Sylvester Johnson to discuss Race & Necropolitics at MCC

Jason Lin/TBL Photography

Claire Breen

Sylvester Johnson spoke at the University of California, Santa Barbara on Tuesday, April 26 as part of the MultiCultural Center’s Race Matters Series.

Johnson is an associate professor of African American Studies and Religious Studies at Northwestern University. His research focuses on race colonialism, religion in Atlantic geographies and studies of intelligent machines and their implication on humans.

He gave a lecture entitled “Race and Necropolitics in the Age of Intelligent Machines.” Johnson discussed the challenges and implications of intelligent machines, and their use in domains ranging from healthcare and education to warfare, religion and policing.

Prior to the event, Johnson spoke to The Bottom Line about his work. In a phone interview, he said he became interested in artificial intelligence and its implications on the human race by interacting with digital interfaces for a visual humanities project.

While creating a digital scholarly edition of an early English book entitled Purchas His Pilgrimage by Samuel Purchas, he said he, “realized machines can actually read, that they can actually formulate and manipulate informational relationships among beta sets.” Johnson continued, “These machines can actually think, they can process information, they are informational.”

Johnson commented that the future of the human race might very well be redefined as intelligent machines become more complex.

“If humans continue to be combined with machines, which is already happening for biomedical purposes, will we end up with a differentiated understanding of human races? With enhanced humans?” he said. “Those questions have really drove my interest, have propelled my research.”

According to the event description, Johnson planned to delve deeper into these questions, exploring if humans will become one with intelligent machines, if machines will threaten the existence of human, or if a new race of machine-enhanced humans will emerge to dominate the rest.

This event marked Johnson’s first time visiting the UCSB campus, and he said he was especially excited to be speaking at the MultiCultural Center, a space that he is familiar with for their engagement “with a range of topics around difference, power, diversity, conflict [and] social challenges.”

Johnson’s discussion of race is relevant to recent news, including the announcement that Harriet Tubman will be featured on the $20 bill. Johnson commented on this news. 

“Well, it’s complicated,” he said. “On the whole I think it’s great and reason for celebration. I think it’s significant that women will be on U.S. currency, particularly that a Black woman is going to be on the face of U.S. currency, given Tubman’s legacy as someone who was an anti-slavery activist who was responsible for helping to liberate hundreds of people.”

However, Johnson continued to say that it is equally important and urgent for us to understand the function of symbols.

“If this merely functions as a way of celebrating and promoting the U.S., without questioning its role in settler colonialism, whiteness and the broader tentacles of U.S. empire,” he said, “then it could function adversely by making Tubman an icon of that political project when in fact she was someone who was deeply opposed to it.”