February 4 marked the first of five events meant to celebrate Black History Month. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, the speakers cannot be on campus but each Zoom meeting is open for registration. Coordinator Douglas Smith and the students at the African American Center for Academic Excellence (AACAE) have brought together the speakers this Black History Month with the theme of different methods of liberation.
“The theme is mapping routes of liberation with the idea that there are different routes for us individually or as a community,” Smith said.
The AACAE, in conjunction with Center Arts, puts together their monthly speakers each year largely through the efforts of members of their student staff, like Imari Washington.
“When we initially chose our guest speakers, we tried to choose individuals who we thought Black/African American students would benefit most from,” Washington said. “We are very big on supporting our students in personal development, mental well-being, and academic success at the center.”
The first of the month’s speakers was Dr. Safiya Noble, Associate professor at UCLA and author of the book “Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism.” Information technologies open worlds of information to people that may otherwise be out of reach, but as Noble states, these technologies do not develop in a vacuum, they contain the same biases as the people who created them. While they seem impartial and mathematical and separate from the personal bias of individual people, technology is still designed by people who themselves may have racist bias, or in the cases of algorithms like Google will begin to take on the racial bias that exists in society and in doing so reinforce it. As this technology has advanced, it has created new avenues for discrimination rather than providing liberation.
“We have more data and technology than ever,” Noble said. “And with it more social, political, and economic inequality and injustice to go with it.”
Along with containing all of their own biases, Noble says the over-focus on technology creates a situation where what would otherwise be public goods like libraries, open meeting places, or other public institutions are replaced by technology-based solutions, which are privately controlled by a single company and so are subject to any kind of change they see fit without any real avenue for public complaint other than speaking out against the service itself.
Noble says this tech can’t really fix social inequality on its own it’s just a tool, but they occupy so much of our world that they seem to leave no room for other avenues for finding solutions to social problems. Worse, they force people to work within their confines and therefore limit what people can actually do and instead funnel people into the profit-driven patterns of the medium itself.
“Social inequality will not be solved by an app,” Noble said. “What we see are these technologies displacing our ability to adjudicate our lives without them.”
Other speakers for the month include; Director of Campus Life at GVSU Dr. Kyle Boone presenting “The Grey Area: Creating a Space for the Engagement of Black Students”, Farm Manager at Soul Fire Farm and food sovereignty activist Leah Pennimen with “Liberation on the Land” about Black land reclamation, Author and CEO Ja’Net Adams with “Going Deeper than Google: How the History of Black Wealth Can Help Close the Racial Wealth Gap of Today” and Psychology Professor and mental health expert Dr. Nina Ellis Hervey. The events will be going on until February 27, and are available for registration on the Virtual Quad or on the AACAE web page.