Exploring Anti-Racist Perspectives in the History of Science: An Interview with Tola Ajao

January 17, 2024 by Dr. Pamela Fuentes Peralta

Recently, the Society for the History of Technology released on its website a newly expanded bibliography for an Anti-Racist History of Technology, compiled by the SHOT's REDI committee in partnership with the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. This bibliography is an updated version of the list of books, articles, and other sources in the history of technology and related fields that was compiled by a volunteer group of SHOT members in 2020 “in response to the Movement for Black Lives and a widespread acknowledgement that ‘doing the history of technology’ needed new approaches”.

Tola Ajao, a student of Professor Rebecca Woods in the flex time PhD program, worked alongside Professor Edward Jones-Imhotep to bring this valuable resource to the public. The new version offers an expanded list with annotations including paper abstracts and review excerpts. Whether you are a student, a professional in the field, a researcher, or simply interested in the history of technology, this living document will surely provide you with new perspectives.

Tola provided us with insights into the bibliography and the efforts that go into creating one:

How do you hope this bibliography will contribute to the history of technology?

I hope professors will think about consulting the bibliography when they construct their courses and syllabi. Black, Indigenous and scholars from the world beyond Europe, Canada and the US have been doing great work in STS for years. Hearing their perspectives and learning from their methods strikes me as overdue.

What challenges did you face while compiling this bibliography?

With my background in literature and cultural studies, STS is still a new field. So I was a little intimidated by the original bibliography I had to work with from the project co-sponsor, the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT), crowdsourced in the wake of George Floyd's murder.  At first, I just kind of moved things around by grouping works thematically and then according to methodology. It felt like I was stalling, but now I can see it was a way of reading and familiarizing myself with the works and scholars on the list.

Could you tell us more about the scholars and scholarship included in this resource?

There's a wide range of works on this (50-page) list, everything from big-picture treatments like Ulrike Felt and Rayvon Fouché's Handbook of Science and Technological Studies, to analytical gems such as Thomas Mullaney's history of the Chinese typewriter. I think the best way to answer your question is to share my shortest possible list of favourites:

•          Ariella Azoulay's chapter in Anne Stoler's Imperial Debris, on Gaza house demolitions by the IDF around 2008 describes a systemic "architecture of destruction" constitutive of the state. An Israeli scholar, she turns to Hannah Arendt's theories of public/private to comment on the resulting imperial debris. Timely and beautifully written.

•          Jenny Bulstrode's article "Black Metallurgists and the Making of the Industrial Revolution" is a meticulously researched exploration of Afro-Caribbean ingenuity in the forging of scrap metal into wrought iron. It caused quite a backlash from the UK press and in some academic circles. Co-editors of History and Technology, Amy Slaton and Tiago Saraiva recently published a strong defence of Bulstrode's work, also a great read!

•          Either of the books by Meredith Broussard Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World or More than a Glitch: Confronting Race, Gender and Ability Bias in Tech, draws on the work of Safiya Noble, Ruha Benjamin, Wendy Chung and Beth Coleman to explore the harms of algorithms for Black and racialized people.

•          Projit Mukharji's Doctoring Traditions: Ayurveda, Small Technologies and Braided Sciences. Now based in India at Ashoka University, Professor Mukharji and IHPST Professor Elise Burton have been officially appointed the incoming editors of Isis (with Pablo Gómez, from the University of Wisconsin, as book review editor). They will take over the editorship on July 1, 2024.

•          Marwa Elshakry, "When Science Became Western" offers a fascinating counterpoint to the idea that global science is Western science.

•          Abena Osseo Asare's Bitter Roots: The Search for Healing Plants in West Africa uncovers colonial-era botanical prospecting in West Africa and traces the uses, not only of African plants, but also of African knowledge in contemporary pharmaceuticals.

Is there anything new you learned while compiling and annotating this resource?

Professor Jones-Imhotep (IHPST was co-sponsor) was an amazing mentor and coach throughout. We had wonderful conversations which really helped me understand the methods and main tendencies in the field and get a sense of the historiography. Ever patient and encouraging, he would challenge me too. When I tried to describe an equivalent to antiracist methodology for African histories of technology, he suggested I approach it like a kind of taxonomy. Imagining myself as a Black Linnaeus didn't make it seem easier at the time, but somehow, I think it was helpful advice! Gabrielle Hecht, a great scholar and SHOT director, was also very supportive, especially in getting the final draft done.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to learn more about antiracist work on the history of technology?

Dig into the reading. Keep an open mind about what (and who) defines technology

How do you envision someone using this resource?

I was really pleased when my nephew, a journalist, asked me for my top picks. SHOT makes a point of reaching out to non-academics. I hope the list might find willing readers both within and beyond academic communities