Awa Hanane Diagne, a research assistant at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science & Technology (IHPST) in the Faculty of Arts & Science at the University of Toronto, had always been intrigued by social scientific and humanistic approaches to science, but never planned on pursuing the field of history of technology.
A Fall/Winter 2021-2022 work-study position introduced the 2020 Loran Scholar to a new world of research she found deeply insightful and rewarding.
As part of a team of student researchers on the Black Androids project, led by Edward Jones-Imhotep, director and associate professor at IHPST, Diagne helped trace the history of how the technologies of steam, mechanics and electricity were used to build racialized automata in New York City throughout the past 200 years — and its impact on Black life.
Diagne continued to work on the project over the summer through a research fellowship funded by the University of Toronto Excellence Award and the Critical Digital Humanities Undergraduate Fellowship. Inspired by the project, she also conducted an independent study to explore how Tesla, the American electric car manufacturer, is reproducing the cultural and material harms perpetuated by Black androids through the Tesla bot, a robotic humanoid.
“Technology is never neutral. It almost always has sociocultural dimensions we need to examine so we don’t reproduce inequality,” says Diagne, a fourth-year student majoring in sociocultural anthropology, and minoring in critical studies in equity and solidarity and women and gender studies.
Tina Adamopoulos of U of T's Black Research Network chatted with Diagne, who is a member of University College, about her research endeavors.
What interested you in your current fields of study?
Coming into university, I was always interested in studying any discipline that looked at medicine, healthcare, science and technology through a critical lens, so I initially took many interdisciplinary courses. I think I ended up in sociocultural/medical anthropology, gender studies and equity studies because I appreciate these fields’ emphasis on decolonial methods and the vibrant, supportive communities they offer.
A notable project that you have been contributing to is the Black Androids project. What have you been working on?
I’m a research assistant on the Black Androids and the Technological Underground project, which is comprised of Professor Jones-Imhotep and a team of extremely talented undergraduate and graduate research assistants. It’s a project that looks at a lot of things. On one side, it’s looking at Black androids, deeply racist historical objects. However, most of my work on the project has focused on researching Black technological life — that is, how through the technologies that powered these androids, Black Americans countered the stereotypes perpetuated by the androids.
Researching Black technological life over the past year has sort of felt like a second classroom: I have gained knowledge and skills in digital humanities methodologies, anti-racist archival practice, science and technology studies and much more.
During the summer, you started conducting research about Tesla’s android and critiqued it based on the histories of electricity, servile labor and inequality. What are some of your main research goals with this project?
My research on the Tesla bot emerged thanks to my position on the Black Androids project. Starting from a WIRED article, I did a lot of reading on the early twentieth century electrification of the United States, a process that was marked by an anthropomorphization of electricity as a replacement for the slave labour that was formally abolished in the late 19th century. There was an idea that it could replace that labour and create a world of leisure. It became a techno-utopian fantasy.
My independent study allowed me to write an essay that essentially connects the Tesla bot to this history and make some insights on the harmful implications that this project could have, whether it is fully realized or not.
Where will you take this research next?
I just finished writing it during the summer! Now that it’s written, I would love to bring it to a wider audience and use the skills I have learned for other projects that I will be working on.
What gaps are you currently trying to fill on this topic in academia?
Through my summer research project, I was hoping to contribute to an existing repertoire of academic and cultural discourse that is critical of the utopianism, the technological determinism and the implicit racism that underpins a lot of current technological innovation. Although the Tesla Bot is a recent and, in many ways, sensationalist example of this phenomenon, many Black woman scholars including Alondra Nelson and Ruha Benjamin have previously and continue to make powerful insights on this topic.
What is your advice to undergraduates who want to pursue research and explore topics outside of their focus?
There are a lot of opportunities at U of T, but sometimes they are hard to find and access. I got involved with the Black Androids and the Technological Underground project through the work-study program, so I would encourage students to apply to the positions that speak to them prior to the start of the Fall/Winter session. Furthermore, most departments in the Faculty of Arts & Science offer independent research and capstone project courses, which can also be a way for students to explore unique research questions that are potentially outside of their disciplinary focus. The course, Decolonizing Research Methodologies for New Researchers (CSE469Y1), which I am currently enrolled in, is a particularly good example of a research course that encourages students with STEM and social science/humanities backgrounds alike to develop qualitative research projects that challenge the conventional methods used in their respective fields.