I have learned things about actor Chadwick Boseman that I didn’t know before his death, namely just how intentional he was with every aspect of his work and his explicit choice to focus on impact. That commitment is what led to roles portraying Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and the Black Panther. Boseman’s goal, agent Michael Greene said, was to make films that uplift Black people and bring light into the world. Boseman and the Black Panther meant a lot to a lot of people, from those who had never seen a Black superhero before to kids who held funerals for the Black Panther with their Avengers action figures this past week.
Director Ryan Coogler explained in detail this week how integral Boseman’s contribution was to the development of the Black Panther — how he helped decide that Wakandans would speak the African Xhosa language, sat in on supporting role auditions, shaped the script, and insisted the Black Panther speak with an African accent because he wanted him to be someone “whose dialect had not been conquered by the West.”
But the film didn’t just produce the most popular Black superhero the world has ever seen and become one of the highest-grossing films ever. It also introduced to the collective imagination a world in which Africans are the most technologically advanced people on the planet. It was the first depiction of afrofuturism and Black technologists most audiences had seen in a major movie and a marked departure from common depictions of Africans dominated by outsiders.
Black Panther presents a vision of a place called Wakanda, but it has also inspired the idea of building tech in the spirit of Wakanda. On Tuesday, rapper Akon rolled out plans to build what he calls a real-life Wakanda on 2,000 acres of Senegalese coastline. He first shared his concept of a futuristic, technologically advanced city in 2018 and said it will welcome members of the African diaspora. The Washington Post reports the project has secured $4 billion of the $6 billion investment necessary to build Akon City.
But building tech with Wakandan values does not require vibranium or billions of dollars. Black Panther is a story of family drama and the battle between Killmonger and T’Challa, but a key conflict is whether technology should be used for conquest or to lift people up and advance human progress. That fight should sound familiar to anyone who follows the controversies brewing around issues like data privacy, surveillance, AI ethics, the need for a more diverse tech industry, and the growing power of Big Tech companies. These questions are far from settled in our world, but Wakandans ultimately decided to prioritize the good of humanity. When Wakanda chooses to share its technology with the rest of the world, King T’Challa tells the United Nations: “We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.”
You can see similar attitudes about technology in work African AI researchers have introduced in the past few months.
Harvard University researcher Sabelo Mhlambi is exploring the ethical impacts of artificial intelligence on the developing world. In July, he introduced a human rights framework for automated decision making systems based on the African philosophy of Ubuntu. This restorative justice framework was created by leaders like Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu and treats the interconnectivity of humanity as a universal truth. Mhlambi asserts that “digital colonialism and surveillance capitalism enabled by artificial intelligence will not preserve the human dignity of all” and suggests Ubuntu serve as the foundation for tech policy and AI governance.
“The perceived infallibility and supremacy of rationality, especially as administered through machines, exacerbates the marginalization of those in society whose exclusion has been rationalized or found ‘productive,’” Mhlambi writes in a paper about the framework.
Anticolonial AI, which seeks to avoid algorithmic exploitation and algorithmic oppression, is similarly in keeping with Wakandan principles. Researchers have also advocated queering AI to bring more equitable science and technology into the world.
Other recent examples of work by researchers of African descent:
- UC Berkeley Ph.D. candidate Devin Guillory wrote about how AI researchers can combat anti-Blackness in the AI community.
- Dr. Fallon Wilson studies the Black tech ecosystem in the U.S. and says it’s time for a Black tech movement, something she has described as a “Wakanda-like dream.”
- University College Dublin Ph.D. candidate Abeba Birhane recently examined forms of algorithmic colonialization of Africa in fintech and other sectors.
- In the Oxford Handbook for Race and Law, Ifeoma Ajunwa documented the history of labor discrimination in the U.S. and asserted that automation’s impact on the future of work is expected to hit Black and Latinx households hardest.
In addition to contributions by Black researchers, scholars have recently introduced concepts like indigenous AI and data feminism, as well as the whiteness of AI, highlighting the pervasive erasure of people of color from depictions of robots and AI in science fiction and popular culture.
Over the arc of history, science fiction tends to influence technology. Killer robots have shaped public sentiment around AI, Back to the Future is the reason people expect to have a flying car someday, and Alexa was inspired by Star Trek.
Black Panther champions technology for the good of humanity, and Wakandans make fun of colonizers. It’s always been striking to me how Boseman’s King T’Challa is depicted in the final scenes of the movie sharing Wakandan technology with both the nations of the world and Black kids in Oakland.
Wakanda is an imaginary place, and vibranium doesn’t exist, but the collective dream of technology that empowers people and lifts them up is real, as is the rapid rise of the tech sector in Africa and the growing number of African developers, according to GitHub’s 2019 Octoverse report. Whatever happens with the Black Panther sequel or initiatives like Akon City, the spirit of Wakanda is alive among people passionate about making technology that improves human lives and casts out oppression.