“A lifelong curiosity” about science, technology and inequality
Alondra Nelson was born in Bethesda, Maryland in 1968. Her parents, both military, had met at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, she said. (His mother worked in an underground bunker and traveled a mile to meet his father above ground.) Nelson’s early years were spent in Guantanamo Bay, then Naples, Italy, before moving to San Diego. She was surrounded by science, she says — making candy strips at the local naval hospital, spending weekends at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. She found him claustrophobic. “I’ve always been more interested in people,” she says, “what people do with science.”
Graduated from UC San Diego in 1994 magna cum laude An anthropology graduate, she was looking for a graduate program that would allow her to study not a distant culture, but something closer to home: the American tech scene. She found it at NYU.
In New York, she quickly made a place for herself, and relationships. She had been struck, she said, by the stories circulating that “the great thing about technology is that there will be no identity,” as she laughs. “Is it a good thing, if nobody knows you are a woman on the Internet? Perhaps. Is it a good thing if no one knows you’re black?
She began to question the idea, pushing back against the idea that race and gender wouldn’t mean anything in the digital age. It was the late 90s and people were learning how to build relationships online. Nelson seized upon an airborne concept of “Afrofuturism,” an aesthetic and philosophy that intertwines ideas about the future and technology with the history and experiences of the African diaspora. A related mailing list created by Nelson attracted an eclectic mix of scholars, artists and inventors, including science fiction novelist Bruce Sterling, poet Pamela Mordecai and Jelani Cobb, then a graduate student in history at Rutgers, now widely acclaimed. New Yorker writer.
“She’s a brilliant scholar who bridged many different disciplines,” Nelson’s Cobb says today. “Sometimes people take an idea or a question and go deeper and deeper into that unique area. Alondra went outward,” to walk through the “cultural context in which technologies and society exist.” Cobb remains today. now a Nelson fan. “I just think the world of her.”
Doctorate in American studies in his pocket – his thesis recounted the health activism of the Black Panthers of the 1960s – in 2003, Nelson joined the Yale faculty as an assistant professor and spent half a dozen years in New Haven before being recruited by Columbia, first to teach, then also to serve as dean school social sciences. She spent a dozen years there, earning a reputation as a creative scholar who could see into every nook and cranny. Throughout her career, she’s collected stories of how communities of color have embraced science and technology in unexpected ways, claiming places where much of the world told them they didn’t belong. .
Dash, the CEO of Glitch, has known Nelson for years, including serving with her on the board of the Data & Society think tank. He highlights his popularization of the idea of Afrofuturism now widely reflected in pop culture – see Weather magazine declaring in 2019 “Afrofuturism has its time” while quoting the movie “Black Panther” – and its early spotting of the salience of genetic testing would come to have in black communities. His 2016 book, The social life of DNA, a kind of ethnography that took her from Oakland, California, to the UK, delved into early black users of consumer genetic testing kits and examined how the practice had potential as a way to recover bloodlines hidden by slavery – and to become a tool for addressing reconciliation, perhaps in the form of reparations. “Being right for so long with so much clarity is pretty rare,” says Dash.
At its core, his philosophy was that focusing solely on excluding these communities not only misinterpreted the past, but shrunk the future possibilities that innovation held for them.
In 2017, she took over as president of the Brooklyn-based Social Science Research Council. She left in 2021 to focus on her place on the faculty of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study, the Princeton organization that was once home to Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Along the way, she was working on another book, one that would look at a semi-obscure wing of the Obama presidency that she found fascinating: the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Nelson says she saw the OSTP as the place where compelling change was happening. As his administration progressed, Obama grew suspicious of science and technology. “Science allows us to communicate across the seas and fly above the clouds; to cure disease and understand the cosmos,” he said during a visit to Hiroshima, Japan, deep in his second term. “But those same discoveries can be turned into ever more effective killing machines.” Nelson says, “I was very interested in the emergence in American science and technology policy of a conversation about ethics and values. [coming] explicitly from the White House.
Nelson’s work on the book, rooted in the idea that Obama broke new ground by focusing the ethical implications of technology and science, would raise his profile in Washington, but the Biden universe already had him on its radar screen. As it became apparent that Biden would be president (“Dodged a bullet,” Nelson wrote in a now deleted tweet on polling day, adding: “I didn’t even know I had that expression in my vocabulary”), they looked for a place for her.
President-elect Biden would create a bespoke new role for Nelson, one that she herself had defined: the first-ever “deputy director of science and society.”
Nelson signed. She would rent an apartment in a townhouse in Logan Circle and start working under Lander. In announcing her pick of Nelson, Biden called her one of America’s greatest scholars, driven by “a lifelong curiosity about the inequalities and power dynamics that lurk beneath the surface of scientific inquiry and of the technology we build”.