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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

How Surveillance Has Always Reinforced Racism

Simone Browne is a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Browne studies how surveillance technologies have objectified, categorized, and repressed black people, from the panoptic slave ships of the Middle Passage to modern policing tools deployed against protesters. Amid recent police shootings of unarmed black men, WIRED spoke with Browne about Big Tech's unconvincing support for racial justice and how sharing black pain on social media may mobilize action, but only on Silicon Valley's terms. An edited transcript follows:

WIRED: In the past couple of weeks, tech companies appear to suddenly care about racism. How are you thinking through this moment and how it relates to some of what you wrote about in Dark Matters, as it relates to surveillance?

SIMONE BROWNE: In the book, I looked at branding and the commodification of blackness by trying to historicize the branding of enslaved people, marketing and marking them as sellable. I was also trying to extend that to think about how biometrics are sold through the branding of blackness.

We can extend it to Blackout Tuesday and how it became a branding opportunity for these companies to commodify black pain, black trauma, black grief, and black resistance with these black squares.


To see Amazon come out in support of Black Lives Matter, the same Amazon that orchestrated a campaign around people working in its processing centers and against a black organizer, calling him inarticulate. These are the same companies that will say we're no longer going to sell our facial recognition technology to such and such. But they're still selling Ring, which is still cooperating with police.

And so they're just marketing that in this moment of black grief, black rebellion, and black insurgency and seeing it as a branding opportunity, while they’re still part and parcel of the problem of anti-black racism. And that's not only Amazon.

I never made that connection, branding in terms of marketing and branding in terms of corporal punishment. Runaway slaves were branded. With Blackout Tuesday, you had black people really making their pain known. But by doing so, you open yourself up to be targeted through ads, and we know the police use social media. And so I never realized this double use of the word branding.

It might be a stretch from the kind of work that you're thinking of, but there was that hashtag #BlackInTheIvory. It was professors and students and workers at universities talking about their experiences of racism. And I saw this seemingly white person created a data set out of all of it. The goal may have been to diversify academia and record these people’s experiences, but no one asked for their consent and clearly it could make people targets for harassment. And so they collated over 10,000 of these #BlackInTheIvory tweets. They walked it back and made an apology.

I thought about how that can be used for targeting. We know of companies like Geofeedia, which worked with police in Boston to use GPS and facial recognition to identify protesters using the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. It still is about marketing and marking black people as commodities, as sellable, as objects.

You talk a lot about surveillance in the book and this idea of looking back, subverting the gaze and the pros and cons of that. I'm interested in your thoughts on these viral police brutality videos. The people who record these videos are often arrested before the cops who are caught on tape committing these violent acts.

If you think about TV, like Cops being taken off the air or Gone With the Wind or whatever it is, there are all these ways black life is framed that shapes people's viewing. I think it's what Judith Butler calls a “racially saturated field of visibility,” where these stereotypes form our field of our vision. So, Rodney King bracing himself from the hits from the police, that video gets read by some folks as an act of aggression by him, as an act of violence because black men’s bodies are always figured as potentially violent.

And I'm wondering, are these videos then shared and traded in a way that lynching memorabilia was shared and traded in times prior? Because I could view this and see one thing and other people have a different type of racial framing and might understand it as something else. And you see that when you look at the responses to the video.


I don't know how to contend with this kind of saturation that we're all under now of black people dying. Like even “you're about to lose your job,” the viral video of the black woman dancing as she’s being detained, you know that there's joy and there's grief and there's pain and their survival with it. And that's … I can’t even put it into words.

I just don't want to have this kind of technological determinism that a camera will save us from the camera, because it definitely won't. Videos alone won’t make things substantially different for black people resisting surveillance or white supremacy. But there is something, with those videos showing our own narration of them, our ways of understanding that moment, to recognize white supremacy and to challenge it, that's happening now. But it's still black death.

And we're sharing them in spaces like Instagram. We're sharing them in spaces that can erase them at any moment.

There's a literal policing, in terms of police officers, but there’s a secondary policing. When you upload these videos to Facebook and Instagram, they’re subject to content moderation and sharing and recommending algorithms. When you put a video on social media, the point is for it to be shared as widely as possible and viewed as much as possible and not really given that critical eye. It can be taken down, but the violence also becomes just another form of content or entertainment, like the memorabilia you mentioned, like postcards.

White people attending these lynchings would photograph the bodies, share postcards, people would take body parts, this was a part of white community formation and white supremacist formation were these ritualized acts. And so what are the rituals that are happening now, when it's platforming or mediated through YouTube?

It's policing, but it's like policing that now is mediated through these platforms, like Instagram and Facebook and other things. That’s not literal police, but it still is about the governing of black life and black resistance by the state or state-adjacent entities. And we know that Facebook is hand in hand with the Trump administration. So how do we then reconcile the seeming necessity of these technologies?

It's almost like a Hail Mary. On the one hand, you have the revelry around black death, but you also have almost a Mamie Till situation, who chose to put her son’s body on display. It forces people to look at the horror and violence of white supremacy and it’s so painful and so unfair, but at least offers a counternarrative that is not just what the state or the court or the police will say.

You're right, it’s like a Hail Mary, for the conditions of black life under white supremacy to be laid bare using technological means. It’s not enough to change things alone and it forces black people to give in to the types of surveillance we need to resist, but it's strategic. But, how it's regulated really reveals the huge power imbalance, whether it's content moderators or upvoting.

It’s continually fascinating to me, it's like, I think it was Prince: “If you don't own your masters, the master owns you.” It’s this strategic bargain that we have right now in this moment. We filter learning, but we're also being filtered and indexed in a way that is highly surveilled every time we go on sites and use keywords or whatever it is.

That’s part of why I have this reaction when people say technology isn't neutral, technology is biased. The fact that that needs to be said just shows you how comfortable people are with even the concept of neutral.

Exactly. And that requires like an entire upending of a lot of white folks’ ways of seeing that whiteness isn’t a neutral, police aren't neutral. All of these things are framed by their histories. To let go of the idea of a technology, and perhaps the technology being used in the exercise of white supremacy of misogynoir or transphobia or being trans-antagonistic is a lot for many people to see. It's an easy alibi, I think, to say that the technology made me do it.

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