We have to be grateful that CNN is drawing attention to issues of race in Silicon Valley. Or do we? The cable network’s documentary “The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley” airs tomorrow, and if it hones in on structural and institutional racism in American computing and electronics industries, great. The world of high tech R&D is too easily cast as above or outside of social factors; I spend my days teaching engineering undergrads how to question that presumption. Specifically, with some powerful reporting by CNN we may see how familiar meritocratic claims about “genius” as the source of American high-tech innovation (lately fueled by retrospectives of Steve Jobs’ career) have long helped support race-based exclusion in U.S. technology spheres. I blogged about this the other week.
But I’m a little worried. Advance screenings and media commentary on the film have generated a great deal of conversation, among bloggers and mainstream media alike. Yesterday the New York Times reflected on the buzz itself, in “CNN Documentary Sets Off Debate on Race and Technology” by Brian Stelter and Jenna Wortham. And much of that buzz has been about the ways in which individuals depicted in the film, such as Michael Arrington, do or don’t recognize structural inequities; that is, about the talking heads themselves. Their views provide interesting evidence but we need to go from thinking about those individuals to a broader view. Hank Williams lays out some of these larger issues for CNN as the network builds hype for the documentary; for example, pervasive economic impediments to the scale-up of minority-led projects. If CNN proves willing to keep that conversation going, bucking a mainstream media tradition of downplaying the race, class and gender inequities still going strong in 21st Century America, then we may have something to thank them for.