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From Coded Bias (2020), dir. Shalini Kantayya (image courtesy The 2050 Group)

Tech is often idealized, if not outright fetishized, as a great leveling force in society. It is assumed that the algorithms at the foundation of the digital sphere are impartial and purely objective. In truth, though, every program will in some way reflect the prejudices of the humans who write them. The new documentary Coded Bias explores how racism is written into the structures of contemporary life.

Director Shalini Kantayya follows MIT researcher Joy Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, who uncovered how facial scanning systems have difficulty recognizing nonmale and especially nonwhite faces. From there, Buolamwini explores further issues with automated racism, as AI is being increasingly incorporated into surveillance and law enforcement. Given the subject matter, it’s disappointing that the film yields to orientalist tropes by holding up China as a dark possibility for the US to follow, even though it admits that the only material difference between Chinese and US surveillance is that China is open about it. Still, the film is a sobering look at how, rather than a hypothetical sci-fi scenario, in many ways we already live under a high-tech police state.

Coded Bias is now playing in virtual cinemas.

Dan Schindel

Dan Schindel is Associate Editor for Documentary at Hyperallergic. He lives and works in New York.