Ruha Benjamin Advocates for Contagious Justice in the Wake of the Pandemic
In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the term “viral” has taken on a new meaning, and it’s not always positive. Scholar Ruha Benjamin, known for her research on the social impact of science, medicine, and technology, proposes an alternative perspective. According to Benjamin, justice can also spread like a contagion. This idea serves as the foundation for her award-winning book, “Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want,” which she discussed during her visit to MIT Libraries on June 14.
Benjamin, a professor of African American studies at Princeton University, pointed out the importance of recognizing how exclusion is embedded in our daily lives. She highlighted instances like park benches with armrests placed at regular intervals, which, at first glance, may seem welcoming but prevent people from lying down or sleeping on them. To illustrate the concept further, she brought up the art installation called “Pay and Sit,” which features a bench with sharp spikes that deploy if the user fails to pay. Benjamin views this installation as a powerful metaphor for discriminatory design.
Cherry Ibrahim, a human resources generalist at MIT Libraries, expressed her enthusiasm after Benjamin’s talk, stating, “Dr. Benjamin’s keynote was truly mind-blowing. One aspect that particularly resonated with me was when she discussed benches deliberately designed to discourage unhoused individuals from sleeping on them. Our community contains hidden spikes that we may not even be aware of because they don’t have a direct impact on us.”
The New Jim Code and the Challenges of Bias in Technology
Benjamin encouraged the audience to identify these metaphorical “spikes,” which are perpetuated by new technologies and often disguised as progress. Examples she provided included gender and racial bias in facial recognition, the use of racial data in predictive software for student success, and algorithmic bias in healthcare. She coined the term “the New Jim Code” to describe the combination of coded bias and the perception of technology as objective.
Chris Bourg, Director of Libraries, emphasized MIT Libraries’ commitment to combating inequities in their work by promoting equal access to data and exploring ways for diverse communities to engage in scholarship with minimal bias or barriers. Removing these metaphorical “spikes” from knowledge-sharing systems aligns with their mission.
The Power of Collective Action
According to Benjamin, it is crucial not only to address the harmful aspects embedded in our digital world, but also to create alternatives. This is where individual collective power becomes transformative. Benjamin showcased initiatives such as the Data for Black Lives movement and the Detroit Community Technology Project as examples of everyday people reshaping the digital ecosystem and demanding different rights, responsibilities, and protections.
In 2020, Benjamin founded the Ida B. Wells Just Data Lab to bring together students, educators, activists, and artists in developing a critical and creative approach to data conception, production, and circulation. The lab’s projects have explored topics such as the impact of Covid-19 on student learning, resources addressing the experience of Black mourning, grief, and mental health, and a playbook for Black maternal mental health. Benjamin sees the next generation reimagining technology to meet the needs of marginalized individuals through these student-led projects.
“If inequality is woven into the very fabric of our society – evident in policing, education, healthcare, and employment – each twist, coil, and code presents an opportunity to weave new patterns, practices, and politics,” Benjamin stated. “The enormity of the challenges we face will ultimately be their downfall.”