Transformation

Black to the future: afrofuturism and tech power

I’d love to live in a world where the thug, the drag queen, the single mum, the octogenarian churchwarden and the black girl geek could overthrow the tech corporations.

Florence Okoye
25 August 2015
 nerdreactor.com.

The work of musician Janelle Monae is associated with afrofuturism. Credit: nerdreactor.com.

I grew up learning that all the kids in Nigeria were geniuses. Whenever a laptop broke, our mother would shrug it off and say “Well, when we go home this summer, we’ll take it with us to Enugu. The boys there will know what to do with it.” 

Fast forward to now. I'm not at all surprised to see hand-made vehicles and green blazered teenage girls showing off urine powered electricity generators, all over the Maker Faire Africa website. We’ve always been makers, even before it was cool. 

Both in Africa and amongst the diaspora, the rise of affordable computers, electronics, mobile technology and access to free education, facilitated by an ever more accessible internet, are making black futurist dreams a reality.

As a young black girl who read too much science fiction, I discovered within it a striking lack of futuristic black cultures. It seemed obvious to me that this was part of an overarching association of blackness with stunted development, whether artistic, political, social or technological.

In 1990s Britain where I grew up, generally blackness was equivocated with violence and low achievement. We were too ‘street' to see the stars above. The kids of Onitsha and Enugu who could hack into networks and mend laptops by hand went ignored, the distance in geography and perception rendering them almost fictional.

Afrofuturism is a literary and cultural genre in which the black experience is explored, often through speculative fiction. It is grounded in diversity, avoiding science fiction's usual racial pitfalls. Although the term was first used by Mark Dery to "describe African-American culture’s appropriation of tech and sci-fi imagery", afrofuturism is part of a wider black futurist picture which, in the words of academic Damion Scott, “represent[s] aesthetic counterparts to the struggle for equality”.

Notable afrofuturists include musicians and theorists like Sun Ra and Janelle Monae, as well as science fiction writers like Octavia Butler and Nnedi Okarafor. Their work combines the tropes of science fiction with non-Western and minority ethnic aesthetics to produce new, more complex visions of the future.

As a kid, I was inspired by the work of author Malorie Blackman, who placed young black protagonists centre stage in her narratives. Blackman’s Thief showed me not just that I could exist in the future, but that I could be empowered by technology to reclaim ownership of my otherness. Blackman helped me to grasp that I - the weirdo black girl who loved dinosaurs and astrophysics - could be more than just an ‘other’, or a silent prop in someone else’s story.

There’s something ironic about the lack of diversity in science fiction. Although there is Western science fiction set in Africa such as Nancy Farmer’s The Ear, the Eye and the Arm and Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner, these works are anomalous, or at least easily forgotten due to the stereotype of science fiction and futurism as a white affair.

The exclusion of blackness from the narrative of progress is strange considering that from the earliest roots of modernity, the black imagination has been a key contributor to social ‘futurism’, from the abolitionist and anti-colonialist movements, to providing the very aesthetics that we commonly associate with modernism and rebellion, such as jazz, cubism and rock and roll. 

Today, the rise of tech means our individual and social futurisms are closer to becoming concrete realities. Looking at the various movements in open access research, technology and citizen science gives a sense of these possibilities. DIY bio-hacking and 3D printing open up exciting avenues for healthcare justice, in a world where the health of minorities and the disadvantaged can be notoriously poorly served at every level from research to distribution. Being able to program and develop software means we can make the most of cloud and wearable technologies, not just to make websites and cute little apps, but to keep our politicians accountable and help protect us against the abuses of the state, for example by enabling us to record our interactions with abusive police forces.

Social networks are another example of technologies used to promote liberation and spread consciousness about contemporary social issues.

We joke about ‘black twitter’ and ‘black tumblr’ but the reality is that these multinational, multiethnic and intercontinental networks have produced a new conscious black identity, an example of what Moya Bailey, founder of ‘Quirky Black Girls’ and member of the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network referred to as "digital alchemy". She describes this as the way “everyday digital media is transformed into valuable social justice media magic”. Though it is fraught with its own internal antagonisms, this network enables visible, self-organised political identities. This has galvanised many of us to unite across the world for the cause of social justice.

Of course, technology alone does not create utopias, neither is it neutral. Because of this, it is crucial to encourage engagement and ensure open access. Organisations such as Free Code Camp and Codebar.io recognize this. They provide free courses and the opportunity for mentoring to those less well represented in tech. While the big players in science and technology may always dominate, at least others can disrupt, embellish and beautify where they cannot.

Afrofuturism also tends not to be in the business of utopias. Reflecting the complexity of the black experience of progress and scientific development, in many ways, the works of writers such as Octavia Butler look more towards the struggle, the constant search for a dynamic equilibrium. In the case of Butler, in works such as Fledgling, according to Susana M. Morris, her “visions of the future are often ambivalent [and] reveal an ongoing struggle for peace and justice”.

Both in my own experience and that of many in the black diaspora, technology has played a crucial part in self empowerment. Through programming, many of us are are sharpening the skills to create technology to shape the world we live in for ourselves, rather than relying on handouts from the likes of Apple and Microsoft.

I’d love to live in a world where the thug, the drag queen, the single mum, the octogenarian churchwarden and the black girl geek could overthrow the tech corporations through the power of homemade cloud computing networks, Arduinos (an open-source hardware for electronic prototyping) and hacked Raspberry Pis (small computers that can be plugged into a TV or monitor), but at the very least we can still provide our own blend of techno-anarchy. 

Like all science fiction, afrofuturism both illustrates contemporary issues and provides new visions of the future. But most particularly, by portraying blackness as compatible with futurism, it is part of the revolutionary process where we move from silence to speech, a gesture of defiance, as bell hooks says, that ultimately makes new growth possible.

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