Racism, Technology and Mass Consumption

Motion sensors have become commonly used within various hygiene devices primarily in public spaces functioning as triggers for activating hands-free devices. This includes sinks, soap dispensers and hand dryers as a way of having less contact surfaces in a washing experience. Motion sensors can both send and receive beams of light while monitoring changes in the amount of light they receive as light bounces off a surface. A base reading on the environment sets the off function and then having hands present at the desired proximity sets the on function.

Recently several devices were revealed for failing to acknowledge hands of various skin-tones being present. When early models of such devices were installed, they were set to the on and off function based on their environments. Technicians took into account the light levels of the room and often set their functions using their own hands as the register for determination. Understanding the function of the device, a savvy technician could ensure the sensors would be sensitive enough to predict a vast range of skin tones within their user groups. A negligent or even malicious technician could place these devices within a shadowed space making the sensor less effective.

As motion sensor devices became more mass produced, they became commonly installed by the end user and not a technician. Additionally, as mass production leads to inevitable areas where costs must be cut in order to make products with cheaper prices or higher profit margins to the manufacturer using poorly crafted parts and cutting corners in manufacturing. As sensors became installed incorrectly being placed within poorly lit conditions or the devices themselves were not strong enough to register light bouncing off of many skin tones, they became revealed as non-functional objects and branded as racist devices.

The redesign of these devices has become a shift away from light sensors and towards motion-detecting infrared energy waves. The devices that measure energy waves are similar to the light sensor as like a light is brighter closer to the bulb, the infrared radiation is denser nearer to the device and it spreads out farther away. As infrared is a new innovation responding to a racial-critique the devices have not yet suffered the detriment of the mass production cycle where cheaper parts will emphasize design flaws. Infrared has its own series of issues such as colder hands may not trigger the object but currently, cold hands are not being considered as a racial trait although they may become a point of public discourse all the same when future studies reveal the privilege of men as the user.

As much as I have made efforts to give a benefit of doubt to the creators of such devices, this entire process reveals how design processes can be inherently biased. Designers are always anchored into a theory of self and a climate of progress. Design constructs not only need to make effort to work on behalf of all people but they need to begin working towards those not currently present. Open-concept multi-faceted thinking where as many efforts are being made as possible by as many people as possible. When innovations allow for a process that works, how can progress, commodity, trade or profit become regulated to ensure the innovation remains relevant to many people? Although I think that these processes have systemic barriers to many peoples specifically racial barriers, I also think that the profit-driven model of mass production works against good intentions. Mt only solution is to remove the constraints which means increased representation of many peoples within the technical industry to ensure the population of creators represents the populations they serve and capitalism is not a factor in manufacturing removing competition and preventing  innovations from being undermined through declining product quality as a pursuit of profit.