Steinhardt professor Charlton McIlwain’s new book tells the story of the black engineers who helped build the early internet—and the forces that thwarted them.
It was Charlton McIlwain’s work studying #BlackLivesMatter that made him wonder about that movement’s predecessors: Did those 21st-century activists who turned to social media to bring attention to police brutality draw from an earlier playbook? And if so, who was the first to leverage the power of the internet in the pursuit of racial justice?
The questions led McIlwain, a Steinhardt professor of media, culture, and communication, and NYU’s vice provost for faculty engagement and development, all the way back to the dawn of computer networking, when—as early as the 1970s—black technologists were already strategizing around how to bring the fight for economic, political, and social equality online. Once he started looking, McIlwain says, it wasn’t hard to find dozens of African American engineers, entrepreneurs, and thinkers—a group he labels “The Vanguard”—who had been involved at every step of the evolution of the modern Web, but who’ve been notably written out of histories of the tech industry.
Educated at HCBUs or recruited through the first programs designed to create a more diverse workforce at then overwhelmingly white, male institutions such as MIT, Georgia Tech, and IBM, these pioneers often sought opportunities beyond traditional roles. William Murrell, one of the first black engineers at IBM, went on to become president and owner of MetroServe Computer Company, Boston’s largest computer store. Kamal Al-Monsour, a lawyer who had worked as a software contracts administrator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, founded AfroLink software to distribute information about black and African history, culture, and politics. E. David Ellington and Malcolm CasSelle dreamed up NetNoir, a stylish portal for Afrocentric music, sports, education, and business news that was made available to AOL subscribers. And with Popandpolitics.com in 1995, journalist Farai Chideya launched one of the world’s earliest blogs.
McIlwain’s new book, Black Software: The Internet and Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter, traces the work of these and other, lesser-known figures from the 1960s through the 1990s, centering around one tough question: “Will our current or future technological tools ever enable us to outrun white supremacy?”
Debate about that goal and how to achieve it was fiercest in the mid-’90s, when millions of Americans were dialing up to access the newly interconnected Web for the first time. A 1994 Capitol Hill summit on “African Americans in the Telecommunications Age” was co-hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and American Visions magazine, whose editor, Timothy Jenkins, a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a veteran of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, warned: “We who were the victims of the technology revolution in agriculture and who were ignored by the Industrial Revolution cannot afford to be bypassed by the multimedia communications revolution inherent in the emerging information super highway. The issues of access and inclusion are the same, only now they’re dressed in new technological clothing.”
The reasons that the efforts of black technophiles failed to produce the meaningful structural change Jenkins and others imagined are complex. It’s a story with its share of villains, including law enforcement and government officials—a shadowy group McIlwain refers to as “The Committeemen”—who, responding to the urban upheaval of the 1960s, partnered with technology companies to leverage newfound computing power to surveil and profile black Americans. In a painful twist, McIliwan shows how IBM, tapped by various agencies to help tackle “the race problem” in American cities, built the technical infrastructure for a racially biased criminal justice system at the very same time that it was engaged in public programs to bring tech jobs to black neighborhoods and recruit promising African American grads to work in computer science.
Fast forward to the present—when we’re only just beginning to comprehend the extent to which racial bias is embedded in algorithms powering not just policing but every aspect of our digital lives, from shopping to dating—and the hopeful idealism that animated the first black software engineers’ movement is hard to find.
NYU News spoke with McIlwain about where the systems went wrong, and how a new generation of digital activists might pick up the charge.
Who were the group you call the “the Vanguard” and what were they trying to do?
“The Vanguard” is the name I give to a group of technologists who are African American and who were engaged in building computer-based networks—essentially social networks—in the late ’80s through the early ’90s. They were on the leading edge both as users and hobbyists and as technology producers who shaped what the Internet would be once it came to be public. They very much had a hand in shaping what the early Web was in its first few formative years.
What did it mean for these pioneers—or anyone—to be “online” before the modern Web? What kinds of connections were they making?
If you think about who had access to computing and networks in the early 1980s, the answer is almost—or relatively—no one. The very first computer networks were internal and business-oriented, like the one built by IBM so its technicians could communicate with the office from the field, or created by government entities like the Department of Defense. Higher education institutions followed, and in the mid-’80s and onward, you start to see other people sitting down at computers, and dialing up—using phone numbers to get text and simple graphics from other computers that are on a network. For the first time, people can trade messages with someone they don’t know, three states or even a continent away. E-mail also gets codified in this period of time. So in this new environment people are doing everything from trying to make a love connection to trying to sell software or commit various forms of credit card fraud. But at that transition point between older forms of computer networking and the modern Web, there are African Americans who were exchanging information and seeing a wealth of possibility there. The natural thing to do was to want to share, to say “Hey, there’s stuff out there that I can see, but you can’t, and you may not know what you’re missing.” That was the impetus behind something like the AfroNet—to pull things together and leverage that new access for the greater visibility and good of the community.
The 1995 launch of Net Noir—described by its founders as a “cybergateway into Afrocentric Culture”—within AOL would seem to be a big victory for those who wanted to make sure black communities were well represented online. But is it fair to say that visibility was short-lived?
You know, in an earlier draft I actually had that chapter in the book titled, “Remember When the Internet Was Black?” That story is absolutely a highlight for me. Imagine AOL at a moment when most people don’t see any real value to connecting online—that was me in the early ’90s. Like, okay, I can dial up and look at the screen, but everything I need is going on out on the block and at school and in all these other places. There’s no particular draw for me, and I imagine that’s how most people approached the Web in those first few years. But then once AOL has NetNoir, it’s essentially the first cultural commodity that’s bringing folks to the Web, meaning I could see stuff on there that I like, that represents me, that makes me want to buy an extra phone line and an AOL subscription. That happened by the millions—and to think: It was through a company built on black content! But you know, that was very quickly gone. David [Ellington] and Malcolm [CasSelle] needed investment and capital, which is how it ended up on AOL in the first place, and in the latter part of the ’90s they sold the company, which was absolutely the right move for them at the time. But then at that point it becomes something completely different.
Some might view #BlackTwitter and other spaces where African American thinkers continue to shape Internet culture as a kind of continuation of what they started—even if the tech industry hasn’t rewarded black entrepreneurs recently.
I think you’re making absolutely the right connection about the persistence of black culture as a predominant form of content online—that part definitely persists on all sorts of platforms today. What has changed is about ownership, and that’s what you no longer see, in the way that seemed promising in the early days. Where do you find a highly visible, highly profitable, black-owned Internet-based media company today? With the growth in commercialization of the web, the early black entrepreneurs either failed or became successful by selling their businesses and going on to other things. And almost everyone I spoke with lamented how, between the ’90s and now, all of these possibilities for the Internet as a tool for economic advancement really vanished. That’s really what the book ended up being about—a longer history to account for the fact that at every moment where there seems to be an opportunity for black folks to use technology to get ahead, it seems we end up further behind. As people figured out how to use the new medium, people who had more money simply overtook us. They were not necessarily smarter or more skilled in terms of software development, but they had greater access to capital and we simply could not compete.
You also point to the rise of search engines that serve as “traffic cops” as a major factor in creating an online experience that’s quite different from what the black pioneers you write about were trying to build.
In the AOL days, everything was curated. With something like Net Noir, you had black content created for black folks, generally speaking. Things were very directional, and you had to know what you were looking for. Even early navigation systems like Yahoo! were much more akin to a card catalog than they were to a modern search engine like Google. What’s different today is that the Googles of the world are both that former thing—a vast repository of content—and also decision-making vehicles. They’re an arbiter to say, “here’s what you want.” So if I’m interested in black music, rather than having to have a specific artist in mind, I can discover one through a system that points the way, leading me toward a page a whole lot of other people have visited before. And that’s the beauty of search engines. But there are downsides of enabling them to make those kinds of decisions. A student of mine did an experiment where she searched Google for information about breast cancer. It only returned websites with very general information that pertains broadly to many people—or, by default, to whites. The hundreds and hundreds of pages on breast cancer specific to the needs of black women were hidden. You’d have to know to ask for those particular websites to be able to find them. That’s because Google makes some assumptions about what the user wants, based on popularity—which is a highly prized commodity with supreme value online. This is a phenomenon that we talk about as a kind of power law: the more visibility I have, the more visibility I get, and the less visibility I have, the less visibility I get. You can imagine how that can create a wide-scale gap, based on race and other factors, between sites authored by different types of people.
The book reveals the tech industry’s role in building structures that perpetuate racial injustice across private and governmental organizations. Is there reason for optimism around the idea of a more equitable future for the internet?
Is there a way to turn the ship? I think no. The best hope is to say that the struggle is here and the struggle remains. You have a movement like Black Lives Matter, for example, marshalling digital tools to do something we hadn’t managed to do in the 50 years prior, which is to make race, criminal justice, and the effect of the criminal justice system on black people, front and center in the public agenda. That message has been distributed far and wide, and changed people’s minds about the reality of inequality, and particularly black inequality. But on the other hand, it wasn’t long after Black Lives Matter activists and others began to use tools like Facebook and Twitter that law enforcement began to use those same tools to surveil, arrest, charge, and jail activists. It’s a cycle: communities and activists find a way to leverage a new tool toward a good outcome, and then law enforcement or corporations come back with a corrective that thwarts those interests. I don’t think we’re going to magically start building equitable systems that work to further the interests of marginalized folks. But I do see a future where people are still using technology to challenge, to push, and to counter the interests of those in power.