Charlton McIlwain is professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University and founder of the Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies. He is the author of Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the Afronet to Black Lives Matter. Before joining the Zócalo/Future Tense panel, “How Has Computer Code Shaped Humanity?,” he sat down in our green room to chat Facebook, Y2K, and family.
When has technology thrilled you?
I think the thrill came in 1997. That was dial up: the modem and the expectation, and waiting… and as soon as it connects—if it ever connects—there’s something there.
What was your AOL screenname?
No recollection. I remember I got those discs—too many of them—in the mail.
What is one of the most inspiring online spaces?
The 1619 Project. It’s a fascinating look into history and a platform, the multimedia component of it—all of it.
How about one of the bleakest?
Facebook. It seems devoid of anything of interest. Which is not to say I don’t go there here and there. But compared to a moment where there seemed to be something of value, most of it seems to be vapid.
You teach at NYU. What is one of your favorite things about it?
It’s got to be the students. They help me think, and they also give me some modicum of optimism for the future.
Where is somewhere you go in NYC to unplug?
My house. A pandemic acquisition that’s got many of the things that I love: BBQ grills and smokers. I smoke and grill and cook often. I don’t do well with instructions or recipes, so there’s a lot of experimentation. But also a few things that I’ve got down.
Where were you on New Year’s Eve going into 2000, when Y2K and millennium bug panic spread across the globe?
I was walking very unexpectedly empty streets in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. I had been there for a little bit, but I expected more; I expected people out particularly for this particular turn. And there were zero.
What is something you find beautiful about the world?
Family. Not just my own, but seeing the connection of people across the world particularly with family— the ties that really are strongest and deepest—that often you can spot and tell.