliferation of the internet. Capital’s organization in multi-tiered global supply chains[25] obfuscates the direct relationships between Black labor, child labor, civil war, rape, and a smartphone, laptop, or iPad. Electronics companies such as Google, Apple, Dell, Intel, Sony, Nokia, and Ericsson are heavily invested in the computer and electronics hardware manufacturing industries and need raw minerals such as coltan to produce components such as tantalum capacitors for microprocessor chips. But this labor is outsourced, and thus conveniently out of sight and out of mind, going to low-bidders who provide the cheapest labor under favorable neoliberal economic policies. These practices are consistent with other forms of racialized and outsourced internet labor, such as commercial content moderation for large internet companies.[26]

In a transnational and neoliberal context, such practices are not limited to sites located geographically outside the West. David Pellow and Lisa Sun-Hee Park have written a comprehensive study of the underside of Silicon Valley—touted as a panacea of innovation, wealth, and opportunity, when this is the reality only for a choice few.[27] Just as in other areas of the globe, the technology and communications industries headquartered in Silicon Valley achieve their capital accumulation at the expense of overuse and abuse of the environment, gross poverty, and health degradation as they rely on an invisible labor force of immigrants and others living in the transnational, racialized margins:

Power, privilege and wealth are relational, which often means that one person’s riches and leisure time are derived from another’s impoverishment and hard labor; one’s socioeconomic or racial/ethnic group’s access to safe, high-salary jobs and clean neighborhoods is frequently linked to another group’s relegation to dangerous, low-wage occupations and environmentally contaminated communities. This is the essence of environmental racism and environmental injustice: ecological policies and practices are characterized by unfair treatment, discrimination, and oppression.[28]

Intersectional analysis makes these relational elements visible and allows us to trace the connections forged by inequities of wealth and power that bind local communities to others around the globe. Taking an intersectional approach to the internet and its infrastructure bridges the African diaspora, to help us see where and how oppressions are operationalized in similar ways and in the service of shared agents or shared motivations. The internet and its infrastructure are implicated in cases such as the recent public health crisis in Flint, Michigan, where state and corporate abuses, in the interest of multinational companies heavily invested in the technology sector, resulted in poisoned water supplies. The web is functioning as a site of online hyper-surveillance and trolling of Black activists engaged in the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the US and beyond. It is fundamental to Wall Street, where, through the mortgage crisis and Great Recession of 2008, information technology and the gamification of financial markets led to the largest decimation of Black wealth in the history of the United States. It is central to the oppressive working conditions facing Congolese laborers engaged in mineral extraction, in mineral wars, and in creating the greatest site of sexual violence in the world, according to the United Nations. It is evident in the toxic waste sites on the west coast of Africa, in Ghana, where e-waste is shipped in from the West and dumped, poisoning land, water, people, and environments.

These connections need to be made in order to understand the tradeoffs and true costs that come with the overemphasis, financially and in policy, on digital technologies and internet infrastructures. Communications scholar Robert Mejia has critiqued the multiple ways in which electronics and communications devices and infrastructures have material consequences with potent environmental impacts. He notes:

it is imperative that media and cultural studies scholars offer an account of how the 3.7 million gallons of water used per day by Intel in Hillsboro, Oregon, and the millions more used elsewhere, contribute to an ecology hospitable to infectious disease and its natural reservoirs… Knowing that an estimated 632,000 pounds of mercury were disposed of in United States’ landfills between 1997 and 2007, from just discarded personal computers alone, and that about 130 million cellphones are thrown away each year.[29]

The consequences of these ecological disasters are not equitably applied to everyone. The study of the materiality of the internet includes thinking through the specific contexts of who is affected by the social, environmental, economic, and policy arrangements of the digital.[30]

Intellectual investments in thinking of the internet and the digital as disembodied and ephemeral—as if they have no materiality—come at a great cost of erasure and denial. Jean-François Blanchette has written one of the most detailed critical accounts of the development of computing—including the ways in which information is processed, networks are developed and managed, and fiber infrastructure is built and maintained—in order to dislodge the idea that the internet and computing are immaterial or abstract.[31] An intersectional examination of the global information infrastructure underscores that it is predicated upon a complex, globalized, and fundamentally material economy of resource extraction and human labor, from Congolese labor to extract minerals, to Chinese labor working for poverty wages at Foxconn to make Apple’s iPhones, to the exclusion of African American labor from high-wage IT jobs in the United States, to Ghanaians sifting through electronic trash and toxic waste.

A Future for Intersectional Black Feminist Technology Studies

Technologies such as the internet and digitally enabled devices are never neutral and certainly never without consequence. A truer reckoning of how capital is organized in the interests of those who wield transnational power at the expense of Black life in the diaspora is an essential intervention and outcome of an intersectional approach to the study of the internet. Such an approach affords scholars a way of understanding and intervening upon the conditions of oppression by making global and historical linkages visible. Yet information and communication studies have been slow to apply an intersectional lens; for this reason, Black studies scholarship is particularly important and could serve as instructive to researchers in their pursuit of a more complete and accurate analysis. Where social construction of technology theorists explicitly name the political, social and economic dimensions of technologies as never value-free, they fail to identify how these practices are co-constituted in racialized and gendered ways that involve power and often foster and maintain systematic discrimination and oppression.

We need theoretical models that help us better understand the ways that technological practices[32] are intersectionally racialized and gendered.[33] We need to shed light on what is happening with our digital media and the internet, and denaturalize the idea that these “tools” are apolitical or without consequence. An intersectional approach can explicitly engage with the always-already concurrent existence of racism and sexism, rendering them visible as part of the social structures and economies fundamental to experiences in digital cultures, platforms, economies, and infrastructures. Taking up intersectionality affirms and is a response to Christian Fuchs’s call for a critical media and information studies that allows us to engage with digital technologies, social media, platforms, and global media as they intersect with capital, state policy, and global social formations, many of which are based in intersecting historical and contemporary patterns and practices of oppression. As Fuchs argues, we must have the tools to engage with and analyze various information and media as they affect, and are affected by, global capital and its attendant crises facilitated by the internet.[34] Intersectionality is a critical analytical framework that brings more nuance to the racialized and gendered dimensions of the political economy of the internet.

Here I invoke the work of Jemima Pierre, in her pan-Africanist analysis of the historical liberal separation of African Americans from the African diasporic politic that was previously concerned with “a reconceptualization of understandings of race from its global interconnected structural dimensions to more local concerns with the national integration.”[35] Pierre’s work on postcolonial Ghana is a wake-up call and powerful ethnography that traces the political economy of global Blackness. Her work is part of the through line that connects the interests of Black/African Americans to Africa, and I contend that these are the frameworks from Black studies that must be integrated with information and communications scholarship.

What we need is to keep sufficient feminist pressure on the development of technologies, in the context of material consequences that diminish any liberatory possibility. An intersectional approach to the internet and to digital studies widens the scope of analysis to include the the inequity of global development and the financialization and circulation of global capital that the internet both engenders and is supported by. It provides a point of entry to globalization, surveillance, control, and the power relations that are embedded within digital information and communication systems and infrastructures.

Rather than maintaining collective intellectual investments in the liberatory possibilities of the internet that ignore a broader accounting of the true cost of investment, an intersectional analysis, harkening to the Combahee River Collective, allows the bridging of historical, economic, and political agendas to the contemporary material realities of marginalized and oppressed peoples across the globe, and offers up a site of critique and the development of counternarratives to those in power. In this sense, intersectional critique provides liberatory potential for those who seek to understand power structures that control the lives of so many, among them, Black people across the diaspora.

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  1. Rodney, Babu and Harding, 1981; Pádraig Carmody, The New Scramble for Africa (Malden, Mass.: Polity Press, 2011). [Return to text]
  2. Mantz, J. (2008) Improvisational economies: Coltan production in the eastern Congo. Social Anthroplogy. 16(1), pp. 34-50. Rodney, Babu and Harding (1981). How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Washington D.C. Howard University Press. [Return to text]
  3. George Padmore, History of the Pan-African Congress: Colonial and Coloured Unity (London: Hammersmith Books, 1963). [Return to text]
  4. Carmody, P. (2011) The New Scramble for Africa. [Return to text]
  5. Karen Hayes and Richard Burge, Coltan Mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo: How Tanatalum-Using Industries Can Commit to the Reconstitution of the DRC (Cambridge: Fauna & Flora International, 2003). [Return to text]
  6. Fields, G., Territories of Profit. (Stanford, CA: Stanford Business Books, 2004). [Return to text]
  7. Roberts, “Commercial Content Moderation: Digital Laborers’ Dirty Work,” in Noble and Tynes, Intersectional Internet (2016a); Roberts, “Digital Refuse: Canadian Garbage, Commercial Content Moderation and the Global Circulation of Social Media’s Waste,” Wi: Journal of Mobile Media 10, no. 1 (2016b): 1–18. [Return to text]
  8. David N. Pellow and Lisa Sun-Hee Park, The Silicon Valley of Dreams: Environmental Injustice, Immigrant Workers, and the High-Tech Global Economy (New York: New York University Press, 2002). [Return to text]
  9. Ibid., 3. [Return to text]
  10. Robert Mejia, “The Epidemiology of Digital Infrastructure,” in Tynes and Noble, Intersectional Internet. [Return to text]
  11. Mél Hogan, “Data Flows and Water Woes: The Utah Data Center,” Big Data and Society 2, no. 2 (2015): 1–12. [Return to text]
  12. Jean-François Blanchette, “A Material History of Bits,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 62, no. 6 (2011): 1042–1057. [Return to text]
  13. Arnold Pacey, The Culture of Technology (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983); Langdon Winner, The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986). [Return to text]
  14. Noble and Brendesha M. Tynes, “Introduction,” The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Class and Culture Online, ed. Noble and Tynes, Digital Formations Series (New York: Peter Lang, 2016); Safiya Umoja Noble, “Google Search: Hyper-Visibility as a Means of Rendering Black Women and Girls Invisible,” InVisible Culture 19 (October 2013); Noble, “Trayvon, Race, Media and the Politics of Spectacle”. [Return to text]
  15. Christian Fuchs, Internet and Society: Social Theory in the Information Age (New York: Routledge, 2008). [Return to text]
  16. Jemima Pierre, The Predicament of Blackness: Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013: 195). [Return to text]