Hidden Figures Reveals Why Politics is an Intrinsic Part of Technological Progress

By James O Malley on at

Hidden Figures finally hits UK cinemas later this month - and is a powerful recreation of the story of three black women, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Katherine G Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), who worked at NASA during the 60s - and who were responsible for making the calculations that ensured American rockets kept up with the Soviet Union.

This post originally ran on 2nd February, but the film is out today and we decided to run it again.

To my privileged, 21st century metropolitan liberal eyes, it’s portrait of Jim Crow-era Virginia is both rather shocking and comically vindictive level of racism that these women encountered. At one point in the film, after Johnson is promoted to work on Project Mercury, not only must she travel half a mile back across the NASA campus to use the bathroom, but a second tea urn labelled “colored” is introduced for her to use.

It’s a really good film - and it paints in broad brush strokes to illustrate a truth (not the truth, as the filmmakers took the expected creative liberties to make it more watchable) about what life was like at that moment in time, for those characters. The only distraction was that Johnson’s romantic interest was played by Mahershala Ali, who played Remy Danton in House of Cards and Cottonmouth in Luke Cage, so I kept expecting him to turn out to be evil.

It surely isn’t a spoiler to reveal that - surprise! - the women in the film are eventually recognised for their contributions and as a result NASA manages to successfully launch rockets.

It’s because of this I that think that the film makes a profoundly important point - not just about how systemic racism and sexism are terrible, or how important the struggle for civil rights in the US was - but also about the value of inclusive institutions.

If you’re reading Gizmodo UK, you’re probably, like me, a bit of a geek when it comes to technology. Every day we write about new innovations - new technologies, new devices, and new discoveries that could change the world. We even talk regularly about new rockets which, fingers crossed, will get us back to the moon sooner rather than later. But these innovations do not appear in a vacuum - and technology does not exist independently from its wider context. They are made possible by inclusive institutions.

Why Nations Fail

In their 2012 book, Why Nations Fail Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson outline a grand theory for why some countries are more successful than others - and they pin it on the difference between “inclusive” and “extractive” institutions.

Essentially extractive institutions are those political systems where a small elite class is able to exploit everyone else - which kills the incentive for normal people to innovate or invest in something. And conversely, inclusive institutions are those which distribute political and economic power more fairly. It’s a compelling hypothesis, and Hidden Figures is a perfect example.

Here are three brilliant minds who are prevented from exploiting their talents by the extractive institutions of the time. The institutional racism of Jim Crow meant that Johnson et al were unable to work in the same department as their white colleagues, and institutional sexism meant that they were excluded from important meetings for no real reason. Society was fundamentally geared towards exploiting black Americans, rather than sharing the fruits of society with them. These institutions stifled black Americans through this weird hierarchy, and created impossible barriers for them to overcome, preventing them from participating fully in society - and NASA’s attempt to get a man into space was hindered as a result.

The real Katherine Johnson receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

This institutional theory is fairly compelling, and it can be applied to countless historical examples to explain development or lack thereof.

For example, for centuries there was very little economic growth and innovation, and Europe was ruled by monarchies which taxed the people and expropriated their wealth. It was only when the industrial revolution took place - when individuals were empowered to innovate, and could be confident that the fruits of their ideas wouldn’t be taken from them arbitrarily, that we saw a boom in innovation and the inventions that led to modern industrialised society.

China today is another good example. The country is no longer the world’s sweatshop, but is a country on the bleeding edge of many technologies - think the likes of Huawei, Xiaomi and DJI. It isn’t democratic - but since the economic reforms of the 1970s and 80s, the country has established more inclusive economic institutions that have incentivised innovation.

This isn’t a left-wing or a right-wing idea per-se, as it is predicated on both a market that is free enough to enable innovation, but also a state that is strong enough to redistribute wealth, or at least prevent its expropriation - as well as a state that will pursue policies that create stability and fairness. Yes, it’s an argument that profit is an effective incentive - but it’s also an argument that redistribution and diversity are also crucial for development.

Trumped Up Innovation

In a strange way Hidden Figures feels like a film that is both very contemporary and a strange relic from a world we’ve left behind. It’s contemporary, because clearly the world it depicts has not fully disappeared. Today, mercifully, discrimination is less overt - personal attitudes have become more enlightened, but sadly many structural aspects of racism remain. The same can be said for the sexism that is also depicted in the film. So the links between the film and American (and more broadly western) society today are pretty clear.

But it also feels weirdly out of time - like a relic of the Obama era. For a start, there’s a happy ending, which feels strangely hard to relate to. During one climatic sequence, the film literally plays a song over the action which contains the lyrics “Yes We Can” are repeated over and over.

And it makes me wonder: Every indication at the moment points to a Trump administration that is going to do its best to return to a more extractive time. Political institutions are set to be systematically dismantled by the new administration’s shattering of norms. The pattern of restrictive “Voter ID” laws designed specifically to disenfranchise minorities will surely accelerate. Despite promises to “drain the swamp”, Trump has packed his cabinet with the Wall Street financial services elite who want to tear down regulations and limit redistribution.

In just the last few weeks, we’ve seen with Trump’s executive order banning people from seven Muslim countries - and it isn’t a coincidence that some of the most vocal opposition has been from Silicon Valley.

As Hidden Figures dramatises, extractive institutions have consequences. America today could relapse and once again become a place where economic and political power is not shared (even more so than now) - where groups of people are systematically disenfranchised, and are unable to make use of their talents and skills.

And what will such a situation mean for the state of tech? If we want to continue to see the rapid pace of development that we’re used to continue, then we need to make sure that everyone can participate in making innovation happen.

Hidden Figures is in UK cinemas from 17th February.