Discriminatory design

Identifying discriminatory design

One goal of ME 30 is to empower you to use tools of electronics and robotics to design new technologies. We acknowledge that with that power comes much responsibility, including the responsibility to understand how robotic systems can negatively impact some individuals and groups even as they positively impact the lives or work of others — and the responsibility to learn how to proactively avoid this kind of discriminatory design.

Luckily we have sociologist Ruha Benjamin, a professor in Princeton’s Department of African American Studies, to help us. Benjamin’s scholarship uncovers the ways in which racial discrimination and marginalization are designed into technology — often unintentionally, but also at times intentionally. You can watch her 2015 TEDx Talk “From Park Bench to Lab Bench: Whose future are we designing” here.

In class, we will discuss an excerpt from Dr. Benjamin’s 2019 book Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Each chapter of this book includes a case study of a technology that produces (or reproduces) racist outcomes. Our excerpt, from Chapter 1, motivates the need for race-conscious design (pp. 59-63) with a case study of an automated hotel soap dispenser (pp. 64-69).

Questions for your response

  1. How might it have happened that the soap dispenser was sold this way?
  2. If the racist soap dispenser was not tested with people with dark skin, why might that be?
  3. If the racist soap dispenser was tested with people with dark skin, why was it still sold?
  4. Why does this kind of design recur?
  5. Does the engineer’s intent matter?