At an early-morning assembly on Dec. 8, Upper School students had their eyes opened by Dr. Clyde Ford, who detailed the little-known history between one of the world’s most powerful technology corporations — IBM — and some of the ugliest and most racist movements of the 20th century. Ford had worked as a software developer at IBM in the early 1970s, following the career path of his father, John, who began work in 1946 as IBM’s first Black software engineer.
A psychologist, chiropractor, and nationally known book author, Dr. Ford had set out to write a “feel good” father-son memoir set against the backdrop of the emerging power of computer technology. In his research, though, he discovered that the founder of IBM, Thomas Watson, the man who hired his father, had readily offered the power of that technology to help collect, store, sort, and print the discriminating data that would fuel the eugenics movement in the United States, the horror of Naziism in Hitler’s Germany, and the brutal treatment of Black South Africans during apartheid. Ford’s resulting memoir, “Think Black,” presents a far more complicated exploration of race, technology, and a corporation that, Ford told students, repeatedly and for decades profited “from being on the wrong side of human rights.”
It was not merely a history lesson. Dr. Ford pointed out current examples of the pervasive sexism and racism baked into the terminology of the software industry. He talked about the continuing role of technology in discrimination, by IBM and other companies, in areas such as facial recognition software, the use of red-lined ZIP codes in credit score algorithms, and the ways artificial intelligence uses historic inputs to amplify and disseminate racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic views. It’s the duty of this next generation, he told students, to become educated and vigilant about issues of injustice — to realize, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., that the most powerful network in our lives is not digital, but rather the “inescapable network of mutuality” that connects each of us to each other in the larger society.
Learn more about Dr. Ford on his website.