Charlton D. McIlwain – Black Software: The Internet and Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter


Oxford University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0190863845, English, 272 pages, 2019, USA

You won’t open the black box and find a simple ‘if statement’ that reads: ‘if this is a person of colour; then discriminate;’. Similarly, if readers of McIlwain’s Black Software are hoping for a quick, ‘woke’ explanation linking racial histories and racist technologies, they may be disappointed. What’s going on here is more complicated. This book is really two stories in one: The first provides a history of key innovations in what the author dubs ‘black software’, from the dawn of the bulletin board and listserv to the present moment, Afronet, NetNoir, the Universal Black Pages and and of course #BlackLivesMatter. The second focuses on the history of technologies for racial profiling, including the database, CAD and predictive policing. McIlwain weaves together these interconnected strands, following the stories of key figures you may never have heard about such as UBP’s Derrick Brown and NetNoir’s Malcolm Caselle and moving between the personal and the political. So too, the text blends more academic and historical texts with an anecdotal voice. This gives the book a hypertextual structure where content dictates form, but sometimes feels like it lacks a coherent narrative. Black Software demonstrates through real world stories how historical exclusions in technology and contemporary issues with computational bias go hand in hand, but in ways that are often difficult to trace and unpick. A must-read for anyone interested in digital technologies and race. Rachel O’Dwyer