The 19th-century roots of 21st-century digital racism

By Jenn Stroud Rossmann and B.R. Cohen lengthy Learn

Individuals’ introspective gaze isn’t what you’d name “unflinching.” The flinch, particularly from issues of race and racism, is form of our factor. However lately, even well-practiced flinchers have seen issues which are onerous to disregard.

We’ve observed new maps displaying local viral and thermal hot zones that traced the shadowy outlines of redlined neighborhoods from the century before. We’ve anxious that facial recognition technology fails to resolve Black and brown faces, perpetuating and refreshing historic patterns of erasure and exploitation. We noticed Jim Crow displaying up in biased algorithmic decision-making from housing to online shopping to law enforcement—The New Jim Code, in Ruha Benjamin’s phrasing. Digital redlining, as Safiya Noble put it. Even a brand new e-book, Your Computer is on Fire, begins with the recently-self-evident immediate that it’s “time to concentrate to the inequality, marginalization, and biases woven into our technological methods.”

Our modern considerations reveal a historical past following structural and systemic patterns, whether or not our networks transmit knowledge or folks and cargo. The digital bias we discover within the laptop age follows from the racist underpinnings of the sooner transcontinental community: the web is railroads. Addressing digital racism requires excavating that previous.


One rattling factor on high of one other

Regardless of the sense that historical past is one rattling factor after one other, the visible metaphor of a sequence is incorrect. It’s one rattling factor on high of one other. After we discover that railroad infrastructure supplied the language for telecommunications networks, even down to the word “online” itself, it isn’t a unusual analogy however an affiliation that binds the 2. After we discover a nation of easements and rights-of-way beside rails–land that had been secured forcibly and/or disingenuously throughout the continent–we acknowledge how twentieth-century fiber optic cables overlayed nineteenth-century telegraph traces. These are notices that the layer of digital networks is constructed on high of, not past, the steam-based ones.

The Germans have it proper. Their phrase for historical past is die Geschichte, which accommodates the phrase Schicht, which means layer. Extra broadly talking, historical past is a palimpsest: outdated texts stay buried beneath, faint or invisible. Technically talking, a palimpsest is reused parchment, materials that was so valuable that authors would erase and write over prior texts on the identical web page. Writing over outdated surfaces was sensible, simply as etching new layers onto older historical past is metaphorical. It suggests that each one writing occurs within the presence of different work. “The floor of the earth is smooth and impressible by the ft of males,” wrote Thoreau, “and so with the paths which the thoughts travels. How worn and dusty, then, have to be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of custom and conformity.”

The palimpsest metaphor is very attuned to the history of technology, giving us two methods to know who we’re in technological society. In a technique, it challenges surface-level triumphalist narratives by asking us to acknowledge how a lot new work is written alongside the grooves of prior work, serving to debunk the myth of the Great (usually white) Man Innovator. We educate engineers the place, in school, the palimpsest metaphor is vital as a result of it forces circumspection and humility, as we sit on the shoulders not simply of giants however of on a regular basis laborers. In a second manner, the palimpsest is about recognizing that some facets of the historical past of know-how are buried—”hidden figures” whose “untold tales” have to be disinterred.

Redressing twenty-first century struggles with digital racism means acknowledging its layers. And for the web, which means going again to the economic revolution and to the trains and wires that undergirded it.

Begin by appreciating the distinctly racialized historical past of the railroad within the 1800s. In India, British Imperialists strung telegraph traces first, then constructed the rails to comply with so communication management would result in territorial management. They did a lot the identical in southern Africa. In North America, the rail supplied a substrate for the USA’ colonial conquest—Manifest Future—with telegraphs threaded alongside for measures of security, communication, and management. When rail magnates constructed new paths to the west, massive practice depots discovered their houses in outdated cattle cities, Kansas Metropolis, Topeka, Dallas, which means the rail community sat on high of the agrarian motion of animals earlier than. Even then, these have been networks written onto networks.

Simply as we moderns glorify the almighty app and overestimate our tech titans, the heroism of the nineteenth century rail was written into the template of American cultural identification in ways in which obscured the deeper traces of marginalized labor and inequality.


The central chapter of this hagiography was the completion of the transcontinental railroad. You might recall from outdated highschool exams that it was rail tycoon Leland Stanford who positioned the ultimate spike in Promontory, Utah, in 1869, finishing the promise of continental growth. It linked rails laid by Chinese language, Irish, Black, and Native laborers, some of whom have been protesting their work circumstances on the time, a growth little famous within the Utah hype. Electrified telegraph wire broadcast the hammer strikes driving the ultimate spike into place, although Stanford himself swung and missed, leaving one other nameless employee to finish the job. A one-word telegram, “finished,” adopted to alert the nation.

This triumphalist story of Peak Manifest Future minimizes and overwrites the employees whose labor was invisible—these highschool exams middle the spike, not the employees, and whereas Black Pullman porters serving white passengers have been seen, Black laborers, brakemen, and fire men were not. The surface-level story additionally hides the narrative of those that have been displaced from the land newly crisscrossed with know-how. The metaphor of burial is literal, too, of course: hundreds of deaths alongside these rail traces left laborers—specters of conquest and technological “progress”—buried beneath. One of the enduring photos of the period illustrated its slogan, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Method,” as a palimpsest. The “civilizing” railroad attracts our eyes to the industrious bustle of a rail city, because the scene to the best reveals what’s being written over. Frances Flora Bond Palmer’s extensively reprinted picture averted subtlety: the locomotive’s smoke blows instantly into the faces of an Indigenous duo on horseback.

[Illustration: Currier and Ives/National Gallery of Art]

American technological colonialism supplied the grooves into which new methods have been etched. Racial oppression was half and parcel of the railroad’s growth. These etchings have been worn in even deeper within the transfer from mechanical to digital.

From Alexander Graham Bell to TikTok

Contemplate the present telecommunications big American Phone & Telegraph, which coalesced in Eighties from the corporate Alexander Graham Bell had based. Then suppose of Bell’s different long-lasting legacy, Bell Laboratories, the near-mythic R&D mecca based within the Nineteen Twenties that gave us the laser and the transistor—a germanium semiconductor and mid-century artifact co-invented by William Shockley—and earned 9 Nobel prizes. Within the Fifties, with one of these Nobels in hand, Shockley absconded for California with a workforce of engineering all-stars the place they moved one row up the periodic desk to semi-conduct with silicon as an alternative. That shift in alternative of metalloid would beget the eponymous valley.

Mannequin of Alexander Graham Bell’s first phone [Photo: Daderot/Wikimedia Commons]

Issues then moved shortly on high of networks laid the century earlier than, in ways in which wrote into Silicon Valley a template to maneuver quick and break issues. Shockley’s star recruit, Robert Noyce, quickly defected with a gaggle of cohorts to start out their very own firm, Fairchild Semiconductor. So many new corporations then splintered off from Fairchild—one of them being Noyce’s Built-in Electronics, often known as Intel—that onlookers referred to as them Fairchildren. Their early success got here principally from tax-payer funded authorities contracts, although the parable of their success carried a libertarian streak. Just like the rail tycoons whose success adopted from authorities land grants and navy escorts, the Fairchildren in some way erased social reminiscence of the big public funding that made their personal fortunes doable. In each circumstances, the romanticized notion of the individualist innovator buried the general public stake together with the hidden figures. It’s an erasure historian Nathan Ensmenger factors to as central to the mythos of at this time’s “tech” tradition as he explains how Amazon and twenty-first century digital companies dwell on the backs of materials networks constructed way back.

The proximity of Silicon Valley to Stanford College wasn’t a fluke. The Palo Alto college was based with swing-and-a-miss Leland Stanford’s cash. Railroads didn’t simply overwrite networks with telegraphs after which telephones. Rail cash additionally underwrote Stanford College, which incubated so many of the Fairchildren’s kids and performed a vital position stitching collectively the community of networks that grew to become an inter-network merely referred to as The Web.

Statue of a household group at Stanford College, ca.1900. [Photo: University of Southern California. Libraries and /California Historical Society/Wikimedia Commons]

Among the many college at Stanford was one William Shockley, who started instructing after his staff had defected. Shockley himself held virulent racist beliefs, a racism that may’t be bracketed off and held aside from (or overwritten by) his technological advances: it stays buried within the tradition of methods he helped construct, simply because it was baked into the frameworks he adopted. (At Wired, Scott Rosenberg asks of problematic dot-com tradition: Is it all Shockley’s fault?) And, together with these of Fred Terman, his eugenics-tinged classes helped educate future engineers and tech moguls at Leland Stanford’s college. Seeing their widespread historic membership, Ingrid Burrington notes in The Atlantic how haunted the digital layer is by the mechanical one, how “searching for community infrastructure in America is actually [looking for] ghosts.”

Technological colonialism isn’t previously; it’s underneath our ft. Thus, after we log onto the community we’re leaping on the tracks. Extra to the purpose, after we uncover racist buildings in what was as soon as cheerfully referred to as the data superhighway, we acknowledge our place in a many-layered historical past. The fashionable options of web communication have been constructed within the grooves of railroad networks, financially, intellectually, and even bodily.

A company acquisition by T-Cellular simply final yr gave us an archaeological probability to see these grooves uncovered after which re-inscribed. T-Cellular is a telecommunications big descended from German postal networks. It sought to raised compete with its two largest rivals, AT&T and Verizon, by subsuming Dash in April 2020. On this transaction, clients not solely misplaced the prospect for extra yellow-hued adverts; additionally they misplaced a key connection to the methods fashionable technological methods overlap and overwrite themselves. The finish of Dash obscured a bit of historical past by scrawling over it in T-Cellular fuchsia. In the meantime, The New York Occasions proclaimed that a new wireless giant was born, mythologizing as “new” “born” an trade that was merely the topmost layer in der Geschichte.

That erasure was not incidental to the palimpsest. Dash’s origins have been in steam-age networks. For a century, the Southern Pacific Railroad leveraged its taxpayer-supported land holdings, with rights-of-way alongside its tracks. In an effort to jot down one other layer into its historical past, the SPR buried microwave traces to construct newer high-speed communication paths that adopted the trains. This grew to become a newly named grid. They referred to as it Southern Pacific Railroad Internal Networking Telephony, which morphed into its Nineteen Seventies acronym SPRINT.

There are extra items that introduced us from the telegraph to the semiconductor—and from there to microprocessors and microchips and motherboards and dial-up and wi-fi and TikTok. However, whereas the trail wasn’t pre-ordained, it was that with least resistance, as “the ruts of custom and conformity” supplied the framework, strategies, and inequalities that made later developments doable. And so the web is railroads: it’s the resemblance, the resonance, and the racism. The community wrote over its prior iteration. By disinterring this historical past, we might reveal each what’s been buried and how one can construct one thing actually new.


It’s doable that work of disinterment is gaining traction, as 2020 was not solely a yr for appraisal of the layered buildings of historical past however, aptly, a yr of clarified imaginative and prescient. Individuals grappled with the historic roots of racial injustice, wanting again by way of Jim Crow and redlining and slavery itself to know disproportionate impacts of viruses, policing, biased algorithms, and local weather change on traditionally marginalized populations. It was a yr of digging as a lot as reckoning. It won’t have taken so lengthy, however for the persistence of a mythology bent on valorizing the progress of the smoke whereas retaining these coughing up toxins out of view within the nook. Or buried beneath. “Most Individuals have by no means heard of settler colonialism, a lot much less used it to explain their nation,” writes novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen. “That’s as a result of Individuals favor to name settler colonialism the American dream.” In Priya Satia’s terms, we’re “hostage to fable.”

One such tall story of white heroism was the Underground Railroad which was itself, to make use of Kathryn Schulz’s phrase, “not fairly a fable, however mythologized.” At its daybreak, the rail’s cultural which means was so outstanding, so taken as given, that it gave rise to its personal metaphors. An “underground” railroad can be hidden, buried, invisible. Harriet Tubman and her collaborators knew what they have been doing.

So did Colson Whitehead within the narrative option to materialize the metaphor in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. In The Underground Railroad, a personality marveling on the ingenuity of the bodily system wonders who might have constructed it. A station agent drily replies, “who builds anything in this country?” The unstated reply: enslaved folks whose labor powered industries, whose work made financial prowess doable for different Individuals. Whitehead makes slavery itself a machine: “It was an engine that didn’t cease, its hungry boiler fed with blood.” “The ruthless engine of cotton required its gas of African our bodies … The pistons of this engine moved with out relent.”

Beneath the shiny newness

The twenty-first century digital economic system isn’t such a clear break from previous technological eras; it’s constructed not past however merely on high of the sooner networks. Issues will not be so novel because the disruptors, the would-be Nice Males, would have us imagine. AT&T and Dash each carry inside them the twin communication-transportation nexus of their origins. To cinch the purpose, the historian Nathan Ensmenger’s map illustrates the overlay of the NSFNet (the early web) on high of the Southern Pacific Railroad paths. Not proven but in addition current are knowledge facilities housed in small cities like Council Bluffs, Iowa, as Burrington explains, an in any other case odd alternative however for the truth that it was the jap terminus of the Union Pacific Railroad. It was at all times thus.

[Image: courtesy of Nathan Ensmenger]

The racism undergirding the rail networks is the racism inside digital bias. It performs out in each senses of the palimpsest as one thing buried beneath and as allowing at this time’s tech gurus to be celebrated and rewarded primarily for being the latest so as to add a layer. With trains, it was the labor that constructed the community, the employees alongside the traces, and the peoples displaced and killed alongside the best way; with the web, it’s likewise the labor that’s gone into constructing the networks in addition to the types of discrimination constructed into the construction by code and algorithms.

To the labor level, we shouldn’t have to attend fifty years to study in regards to the Black ladies whose calculations permitted NASA’s Mercury 7 to grow to be nationwide heroes, however who stay best-known as “Hidden.” Nor to “uncover” a long time later that “Latina/o info staff have been important to the telecommunications trade because the Nineteen Seventies,” as Pleasure Rankin explains. Nor to dig up contributions of Black laptop networking and coding pioneers, described in Charlton McIlwain’s Black Software: contributions which were buried underneath the dominant narrative of younger white males tinkering in garages.

To the structural level, after we speak about systemic racism, that is it: these are the methods. Nineteenth century infrastructural commitments and acts of burial lie in wait as we confront the racist dynamics of the age of coding, algorithms, and social media. Erasures, we name them, when writers take the pink finish of their pencils to rub out the markings of the previous.

After we fixate on shiny newness, we neglect to contemplate the folks, occasions, context, and values of historical past in deeper layers of the palimpsest. Sure, to echo a standard chorus, STEM college students ought to study STEM historical past, however they have to additionally reckon with the embedded, encoded values in technologically layered historical past. It’s unlikely you’ll suppose to construct an anti-racist social community, for instance, should you don’t respect how deeply entrenched racist values are within the present ones.

Thoreau’s ruts recommend a rigidity level: the deepened grooves of custom and conformity are the tales we hold telling—the parable that nice white males constructed this world, for instance; the parable that ours is an period far past (not simply atop) prior ones—however we will beat a brand new path by appreciating the palimpsest and recognizing the buried particulars.

It’s, of course, a troublesome path. Final yr, we have been reminded that those that reveal that which has been hid will not be rewarded for his or her efforts when Google pressured out its lead AI ethicist, Timnit Gebru, apparently for working on AI ethics. Huge tech is as comfy in its well-established ruts as huge rail earlier than it: too many baronic bros are detached to the labor circumstances of their staff, and to the broader impacts of their work. Huge tech, that’s to say, flinched. However with out such revelation, exclusion, overwriting, and erasure stay the default. To progress towards justice, we should excavate and dismantle these buildings that depend on and perpetuate racism.

Jenn Stroud Rossmann, a professor of mechanical engineering at Lafayette School, writes the essay sequence “An Engineer Reads a Novel” for Public Books. She can also be the creator of the novel The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh (7.13 Books, 2018) and the coauthor of the textbooks Continuum Mechanics for Engineers: 4th Edition (Routledge, 2020) and Introduction to Engineering Mechanics: A Continuum Approach (CRC Press, 2015).