A Greater Understanding of Race and Identity Through Tech

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Lauretta Charlton, editor of the Race/Related newsletter, discussed the tech she’s using.

What are your most important tech tools for work and why?

The newsroom at The Times is a very loud and busy place, which is exciting but not always ideal when you’re trying to edit or write a complicated story about race and identity. I do my best work when I’m focused, and for me that requires a certain solitude.

Noise-canceling headphones are crucial. I’ve had mine since 2015. They are over-the-ear headphones from the German audio company Sennheiser. Putting them on helps me concentrate. As for what I’m listening to, it’s usually hard bop or contemporary classical. Recently it’s been “Hudson River Wind Meditations,” by Lou Reed.

What tech tools have been useful in giving insight into race, identity and culture?

There is a podcast called Ear Hustle that is very good for this reason: The United States has more prisoners than any other country in the world.

I think we spend a lot of time trying to forget that, and frankly, it’s made easier to do when most of the people behind bars are black and brown. Ear Hustle is about life inside San Quentin State Prison in California. It’s co-hosted by an interesting trio — a current inmate, a former inmate and a volunteer.

Each host brings a different perspective to the issue of mass incarceration, which has affected the lives of many families across the country, including my own. They interview prisoners, they explain in detail the way prisons work and they’re honest about how people end up there. It changed my understanding of the criminal justice system. They are also very funny.

This has been a very charged atmosphere for race. Has social media been helpful or thoughtful in exploring these topics?

It has been helpful, but much has changed.

Ferguson, Mo., is a good example. After Michael Brown was shot and killed there by Darren Wilson, young people of color started sharing images and live video on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, demanding that we pay attention to the death of another unarmed black man and recognize it for what it was — a national crisis. Social media created a community. It became an outlet for their outrage, and they were targeted for it by police.

But that was five years ago. Today, outrage feels like the only thing on social media. It seems one of the easiest ways to build followers is to be consistently angry about something, whether it’s racism, politics or food. And the more extreme the view, the better. In many ways, social media has become a hotbed for radicalization and misinformation and bigotry.

I believe social media helped lift the Black Lives Matter movement and raise our awareness of police brutality, but I also believe it helped the white nationalists who protested in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. In my view, these are manifestations of the same phenomenon.

Technology itself has been famously ham-handed at dealing with race. There are questions about whether algorithms exacerbate bias, about why facial recognition makes more errors when trying to identify dark-skinned people.

Racism in technology is a serious problem, and I know there are many people who are much smarter than I am who are thinking about how to solve it.

In 2014, Stephen Hawking wrote a piece that I will never forget. He warned that artificial intelligence was advancing rapidly and that we needed to be honest with ourselves about whether or not we were prepared for what that meant. We are feeding machines with information everyday, and the information we choose to provide says a lot about who we are — our racism, our values, our strengths, our weaknesses.

In other words, when facial recognition software makes an error when identifying a person with dark skin, I believe that says more about us than it does about what the algorithm is capable of doing.

I think Mr. Hawking’s point was that you don’t have to spend all your time reading about neural networks and deep machine learning and A.I. and data streams to be concerned about this. Ultimately I think he was arguing this is a human rights issue. Interestingly, his article was published the same year that Facebook apologized for running psychological experiments on users without their knowledge.

Outside of work, what is your favorite tech gadget or tool and why?

I used to write about music, and lately I’ve been very into Dust-to-Digital, which is an archival record label based in Atlanta. They’ve been around for about 20 years and their mission is to make hard-to-find music from all over the world more accessible through research, production and technology. I absolutely love their presence on Twitter, where they often post rare performance footage of black American folk artists. But they share good music from across the globe.

Recently they posted a clip of 19-year-old Indian singer Maithili Thakur playing harmonium and singing with her brothers. I’ve probably watched it five times. I stopped writing about music years ago, but I’m still a great believer in the power of music to unite us.

You recently got married. Which tech was essential in the planning?

We created so many Google spreadsheets. At one point I considered creating a Google spreadsheet to keep track of all of them. But I wouldn’t change a thing. I love married life.