Microsoft’s “Avoid Ghetto” App: Racism Built into TechnologyBy
Microsoft has developed and filed a patent for a new “Avoid Ghetto” GPS app. The app connects to your smartphone (or dashboard GPS) and let’s you know when you’re getting close to a neighborhood with high rates of (street) crime.
A story about this dreadful new technology appeared in this piece by Ross Kenneth Urken, who talked to a CUNY colleague of mine, Sarah E. Chinn, author of Technology and the Logic of American Racism. Chinn observes:
“It’s pretty appalling. Of course, an application like this defines crime pretty narrowly, since all crimes happen in all kinds of neighborhoods. I can’t imagine that there aren’t perpetrators of domestic violence, petty and insignificant drug possession, fraud, theft, and rape in every area.”
Of course, Sarah’s absolutely right about this. (Strangely, The Root mentions her book, uses the same quote, but totally mangles attribution.)
Here’s the way this app is supposed to work, according to the white-fearful-of-crime-imagination (again from Urken):
On the other hand, consider how this app could potentially help wayward drivers in some cities. In Detroit, for example, the city has a central downtown from General Motors headquarters up Woodward Avenue to Ford Field and Comerica Park where comparatively little crime happens. But just a few blocks outside that area, and a driver can find himself amidst streets of abandoned buildings and street-gang territory.
Although this is speculation, I’m sure this is just what the app developers had envisioned when they created this bit of software. It’s all very Bonfire of the Vanities, really. Why if Sherman McCoy had this app, he’d have never gotten into all that trouble in the Bronx. But that’s just it, the app doesn’t track the kind of crimes that are really damaging to society as a whole, say, like bank fraud or subprime mortgage scams by “Masters of the Universe” like McCoy. No, in this app, crime only happens one way: between dangerous street thugs (read: black and brown people) and drivers (read: white people).
Urken goes on to downplay the racial implications of the “Avoid Ghetto” app, by turning to Roger C. Lanctot, a senior analyst at someplace called “Strategy Analytics,” who views the “Avoid Ghetto” app as potentially useful. Lanctot asserts that “drivers” should have a right to know when they are passing “high-risk” areas. Here’s what Lanctot had to say:
“We’ve all had that experience when you take the wrong exit and go, ‘Oh shoot,’ because you end up in a neighborhood you shouldn’t be in. Should you look down at the GPS and have a red flag with an exclamation point, ‘Get out!’? I hate to say it because of the racial implication element, but what father wouldn’t want such a capability for their daughter. I’ve seen plenty of dads having their daughters call them every half-hour: ‘Where are you?’ ‘Where are you?’ They would have more piece of mind if they knew their daughters had an app to avoid driving through bad areas.” [emphasis added]
This quote is an interesting rupture in the usually ‘colorblind’ discussions about technology, yet the element of race is so clear, Lanctot wants to distance himself from the implications of what he’s saying. It some ways it’s also a revealing moment about the white fear of crime (part of the white racial frame) and the construction of so-called ‘bad’ neighborhoods as always black or Latino. The reality is that “high risk” neighborhoods are most dangerous to those who are living in them (that is, predominantly black and brown people), not the white people who are driving through them.
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