Ruha Benjamin thinks social justice and technology need to come together

Oct. 20, 2022, 1:20 a.m.

Ruha Benjamin introduced “a microvision of change” to Stanford and the surrounding community on Tuesday, calling on the audience to engage in everyday actions to create more just societies. 

Her presentation “Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want” is a part of the Stanford Humanities Center’s How Change Comes: Knowledge + Justice series. Benjamin, an African American Studies Professor at Princeton University, focused on introducing a new path for societal change, which aims to break down modern-day oppressive movements and behavior.

The presentation’s namesake, Benjamin’s most recently published book, discusses the consequences of discriminatory and racially motivated behavior and how we as a society take advantage of small luxuries hidden within our everyday lives. The book outlines minuscule everyday changes that can move society towards a more just community. Benjamin said it is not enough for one single individual to make a change; rather, we need to learn how to make a change as a community. 

Benjamin asked the audience, “Why wait for these brutal death-making structures to collapse before we really start living?” People currently live in fear of going out, meeting up with their families or leaving their homes because of the society that we have created today, she said. 

Annelamelia Leon ’26, who attended the event, said Benjamin prompted her to think about her own future. “A lot of us are tired, but like she said, we need to smell the smoke, keep going but at the same time find our place to breathe,” Leon said. 

“As a computer science major,” she said, “I know that, no matter what I do, I still want to be connected to some form of activism, like Benjamin said, know what you believe in, know what you stand for and know what you don’t stand for.”

Benjamin said we need to rally for change whenever we can and cannot wait for someone else to take down modern-day oppressors. She criticized what she described as a habit of bypassing the need to rally for change unless a significant event happens. We need to rally for such efforts and change the system before tragic events, like the murder of Breonna Taylor, torment our cities, Benjamin said.

Zainab Garba-Sani, a 2022-23 UK Commonwealth Fund Harkness Fellow in Health Policy and Practice at Stanford, said Benjamin’s talk made her think about the idea that “we’ve all got a collective responsibility to make a difference in the world.”

She said she would love to collaborate and pull the strengths of her community together, to create solutions to societal problems.

Benjamin also discussed the costs and benefits of innovation, with a focus on new technologies. While many believe that invention can solely lead to good, Benjamin outlined the possible negative consequences of innovation.

“If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that something almost undetectable can be deadly,” she said. One example she gave is how large corporations, such as Amazon, create filler programs to create a positive public impression. 

According to Benjamin, ‘Amazen,’ Amazon’s new employee wellness program allows Amazon to avoid the consequences of their actions by turning the public’s attention away from their lack of response towards recent employee protests over unionization efforts and instead towards an espoused priority of employee mental health. 

However, Benjamin said technology could also create spaces where people can heal and connect. She showed the audience the Breonna app, an augmented reality system that aims to honor Taylor’s memory. 

She said that the app is designed to be a space where users can interact and learn about Taylor. For Benjamin, this marked an important beginning for the use of VR to honor the dead while also creating spaces where individuals feel safe to talk about emotions like grief and depression. 

Angela Wang, a LinkedIn employee who attended the talk said, “It’s very interesting to see how technology, such as AR and VR, is being used to create spaces where people have the freedom to be still.” Wang said she feels grateful that she can now apply this information at LinkedIn. 

Benjamin left the audience with a final call to action: “The lens of viral justice encourages us to amplify, like a microscope would, seemingly small efforts and entice us to spread them.” 

A previous version of this article referred to Benjamin’s book as a novel and implied she graduated from Stanford. The Daily regrets this error.

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