This old hammer killed John Henry: An Object Relations/Phenomenological Exploration of Technophobia, Racism, and White Privilege

AI Art M. Langlois

“What is dangerous is not technology. Technology is not demonic; but its essence is mysterious… The threat to man does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology. The actual threat has already afflicted man in his essence.” –Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology

“There are the hands that made us, and then there are the hands that guide the hands.”—Guardians of the Galaxy 3


Whiteness likes its technology as it likes its privilege—invisible. If we have grown used to a technology, our pencils and printing presses, abaci and atlases, qanat and cranks, we enjoy the power they give us, the way they amplify our efforts, speed, and knowledge. But when technology first emerges the pattern is always the same: at best, awe and bewilderment, at worst fear and demonization.

For some time I have been troubled by the way some of us, especially in my field of psychology, have greeted emerging technology with this attitudinal stance, even though I understand it in both the psychodynamic and philosophical terms I’ll outline below. I have struggled to articulate the implicit connections I sense between technophobia, racism, classism and other forms of prejudice and oppression. It is unlikely that this beginning work will do more than make some of these connections more explicit, spark conversation and thought in others, and spur on colleagues to research these ideas in academia and beyond.

I originally considered writing this in an academic style for academics, and from that vantage point I have already failed miserably. The ideas I wish to convey require more playfulness, the issues and people at stake require more passion. I hope that the plates I set spinning in an attempt to resonate these ideas will move you to carry on those more rarified but important discussions as well.

Science and research often rightly say “show me the evidence to support your claims.” However, this stance is also often co-opted intentionally or unintentionally by oppressors to silence people speaking truth to power. No one today asks us to provide evidence that chattel slavery harms the human psyche, but there was a time when neuropsychology cited the research of phrenologist Fritz Galls to assert that Black slaves were not quite human even to have a psyche. (Galls, 1835) Until an oppression is made visible, such as racism or homophobia, we can use science as a handmaiden to oppression. Show us the evidence, we hear, while conversion therapies harm the minds of LGBTQIA+ human beings, and then we will take action. Prove that health disparities exist between BIPOC and white human beings, as if four centuries of chattel slavery and Jim Crow cannot be taken as givens. I am grateful to colleagues who will take up these charges, but I do not have the time or patience. As Bettye LaVette says, I’ve got my own hell to raise.

*  *  *  *  *

So let me ask a series of seemingly unrelated questions: Why is the IT guy always put in the basement? Who really wins when a Black man takes on a steam drill? What was the 3/5s Compromise? Why are we so scared of AI? And what does Heidegger’s hammer have to do with any of this? An answer from the perspective of psychoanalysis can, I believe, be found in the work of Klein and Bion. Buckle up, it’s going to be a hermeneutic sort of ride. And trigger warning to my BIPOC readers, we will be making explicit ideas which it hurts you to be reminded of, as if you ever really are allowed to forget.

I bring up AI not because it is trendy, but because I have noted with dismay that people speak about it in the same words and tone that Enlightenment thinkers like Jefferson used to describe Black chattel slaves; “that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior… and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.” (Knoles, 2006) Compare that to how we speak with mistrust about the technology of AI: it lacks creativity and imagination, relies on human input to be successful, it cannot be trusted, it can be manipulated, it is not capable of thinking and feeling as we do. Suddenly I am unsure if we are in the 21st century or the Pre-Reconstruction Era.

If you bristle at the comparison between our attitudes towards AI and race, I take you back to 1787 when Charles Pinckney Suggested the 3/5 Compromise, proposing:

Three-fifths of the number of slaves in any particular state would be added to the total number of free white persons, including bond servants, but not Indians, to the estimated number of congressmen each state would send to the House of Representatives. (Pinckney, 1787)

This “compromise,” made by whites for whites, was created not to dignify Blacks in any way, but to count them as “creditable” in determining congressional power in U.S. Government. Much like today’s debates around AI, it was a given that we weren’t talking about Black chattel slaves as human or deserving of human rights. But it also indicated the beginning of an historical reckoning. Because once you identify a thing, or a human being, as countable, you change things. Over time whites began to think of Blacks as 3/5 human, almost human. Suspiciously human, dangerously human. We hear these echoes in current debates about AI. The technology is not transparent.

Am I suggesting that AI, hammers and video games are the same as BIPOC human beings? No. What I am suggesting is our relationships to all of them are linked, in the Bionic sense (1959). Less than 100 years ago, such a linking between a Black man and emerging technology was explicit in the folk legend of John Henry. Henry, a Black man used as labor for the railroad industry, was reported to have beaten a steam drill in the drilling of the Big Bend Tunnel (Johnson, 1930). Although the ballads and oral history frame this as a competition between “mighty muscles against steam and steel,” the juxtaposition of the Black as technology with the emerging technology reveals itself. The idealizing of the heroic Black was also equating him to technology, at least under the white gaze of the sociologist collecting oral tradition. Whites still tend to link BIPOCs with technology, in both love and hate, envy and gratitude. They are linked in an anxiety which we retreat from into moments of psychosis.

 *  *  *  *  *

In his work Being and Time, Martin Heidegger talks about technology in terms of “equipment,” and uses the hammer as an example. We do not tend to think of a hammer as separate from our involvement in the act of hammering. When technology is “working” (meaning working in concert with our wishes) we do not see it. It is transparent to us.  We see the project we are engaged in, be it hammering, psychoanalysis or plantation work, as happening. The hammer implies our connection to it as a way of making our being stronger, faster. We never experience that hammer as separate from us until the moment it stops working. At that point the hammer becomes alien, a thing, a source of frustration, and we skip over understanding that it is an entity in itself and go right to experiencing it as other. In this moment, we may even experience it in a psychotic state, where we attribute motivation to it, devalue it as broken, and rage at it as if it was deliberately attempting to defy us.

What is coming up here is the activation of our projective identification. Technology becomes the bad object. Klein (1946, 1957) described and Bion (1955, 2013) elaborates on how the human psyche uses splitting off and expelling from ourselves, and yet keeping close by, those parts of ourselves we cannot bear to acknowledge. This creates moments or pockets of psychosis in us, vestiges of the earlier Paranoid-Schizoid position. In this psychotic state the bad object becomes monolithic and imbued with destructive intent. AIs, like the Cylons, like the Mexicans, like the Blacks, are out to get us, and they have a plan.

In no place is this racial divide more clear than in emerging technologies, technologies not yet transparent, not yet “mastered.” While white elites debated the concept of screen time, social media gave a promise of Arab Spring, which remains largely unfulfilled (Robinson et al, 2020). While white middle class families angst over Facebook and depression, BIPOC families are ensuring their children learn how to use smartphones as a security device for protection and surveilling of police brutality (Battle, 2017; Markussen, 2022.) And for decades while overwhelmingly white clinicians and educators have been decrying the internet as threatening to children, Black and Latino youth are struggling to get on it at all (Dolcini et al, 2021). These differing concerns when confronted reveal how siloed down whites still are when it comes to both technology and race. And I would like to suggest that as a resonant form of projective identification, technophobia becomes a proxy for racism, classism, heterosexism, ableism and genderphobia.

*  *  *  *  *

What happens when we have been using human beings as technology and they break? If we are to believe the stories and ballads John Henry died of it. For centuries whites used BIPOC people to amplify our power, economy, and even bodies through fieldwork and rape. When BIPOCs were transparent, when they did not have to be moved to reservations or march the Trail of Tears, whites could consciously experience pleasure, ease, libidinal discharge and gratification. To focus solely on BIPOCs as property misses an important point for an ego-defensive reason. Surely we don’t think of BIPOC human beings as property now? But as technology, to amplify our cleaning, manufacturing, health, and other human projects, whites still attempt to keep and use BIPOCs as a transparent technology. The backlash to the past and present Civil Rights movements is in part white anxiety towards the technology of race broken and thus not transparent. White privilege has been used to attempt to keep them transparent, and it has failed. The hammer is not working, we think, it is not useful. It is broken, and it threatens us with its becoming visible.

I must speak about Black Twitter here, at least in brief, as a form of technology that dares to make Black interiority visible to whites if they wish to see it. Encompassed in Black Twitter are the raucous interests, academic musings, jokes, reviews, and spirits of a multitude of BIPOC human beings on display. Not made for whites but visible to them, Black Twitter shows us Black interiority and challenges us whites to move out of our psychotic state—for it is, I assert, a psychotic state to view BIPOCs as having no interior life to be curious about, to wonder about, but instead to project our own bad objects upon. Even in our own professional psychoanalytic organizations, white analysts often scry rage and pathology, but nothing more, when viewing our colleagues lives and lives of the mind. (Ellis &Langlois, 2016; Hamilton & Langlois, 2020; Langlois et al, 2020)

The McCormick reaper arrived just prior to the Civil War, when the technology of slavery was beginning to break. Its benefit was apparent quickly, albeit more quickly in the North and Midwest: Blacks could be discarded, a broken tool, for the faster gathering, reaping and automation of the new technology. If there was anxiety about technology taking jobs, it was assuaged in the North and Midwest by factories which became the new home for many Black workers. (Ironically, the co-inventor of the McCormick reaper, a Black slave named Jo Anderson, could not legally hold a patent: Property could not have intellectual property. (Brumfield, 2018)) Once rehoused in the factory, the Black as technology became transparent again in the North, which is in large part what allowed the Civil War to be fought and won by the North.

And that is why the tech guy is always in the basement, in a room without windows. Class as well as race is present here, the worker a technology we want transparent. The room without windows where the tech guy sits has a phone, so that we can call him, call him into existence because our PC is not working. He sits in that black box as uninteresting to us as the inner world of the Civil War slave or the 21st Century Black, until we need to use him as the technology to repair our technology. And then he/she/they are expected to go back into their box, labeled with all our attempts to other them again: neurodivergent, incel, geek, nerd. Fun fact, a majority of my neurodivergent and trans patients did BETTER during COVID—no bullying, no anxiety to be crushed into the white heteronormative widget that education tries to make of us. I learned of the McCormick reaper in school, you did too–but did you learn about Jo Anderson?

*  *  *  *  *

Our humanness and the essence of technology are intertwined and it is in fact our humanness that allows us to have object relations at all. But the irony that I think Turkel (2005, 2011) gets within striking distance of is that just because technology is not human does not mean we cannot experience it as an object. And just because a human is not technology does not mean we cannot attempt to treat them as such. And thus our problematic relationship with our own object-relatedness emerges in our technophobic phantasies and statements. It is not Skynet, HAL, Ultron, or the Matrix that is homicidal, it is us. That part of us we can’t quite own and so must push outside us but not too far, because we need it. This projective identification, this psychotic moment, is the basis of technophobia. Its lesser known and secret counterpart, introjective identification, I name here: white privilege. AKA, the good old days.

Another Twitter story, one that APA Div39 listerv members are so familiar with: Our current president, a BIPOC woman, was vilified in part because of Tweets she made on Twitter. Tweets that disappeared, her detractors pointed out, and that was proof of malpractice, malfeasance. But what got lost in the argument was the question of why she had no right to express her interiority, even a portion of it, as a leader, educator and psychoanalyst. Why did she need to become invisible again? Why could we in our field not see a breaking beyond the using of her as technology? She was declared unprofessional when the very definition of profession includes the act of declaring. She became the broken hammer, the bad object, that we needed to reduce her to and keep close in hatred so we would not see ourselves.

I use the terms break and broken deliberately, but not to push racial identity and BIPOC human beings back into a sense of thingness, but because broken captures the violence we visit upon BIPOC people when they stop “working” as technology for us. From whips to whiteface, sharecropping to segregation, profiling to police brutality, white supremacy seeks to subdue, tame, surveil and diminish the technology that cries out that it is not a broken hammer to be fixed or discarded; but rather the implication of whiteness’s heavy hand reaching beyond itself for more power.  In this moment, the insatiable grasping for that Kleinian breast is revealed, our greediness for omnipotence, to gulp down goodness while pretending we have had it all along, makes whiteness stagger under the weight of its own heaviest hunger.

And in terms of power, we arrive at one of the true dangers Heidegger discusses in “The Question Concerning Technology,” a revealing of human nature that “puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such” (1977, p. 321). In this way we come to see humans as “human resources” and seek to extract and store their energy into standing reserves. Although he was speaking about the danger of future misconstruing of technology, Heidegger’s idea reveals to us the way we have used and continue to attempt to use BIPOCs as technology. John Henry cast in contrast to the steam drill does more damage to our shared humanity than the false idealization that he is a hero for competing. And always invisible, the white owner of the technologies, pitting them against each other in the service of gaining and keeping power.

These two things, racism and technophobia, collide in the form of object relations, specifically the use of projective identification to disown our intrapsychic violence by disowning parts of ourselves. And they are largely successful, because no racist thinks they are psychotic, no technophobe either. The danger is clear and present, the technophobes assure us, and that explains the psychic energy and intensity even they cannot repress from conscious awareness. Children are in danger from video games and the internet! Predators abound! As if there was ever a time when children were kept safe and protected; as if starvation and genocide in all parts of our world were less clear and present dangers to children’s lives now; as if more people with guns than Xboxes don’t kill children every year. The technophobic are right of course; there is a danger, and we keep it as close to ourselves as we can tolerate but far enough to hate. I should add here that the technophobe, like the racist, is not someone else. My old therapist once said to me, “there’s a bit of the hysteric in all of us,” and there is a bit of the technophobe in all of us too.

*  *  *  *  *

If this is not yet a coherent argument by your estimation, please forgive me, for I am putting out fires. There are so many fires. Fires of racial violence, health disparities; fires of transgender rights suppression, fires of a woman’s right to choose rather than being reduced to an ultrasound or week number. It was not the technology of writing but the 1787 Constitutional Convention of white men that gave us the 3/5s Compromise. I know you see that now. But can you start to see that it is not the ultrasound but the use of it in service of oppression? It is not the technology of hormones and surgery but the people who seek to hold dominion over others’ minds, bodies and identities. It is not the video games but society’s fear of playfulness, excitement and joy. It is not the internet but those who benefit from hindering collective organizing and the revelation of injustice.

There are so many fires, running rampant back to when our mythic ancestor Prometheus stole that first technology. Using technology has always been an act of rebellion, a stealing and then a hoarding. Because who knows better than a thief that they can be robbed?




Battle, V. J. (2017). COMMENT Drop the Phone and Step Away From the Weapon: The First Amendment, the Camera Phone, and the Movement for Black Lives. Howard Law Journal, 60(2), 531–560.

Bion, W. R. (2013). On arrogance. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 82(2), 277–283.

Bion, W. R. (2013). Attacks on Linking. Int. J. Psychoanal, 82(2), 308–315.

Bion, W. R. (1955). Differentiation of the psychotic from the non-psychotic personalities. British Psycho-Analytical Society, 266–274.

Bonilla, Y., & Rosa, J. (2015). #Ferguson: Digital protest, hashtag ethnography, and the racial politics of social media in the United States. American Ethnologist, 42(1), 4–17.

Browning, C. R., Calder, C. A., Ford, J. L., Boettner, B., Smith, A. L., & Haynie, D. (2017). Understanding Racial Differences in Exposure to Violent Areas: Integrating Survey, Smartphone, and Administrative Data Resources. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 669(1), 41–62.

Brumfield, D. M. (2018). Cyrus McCormick mechanical reaper co-invented by Augusta County slave. Newsleader.Com.

Dolcini, M. M., Canchola, J. A., Catania, J. A., Mayeda, M. M. S., Dietz, E. L., Cotto-Negrón, C., & Narayanan, V. (2021). National-level disparities in internet access among low-income and black and hispanic youth: Current population survey. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 23(10).

Ellis, K. & Langlois, M. What white people need to know about Black Twitter. 3/11/2016 UBSSW webinar, Technology in Social Work.

Gall, F. J. (Franz J. (1835). On the functions of the brain and of each of its parts : with observations on the possibility of determining the instincts, propensities, and talents, or the moral and intellectual dispositions of men and animals, by the configuration of the brain and hea (W. Lewis & N. Capen (Eds.)). Marsh, Capen & Lyon.

Hamilton, J. & Langlois, M. “Race and Psychotherapy: The Interior Lives of Blacks and whites” 10/6/20 Simmons CIBER Series

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time (J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson (Eds.)). Harper.

Heidegger, M. (1977). The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. In Technology and values: Essential readings.

Johnson, G. B. . (1930). First Hero of Negro Folk Lore. Modesto Bee and News, 22.

Klein, M. (1957). Envy and gratitude. Tavistock Publications.

Klein, M. (1975). Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms ( 1946 ) 1 Melanie Klein Z. Internation Psycho-Analytical Library, 1(104), 1–24.

Knoles, L. Z. (2006). Northern Visions of Race, Region and Reform: The Press and the Letters of Freedmen and Freedmen’s Teachers in the Civil  War Era, An American Antiquarian Society Online Resource.

Langlois, M. et al (2020) Signifyin’ with Memes & Hashtags: The Power of Black Twitter.

Markussen, H. R. (2022). Conceptualising the smartphone as a security device: appropriations of embodied connectivity at the Black Lives Matter protests. Critical Studies on Security, 10(2), 70–84.

Pop Civ 3: Three-Fifths “Compromise” – (n.d.). Retrieved May 9, 2023, from

Robinson, K., & Merrow, W. (2020). The Arab Spring at Ten Years: What’s the Legacy of the Uprisings? Council on Foreign Relation.

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together : why we expect more from technology and less from each other. Basic Books.

Turkle, S. (2005). The second self : computers and the human spirit (20th anniv). MIT Press.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.