Louis Chude-Sokei was born in Nigeria, grew up partly in the Caribbean and is now a university professor in the USA. As a literature and cultural studies scholar, his focus is on Black literature from West Africa, the Caribbean, North America and Europe. But having always been a fan of science fiction and music, he began to explore technology. His book Race und Technologie (Race and Technology) brings together several essays that he has written over the past years and that combine his various interests. Chude-Sokei writes in English, but in this form, the book is only available in German. It was published this year by August Verlag in translation by Utku Mogultay.
Chude-Sokei explores the historical connections between race and technology. He looks back to the time of the transatlantic trade in enslaved people and works his way through various historical stages to current issues surrounding artificial intelligence. Chude-Sokei believes that narratives that say technology is by and for white people are false. The story of technology also includes those for whom it was not intended. This academic volume of essays is far too dense and extensive for a short review to do it justice, so I’ll just highlight a few aspects here that particularly caught my eye, and then recommend that everyone take their own time to read this book, which touches on so many relevant topics of our time, and draws out historical connections.
Intriguingly, Chude-Sokei explains that the term robot derives from forced labor. In the early 20th century, the term first appeared in the play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek: the word was derived from the Slavic robota, meaning menial labor, or, essentially, slavery. The Czech writer probably had less in mind the former enslavement of Black people. But the robots in the play are exploited as cheap labor. And as during the times of enslavement, there is a debate about (the limits of) humanity in relation to technological developments today. Chude-Sokei asks, “How can we actually create synthetic bodies without reproducing the history of how we have habitually treated, studied, and classified other bodies in the past?” In so doing, he challenges what humans are capable of imagining.
People can imagine many things, but the danger is that old narratives are simply reproduced over and over again. The genre of science fiction, for example, developed out of colonial narratives in the 19th century. As Chude-Sokei points out, “science fiction thus did not condition race and slavery, but rather race and slavery made science fiction possible.” Colonialism was simply transplanted into outer space.
Chude-Sokei doesn’t want to reduce his reflections on race and technology to the connection between racism and technology. He refers to Caribbean thinkers such as Edouard Glissant, Wilson Harris and Sylvia Wynter, and he is interested in cultural mixing, creolization, an attitude that is open to change. Often this was a necessary attitude for Black communities due to mobility – partly forced (the trade in enslaved people), partly of their own volition (migration). Thus, cultural forms have intermingled, of which certain musical styles such as reggae, hip-hop, or techno are fitting examples. Black music has a lot to do with information processing and programming, which brings Chude-Sokei back to technology.
Race and Technology by Chude-Sokei is a thoroughly educational book that will surely engage readers for some time. I read it as an invitation that everyone should participate in current discussions about technology, and I especially appreciate Chude-Sokei’s emphasis on the relevance of humanities perspectives to technological discourse.
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