The engineer that develops an algorithm may program it to focus on facial features that are more easily distinguishable in some race than in others – the shape of a person’s eyes, the width of the nose, the size of the mouth or chin. This decision, in turn, might be based on preexisting biological research about face identification and past practices which themselves may contain bias. Or the engineer may rely on his or her own experience in distinguishing between faces – a process that is influenced by the engineer’s own race.37
Now consider that these software programs are used by police departments all over the country; in those departments “digital eyes watch the public,” comparing individual faces in real time to “hot lists” that are filled disproportionately with Black people – and these also happen to be the least recognizable figures in the world of facial recognition software.
The humor in the much circulated HP MediaSmart video of the Black user quoted in this chapter’s epigraph saying “I think my blackness is interfering with the computer’s ability to follow me” turns deadly in the context of digitally mediated police profiling, where suspects are caught in the crosshairs of being seen too much via surveillance practices and not enough via software; one’s own body is called upon to testify against itself. Guilty, guilty, guilty. The life sciences, in turn, are routinely used to arbitrate guilt.38
Exposing Science In the documentary film DNA Dreams, viewers are taken inside of “the world’s largest genomics organization,” which is based in Shenzen, China. Thousands of scientists are working there to uncover the genetics of intelligence (among other traits). In a scene haunted by the famous words of Martin Luther King, Jr., the chair of the institute is shown speaking to a packed and spellbound audience: “I have a dream. We have a dream. That we are going to sequence every living thing on Earth, that we are going to sequence everyone in the world.” Until then, the institute was studying the DNA of 2,000 people considered highly intelligent in order to isolate the alleles that supposedly made them smart. If this sounds like something human beings have tried before, it is because the desire to propagate “good genes” was the basis of a popular, “progressive,” but ultimately deadly movement called eugenics.