Professors Jenn Stroud Rossmann (Mechanical Engineering, Lafayette) and Benjamin R. Cohen (Engineering Studies, Lafayette) presented their co-authored paper, “The Internet is Railroads.”

Frances Flora Bond Palmer, American Express Train

Abstract: The now well-broadcast digital bias we find in the computer age follows from the racist underpinnings of the earlier transcontinental network. It isn’t so much that the two networks are merely comparable and similar, but that the digital communication network is built on top of the transportation one. History isn’t one damn thing after another; it is one new layer on top of the last. The prior eras live with us, under our feet, as the very structures we talk about when we talk about structural oppression, or structural racism, or systemic bias. Addressing digital racism requires excavating that past. Drawing the internet and railroad eras together also asks us to grapple with historically produced structures rather than just tinkering with new apps. Technologies are value-laden, and technologies built on the template of others can inherit those values: exploitation, erasure, and racism are deeply embedded in both transportation and communication networks. Let’s get digging.

The Lecture on the Historical Structure of Digital Racism was part of the Olmsted Series on Race and Racial Justice. The event was sponsored by the Department of Philosophy, Engineering Studies Program, Hanson Center for Inclusive STEM Education, and Lafayette Forum on Technology and the Liberal Arts.