Lecture Recap: "How We Grow the World We Want"

Written by
Sisi Batsaikhan '26, ODUS Communications Fellow
March 7, 2023

On Friday, Feb 24, 2023, ODUS hosted the first FOCUS speaker event of the academic year featuring writer, professor and speaker Dr. Chris Gilliard, in conversation with Professor Ruha Benjamin of the African American Studies Department. As students, faculty, and other members of the Princeton community filed into the iconic Chancellor Green Rotunda, rows of folding chairs quickly became full and the audience filled with anticipation.


Dr. Chris Gilliard is a Just Tech Fellow at the Social Science Research Council whose scholarship concentrates on digital privacy, surveillance, and the intersections of race, class, and technology. He advocates for critical and equity-focused approaches to tech in education and was recently profiled in the Washington Post. His works have been featured in  The Chronicle of Higher Ed, EDUCAUSE Review, Vice, Real Life Magazine, Wired, and The Atlantic

Professor Benjamin specializes in the interdisciplinary study of science, medicine, and technology; race-ethnicity and gender; knowledge and power. She is the founding director of the Ida B. Wells JUST Data Lab and author of three books, Winner of the Stowe Prize, Viral Justice (2022), Race After Technology (2019), and People’s Science (2013), and editor of Captivating Technology (2019).

Chris Gilliard's gestures

Dr. Chris Gilliard responds to questions during the event.  Photo by Sameer Khan h21 / Fotobuddy

The event began with Caric Appleton, Butler College Residential Life Coordinator welcoming attendees and introducing the speakers. The topic of the conversation balanced both acknowledgment of the past and implications for the future with respect to the intersection of race and technology. Benjamin began the conversation by noting how important it was to “ground their conversation about race and technology in history,” reciting quotes from Martin Luther King Junior, Octavia E. Butler, and Amiri Baraka. She raised the significance of building on the tradition of influential African-American scholars, poets, and activists, highlighting how the power to create means the power to control narratives. This acknowledgment of “creation powered by black ethos” felt especially evocative in light of Black History Month.

Benjamin gave three thought-provoking remarks before opening things up for conversation. First, she noted how “racism is proactive not in the sense of being good, but in the sense that it produces things for the benefit of some and at the expense of others.” Second, she posited that “race and technology shape one another” in both the social and technical aspects. Third, she highlighted how imagination is a contested field wherein most people are forced to live inside someone else’s imagination. “Elite fantasies about efficiency, profit, and control” cause “misery for some but monopoly for others,” she noted. She raised the importance of not only critiquing from the underside but also wrestling with the deep investment or desires that many people have for social domination. “What will we create? What will we create? What will we create…” she repeated in the tradition of Baraka and others.

Following this, the conversation shifted toward Chris Gillard's work about the ways in which the tech industry reinforces racial biases and the role of consumerism, digital surveillance, and artificial intelligence in society. Gilliard shared how growing up in Detroit, Michigan in the 1970s – where police have a long history of brutality and discrimination against African American citizens – shaped how he thought about technology, race, and policing. Benjamin asked him about how consumer surveillance tools like Amazon’s Ring video doorbell and camera played a role in policing. Gilliard replied by touching on the concept of “luxury surveillance,” whereby privileged people buy private surveillance tools for their own security, creating a layer of surveillance across the entire country. He brought up how following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement in 2020, California police asked for all footage of BlackLivesMatter protests in an attempt to neutralize the movement. Gilliard noted that “we should be able to live without harassment and devices like that render it impossible.”

Benjamin added that footage by a network of surveillance systems marketed as crime-fighting tools like SkyCop were being taken up by the public to expose cop activities, asking what Gillard thought of this. Gilliard said that the issue was “thorny,” positing that although “we can cite a measure of accountability,” empirical evidence does not say that tools like police body cams decrease police brutality and discrimination. He noted that it becomes a “conversation about control.” He shared how after the city of Detroit went bankrupt in 2013, police implemented “Project Green Light,” a city-wide police surveillance system that involved automated facial recognition, real-time police monitoring, high-resolution imagery, a paid “priority” response system, and other distinctive features. He reflected that for small businesses and citizens who were deprioritized due to the project, it was a “state of policy that meant unless someone was breaking down the door, they [police] might not show up.” He noted how the system’s facial recognition also falsely targeted a black man, so it was a “very hard question.”

Wide audience shot

The audience in attendance during the event.  Photo by Sameer Khan h21 / Fotobuddy

Benjamin then noted how tools like Citizen, a mobile app that sends users location-based safety alerts in real-time, attempt to “democratize surveillance” through “collective common sense.” She asked Gilliard what he thought about this branding of surveillance tools as a way to stay safe. Gilliard acknowledged the sense of safety that Citizen gave to some people, giving an example of how Chinese elders started using the app in response to the surge in anti-Asian hate crimes, however, he also noted that “it is hard to believe that the creator’s goal is to help.” He explained how “when people feel that the institutions that are supposed to serve us are not doing that, people respond with the idea to privatize things like police forces, surveilling tools, etc; people feel like technology is going to fill the void.”

The conversation then turned towards the question, what do we do about this? With both speakers agreeing that communities should be the ones to define what they need, Gilliard asked Benjamin how communities should navigate that. Benjamin responded by saying that it is “part of her responsibility to help us think beyond” the two choices of “short-term and long-term” solutions when it comes to safety. She noted how “ankle monitors as a solution to overcrowded jails… are not a solution to the inhumanity of being put in a cell.” She encouraged the audience to think about what true safety was beyond policing and imprisonment.

Then, Benjamin asked Gilliard to share his view about the role of education and policy and his experience as a Just Tech Fellow at the Social Science Research Council. Gilliard reflected on “how much work goes into just being heard.” He gave an analogy of a poisonous apple to explain how the tech industry controls the narrative of what consumers need and what constitutes “innovation.” “Technology has had reign for more than twenty-five years, doing a tremendous job of constructing a narrative that we have to accept poison,” he said. He noted that the same frameworks that we develop that apply to food, medicine, and automobiles should be applied to the tech industry. Benjamin quipped that we need “an FDA for tech,” which elicited a laugh and agreement from Gilliard. He returned to Benjamin's earlier remarks that “imagination is a contested field,” encouraging audience members to ask themselves “whose imagination are we putting into practice?” He said that “when a small number of investors think that something is going to make a lot of profit, we are all invested,” giving examples like search engines and ChatGPT. Then, he reflected on his experience as a Just Tech Fellow, noting that it gives people who want to identify and challenge injustices emerging from new technologies, and pursue solutions that advance social, political, and economic rights “the time and space to do it in a dedicated way.”

Fist bump

Dr. Chris Gilliard and Professor Ruha Benjamin fist bump at the end of the event.  Photo by Sameer Khan h21 / Fotobuddy

After this, the conversation opened up to the audience in a Q&A segment which included questions about how AI might replace jobs, ways that people can get involved in tech justice, advice on amplifying your voice and advocacy, the role of regulatory frameworks on technology and how current developments in technology might produce harmful impacts in the future. Following this, a reception was held for participants to enjoy some refreshments, interact with one another, and for undergraduates to receive free signed copies of Viral Justice, Benjamin’s book.

Overall, the conversation touched on many different topics not just limited to race and technology but also power, creativity, and consumerism, among others. The full recording of this, and other FOCUS programs can be found on the ODUS YouTube Channel. Please continue to check the ODUS FOCUS website for upcoming events and additional resources during the spring semester.