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Melissa Harris-Perry Talks Tech

Award-winning author and commentator offers her POV on the intersection of tech and culture

Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry is not one to shy away from giving it to you straight. Especially when it comes to race, gender, or politics. In fact, Harris-Perry’s willingness to have candid, critical conversations around those topics has propelled the political science professor into a respected media career that included her own weekend cable news and opinion show, regular bylines in major, national pubs and two books.


This election year, in particular, Harris-Perry has a few thoughts on the role technology is playing in social-justice and other community issues. She shared a few with the Bridge.


How have you seen tech democratize the flow of information?

I think for me, the most important ways that tech has democratized the flow of information has been in the context of the Black Lives Matter Movement. For me, particularity in the context of hosting a political show, often times what we learned in mainstream media about everything from Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown and Ferguson, came first from social media. People are often watching social media feeds as a way of finding out what many of the most important social movements were on the ground.


We were looking to young people …  we were looking to citizen journalists as kind of the first line of understanding of what the most important news stories were. The Black Lives Matter Movement is using set of tools made possible by social media that allow for, truly, a democratization of not only civil rights and social justice frameworks, but t of the flow of information. You no longer need the 6 o'clock news to tell you what's important. What you need is your social media feed.


Thanks to mobile phones, reporting and sharing has become almost second nature, particularly to young people. What are the inherent responsibilities that come with that access and power?

Parents know how to talk to young people about safety for themselves and their own images when it comes to sharing on the net. But we don't often talk about how to be responsible for sharing the images of others, and, I think this is a word we don't often use with our young people, the intellectual property of others.  It's important to say, "Hey, if you take an image of a painting that your friend did, that's their intellectual property. That's something they created in the world. If you take a picture of it and you share it without their permission, you've taken something beautiful they've created, you've given it away. They might be okay with you giving it away, but you've got to make sure you have their permission first. If you're at a concert and you videotape the whole concert and then you share it on your social media feed ... What about that artist? Have they given you permission to do that? Or are they quit explicitly asking you not to do it."


These are things young people might have not thought about. It's as simple as when you're having that conversation about safety, you also have a conversation about intellectual property.


What has you excited about being black in America right now?

What has me excited about being black in America right now is that the Obamas are going out of office. I've got to tell you, the fact that we are about Michelle Obama, Barack Obama, Malia Obama, Sasha Obama, and the Obama mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, all liberated from the constraints of the Oval Office. All still quite young … We’ll probably have another 30 or 40 or 50 years of public life from the Obama family but no longer constrained by the Oval Office. Oh man, it's about to get real. I cannot wait. Very excited about it.


What do you see happening in the intersection of African-American culture and technology?

Throughout American history, black folks have always been both liberated by and oppressed by technology. If you think about the early twentieth century and scientific racism, technology was a tool of oppression that said black folks aren't really quite fully human. At the same time, technology is often the thing that is liberating. Think about the cotton gin that allows, in the context of enslavement, for black folks to be liberated from some of the harshest work of slavery with cotton. Think about the peanut, and all the things that happened around technology and the peanut, and how in fact black folks actually harnessed the power of technology to create amazing things.


In this moment, in the twenty-first century, we're seeing similar things. Technology is just a tool, a tool like a hammer that can be used for good or for evil. We should never presume that technology is going to be the friend of civil rights and social justice, nor should we presume that it is our enemy. It's simply a tool, and we're going to have to make sure it's used in a way that is ethical and racially just.


Interested in hearing other thought-leaders views on tech and social justice? Let us know with #TheBridgeATT.


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