Digitize and Punish: Racial capitalism meets information capitalism.



The following is an excerpt from Digitize and Punish: Racial Criminalization in the Digital Age by Brian Jefferson. This book is free to read online until August 31, 2020, along with dozens of others in our Reading for Racial Justice collection.


The architects of today’s digitized infrastructures of criminalization and carceral management did not arrive in the dystopian form of Neuromancer’s Tessier-Ashpool or Blade Runner’s Tyrell Corporation.[7] Instead, they came in the guise of public relations–friendly companies like International Business Machines (IBM) and Motorola Solutions and little known ones like Tyler Technologies and Fulcrum Biometrics. At the start of the millennium, Oracle Corporation supplied nearly three-quarters of the federal government’s database management systems. Shortly thereafter, Microsoft Corporation began to collaborate with cities to design and sell software for computer-operated surveillance, the profits of which it split with city governments. In addition to becoming fertile growth sectors for the IT industry, the prototyping of criminal justice technology has been largely subsidized by tax dollars. IT firms have siphoned billions in public grants through the Community Oriented Policing Services Office and the Office of Justice Programs to research and design products for the Wars on Crime and Drugs. In addition, public policy actively fuels the mass production of criminal justice technology. Taser International’s revenue grew nearly 75 percent less than a fiscal quarter following the launch of the Body-Worn Camera Policy and Implementation Program.[8] More recently, the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate unveiled its Silicon Valley Innovation Program, which has funneled millions of dollars to dozens of small tech companies. Professional associations of tech executives have awarded criminal justice agencies with millions of dollars through competitions such as the International Data Group’s Grand CIO Enterprise Value Award and the International Association of Chiefs of Police/Motorola Webber Seavey Award in Law Enforcement. Moreover, an ever-expanding circuit of criminal justice technology conventions reinforce the connective tissue that binds the IT sector to mass criminalization.



While IT and social management are focal points of this study, prominent studies on power in the digital age offer only so much to the project.[9] In these works, the negatively racialized poor are discussed in passing with reference to the “informational black holes” populated by “homeless, incarcerated, prostituted, criminalized, brutalized, stigmatized, sick, and illiterate persons” in the Global South and marginalized sectors of Global North cities. Preeminent sociologists maintain that these excluded areas are cut adrift from circuitries of information processing and hence are external to information economies.[10] But this couldn’t be further from the truth in the impoverished sectors of U.S. cities. On the contrary, these areas find themselves increasingly immersed in networked infrastructures made up of audio sensors, datacenters, drones, electronic ankle monitors, geographic information systems, mobile digital terminals, server rooms, and smart surveillance cameras. They are constantly assessed through actuarial risk instruments, appraised through predictive analytics, digitally mapped and modeled, and monitored by smart cameras. And so long as the profit of technology corporations drives the proliferation of such technologies, criminalized populations present lucrative opportunities for IT capitalization.

A growing number of public critics offer a wealth of descriptive analysis on recent forms of computerized racism.[11] These commentators show how discriminatory designs, human fallibility, and methodological inadequacies in criminal justice software effectuate racial inequalities. But while they illuminate negative effects of digitized racism, we are only beginning to grasp its positive functions in the wider social field. Criminal justice technoscience is a productive source for all manner of knowledge, privileges, strategies, subjectivities, tactics, technical innovations, and, not to be overlooked, profits. The lens of racial capitalism helps discern how interactions between racial subordination, technological advancement, and capital have come to constitute such a generative combination. This framework harkens back at least to the work of W. E. B. Du Bois, who showed the extraordinarily productive role of racialization in early phases of industrial capitalism.[12] Du Bois discovered how the production of nonwhiteness reinforced rationales for the abduction and hyperexploitation of Africans and their descendants. He also uncovered how wealthy European Americans produced notions of whiteness to lure poor European Americans into blaming the calamities of capitalism on nonwhites. It was also Du Bois who revealed the lethal combinations of agricultural capitalism, industrial capitalism, and racial criminalization. Cedric Robinson demonstrated how racial differentiation played a constitutive role in constructing European capitalism.[13] Robinson provided a vivid account of how mercantilist capitalists exploited entrenched racial, tribal, linguistic, and regional antagonisms to peg certain groups as cheap labor sources. These thinkers, along with a host of contemporary theorists of racial capitalism, provide a solid foundation to understand how information capitalists exploit the racialized antagonisms that define our new millennium.[14]



By revisiting the history of mass criminalization from the standpoints of the IT companies, computer scientists, and technocrats, Digitize and Punish seeks to problematize some of the more prominent theories of social control in the digital age.[15] The book contradicts Baudrillard’s theory of a simulated society where social reality is fully subordinated to or even replaced by code. It also problematizes Deleuze’s theory of a computerized control society where disciplinary enclosures (cubicles, factories, prisons) and modernity’s old social categories have lost their utility. This book is not about a new society of control; rather, it is about an ongoing form of racialized social management that is slowly mutating through digital technology. It is about how the carceral state uses technology in ways that do not supplant sovereign violence, discipline, or long-standing social differences but rather synthesizes them with the affordances of modern technology. It emphasizes how criminalization in the age of digital computation does not signify a new cultural logic so much as it performs an upgrade of entrenched modes of social differentiation and dominance. Modernity’s racial taxonomies are not vanishing through computerization; they have just been imported into data arrays. The digitization of criminal records allows authorities to essentialize individuals using well-worn ethnoracial categories. For example, the Association of State Correctional Administrators, Corrections Program Office, and Bureau of Justice Statistics have each stressed the importance of including demographic categories like race, Hispanic origin, religious affiliation, citizenship, and country of birth into offender database systems.[16] Some criminal justice risk assessment software codes attributes like race, country of origin, and English proficiency as casual variables of criminal behavior (see chapter 2). In such instances, racial identities are not anachronisms but logic elements.

This book aims to disrupt the view that digitized social power signifies the decline of enclosures and sovereign violence. While electronic ankle bracelets might seem to represent the networked dispersion of the carceral apparatus, the bracelets are used to establish house arrest—most often in public housing. What appears dispersed at the level of individuals turns out to be clustered at the level of social groups. To compound things, the combination of criminal justice databases and the internet has made the stigma of criminal records indelible and virtually impossible to conceal. This establishes a punitive force field around formerly convicted subjects that restricts their access to capital, education, employment, housing, and welfare. In such instances, computer code is enrolled by authorities to continue the work of the Black Codes.[17] Such power therefore can be understood not as the biopolitical control of dividuals but as the necropolitical management of social groups.


Brian Jefferson is associate professor of geography and geographic information science at the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign. More about Digitize and Punish.

Leave a Reply