An illustration depicting a web browser window that shows the article's headline and byline. The text reads: Cleared History... How did African Americans’ critical contributions to the developing World Wide Web get all but erased from memory? Author Charlton McIlwain chronicles the hidden truth. By Paula Akpan. Illustration by Zakiya Noel

Once upon a time, the internet held what seemed like unlimited promise for Black people, full of self-governed sites offering music, literature, news, discussion, and more. Those long-gone days when African Americans were instrumental in determining what was available online is the subject of Black Software: The Internet and Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter. Written by Charlton McIlwain, a Steinhardt professor of media, culture, and communication and NYU’s vice provost for faculty engagement and development, the book is a powerful and troubling history of the internet’s infancy and evolution—one that reaches back decades but links directly to Big Tech’s perpetuation of inequality today.

McIlwain initially set out to better understand how Black Lives Matter so adeptly deployed digital tools—including #BlackLivesMatter—to harness a racial justice movement in the wake of the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others. “I knew at least part of my pathway was going to end up in the early mid-’90s at the dawn of the World Wide Web,” says McIlwain, who also founded the Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies at NYU’s Institute of Human Development and Social Change. But in interviews with Black activists, organizers, and key computing tech figures, he learned that their contributions to the internet dated even earlier than he’d imagined. “I would ask them, ‘When did you first get online?’ ” William Murrell, one of IBM’s first Black engineers and the owner of Boston’s largest computer store, MetroServe Computer Corporation, thought a long while before replying: “I think about 1978.” It was a revelation for McIlwain, who guessed he needed to travel as far back as the 1960s, where he ultimately found a trove of “voices and stories that certainly I had never heard before. My sense was that no one else had.” Suddenly, the question “What is, and has been, Black people’s relationship to the internet and computing technology?” was propelled to the top.

Searching for answers meant working backward from the present. “It’s been an interesting story, especially since it starts with some of these current observations about algorithmic bias and anti-Blackness and technology,” says McIlwain.

He discovered that the early emergence of computing technology was intertwined with the civil rights movement of the ’60s, with big tech companies such as IBM collaborating with agencies all over the country to spy on and profile Black Americans. That was a bombshell for McIlwain, who had believed the connection between the NYPD and IBM had existed for only a few years. He thought: “Oh, you completely missed the story because this was not a five-year relationship, it was more than 50 years—[and not only] in terms of the general connection between law enforcement and technology but in the specific relationship between the NYPD and IBM, which has been a continuous history since the early 1960s.”

An illustration depicting a Black man whose face is made up of a collage of different web browser windows with various parts of his face, some covered and replaced by White facial features instead. Some of the windows have red error messages on them.

And of course, prospective Black engineers were historically denied entry into predominantly White educational institutions, which meant they were excluded from employment in tech companies, which in turn affected their ability to take part in developing computer software. Each lost opportunity knocked against the next, tumbling like dominoes.

A blue box with white subhead text that reads: Remember When the Internet Was Black?

“Early in the writing of the book, I had come across an encyclopedia of Black inventions—or something like that,” says McIlwain. “It was a very, very, very thick volume written by Black folks.” Naturally, he headed to the index and looked up the word “internet.” There he found a short entry along the lines of “No person of African American descent has had anything significant to contribute to the invention of the internet.”

He was astonished by this conclusion, given that Black scholars had researched and authored the work. But he also recognized that the definition of technological intervention tends to focus on individual people and specific material artifacts—hardware, software, and so on. “Because of that,” says McIlwain, “we look back and say, ‘Oh, because there’s no one that we see that was working at MIT that had a patent or this, that, and the other,’ we don’t make a connection between Black folks and these technological innovations.”

McIlwain rejects this narrow framing. In his view, “Black culture, Black style, Black ways of engaging” powered the internet of the early 1990s, “when it really was all about a big machine and cable modems and people didn’t know what it was going to be good for, much less how we’re going to make money off of it.” He decided, “All right, I’m gonna tell this story around key people I’ve talked to whose stories and retellings about the early internet, from the late ’70s on up through the ’90s, was very palpable.” Both technologically and culturally engaged, these early embracers of the internet demonstrated the potential significance of this new medium in terms of building communities and connections—“the fundamentally social aspect of the web that we know today,” he says.

A photo of Charlton McIlwain

Charlton McIlwain is the founder of NYU’s Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies.

“The Vanguard,” as McIlwain calls the African American technologists who were instrumental in constructing computer-based networks—essentially social networks—in the late ’80s through the early ’90s, “were on the leading edge both as users and hobbyists,” he says. “They very much had a hand in shaping what the early web was in its first few formative years.”

A blue box with white subhead text that reads: Leading the Charge

Among tech’s Black pioneers was a lawyer named Kamal Al Monsour who also worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He founded AfroLink Software, an electronic bulletin-board system that shared information about Black and African history, culture, and politics. By the mid-’90s, the software catalog included “several volumes of clip art, history programs, educational games, and language training programs in Arabic, French, and Swahili,” writes McIlwain. Another was Derrick Brown. A computer scientist/engineer from South Carolina, Brown mentored Black students in technology and helped create the first Black-focused internet search directory, the Universal Black Pages, in 1994. William Murrell not only operated Boston’s largest computer store, but he also oversaw CompuServe’s Go Afro social networking forum, which featured bulletin boards and real-time chat rooms. Anita Brown was named “the best-known Black woman on the web” by WIRED magazine after the 1996 launch of her internet-based community organization, Black Geeks Online, which connected thousands of tech-savvy Black people to one another, as well as to Black communities in need of increased computer literacy and internet access.

In 1995, journalist Farai Chideya created Pop and Politics, one of the earliest blogs, and on Juneteenth of that same year, E. David Ellington and Malcolm CasSelle launched NetNoir. Funded by AOL’s Greenhouse Program, NetNoir distributed Afrocentric literature, music, sports, education, and business news to a segment of AOL users who previously had no reason to connect online. “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,” says McIlwain. “That happened by the millions—and to think: it was through a company built on Black content!” Unfortunately, he adds, when Ellington and CasSelle sold the company in the late ’90s, “it becomes something completely different.”

Stories like Ellington’s and CasSelle’s illustrate how the advancement possibilities tied to the internet’s formation by early Black entrepreneurs were lost due to a lack of capital. Although content about Black culture persists on many platforms today, says McIlwain, “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.”

Black Software ultimately became a historical account of why “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,” says McIlwain. “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.”

McIlwain points to behemoth search engines, like Google, which, he says, are “both a vast repository of content” and “decision-making vehicles” and that make “assumptions about what the user wants, based on popularity.” One student’s experimental search for “breast cancer” yielded information that by default pertains to White people, while “the hundreds and hundreds of pages on breast cancer specific to the needs of Black women were hidden,” he says. “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.”

A blue box with white subhead text that reads: The New Age of Automated Criminal Justice

Embedded in the history of Black technological advancement is the weaponization of tech against Black life. Fear, misinformation, and the use of tech in law enforcement merge with dangerous consequences.

When the frustrations of LA’s Watts community bubbled over for six days in August 1965, writes McIlwain, a commission appointed by California’s then-governor Pat Brown found its residents had been starved of education and work for too long. But IBM sponsored a CBS special report on the Watts uprising that sensationalized and platformed anti-Black positions. The company also sought out federal contracts for data processing applications that could aid in programs to process fingerprints, deploy patrol, and more. Eventually, millions of dollars were poured into resources that became known as Criminal Justice Information Systems.

IBM systems engineers guided the creation of an algorithm that could be used to determine how many police officers should be dispatched to a call. A “suspicious” Black person in a “low threat area” might result in the arrival of four squad cars. This eventually led to the creation of Kansas City’s ALERT II system in August 1968, which was touted as a harmless tool to help police work more efficiently with its weighted crime formulae.

A blue box with white subhead text that reads: Technology Today

Though the age of dial-ups may feel like a distant memory, the inequities of those early days continue to have a devastating impact. As of 2020, the Kapor Center reported that Black talent makes up just 5 percent of the tech workforce, 3 percent of tech executives, and 1 percent of tech founders. Considering the continued trends of hiring from “top-tier” universities, bias in recruiting practices, and pay inequality, Black tech employees won’t achieve parity until 2068.

A black-and-white photo of Black Lives Matter activists protesting while holding signs and wearing KN95 face masks.

(Alessandro Biascioli/iStock)

The Black Lives Matter resurgence in the summer of 2020 demonstrated how crucial the internet has become for sharing videos that demand accountability or as a tool to educate about one’s rights, learn from Black critical theorists, or crowdfund bail for arrested activists. McIlwain is encouraged by how the movement has marshaled “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.

“But on the other hand,” he continues, “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.”

As a result, says McIlwain, “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.”

Acknowledging the unheralded inventors who populate the pages of McIlwain’s book—and could probably fill a couple of volumes of the encyclopedia he unearthed—is critical. It’s also long overdue. “When I approached these folks,” says McIlwain, “I really got the sense that [they’ve] been waiting for someone to ask them these questions for decades.”

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