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Introduction: Nakamura and Chow-White, "Race and Digital Technology: Code, the Color Line and the Information Society

Race and Technologies of the Self: Reading Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White’s Introduction to Race After the Internet 

Part of the Distributed Book Review of Race After the Internet, ed. by Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White

By Adeline Koh

A popular Internet meme goes: “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.”  According to this line of logic, the Internet is a liberating space where external forms of identity such as gender, race, age—even species—can be exchanged, played with and performed. No one really knows whether a man, woman or transgendered person lies behind the provocatively dressed female avatar in Second Life, or the age and race of the person behind an onscreen username.

Race After the Internet disabuses us of this commonplace belief. The varied essays in the book demonstrate that, far from being a space where social categories such as race are “transcended,” that the Internet has been instrumentalized to categorize, divide and maintain social boundaries. In her essay “Race and/as technology,” Wendy Chun argues that if race has really decreased as an important social category since the end of the Second World War, that we would see a reduction of “racism and raced images.” Yet, as Chun points out, “we have witnessed their proliferation.” (5) Similarly, Alex Galloway argues in “Does the Whatever Speak?” that the rise of digital racial imagery in video games on the Internet should be a read as a form of “racial coding”, and that “racial coding has not gone away within recent years, it has only migrated into the realm of the dress rehearsal, the realm of pure simulation, and as simulation it remains absolutely necessary.” (11)

This resurgence of race in the Internet Age is masterfully introduced by the volume’s two editors, Lisa Nakamura (@lnakamur) and Peter Chow-White. They begin their forceful introduction with an examination of the careers of two of the most seminal theorists on race theory—Henry Louis Gates and Paul Gilroy—and argue that both have made a shift from the “deconstructive” to the “digital” in their work. While Gates’ most influential academic work stems from the 1980s and the 1990s, such as the watershed volume Race, Writing and Difference and The Signifying Monkey, his newer work is considerably more popular and technological: he now blogs for pbs.org, and produces PBS documentaries such as African American Lives (2006 and 2008) and the ongoing Faces of America, whereby genetic testing is used to definitively to show participants the “truth” of their genetic makeup. Both editors see a similar shift in Paul Gilroy’s work from his Black Atlantic to Against Race, where Gilroy turns towards “genomic thinking” in his formulation of race theory (4). The editors indicate that this exemplifies the emergence of a “new form of racial technology” (3) where “digital technology is here pressed into service as an identity construction aid” (3).

Nakamura and Chow-White’s introduction really shines in its useful overview of the history of the field of race and digital media studies. They begin their genealogy of this field in the “first generation” of studies of the Internet, or the text-based Internet cultures of the pre-Web 2.0 period. They locate this in the work of foundation collections such as Alondra Nelson (@alondra) and Thuy Linh Tu’s Techni(2001), Nelson’s special issue of Social Text entitled Afrofuturism: A Special Issue of Social Text (2002) and Kolko, Nakamura and Rodman’s Race in Cyberspace (2001) (6).

The next phase of Internet studies is located in the “transmedia shift” of the mid-2000s, where Internet use escalates, and media formats and devices increasingly begin to converge. The editors document this “transmedia” shift  in Anna Everett’s Learning, Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media (2008), Rishab Aiyer Ghosh’s Code: Collaborative Ownership and the Digital Economy (2005) and Pramod Nayer’s (2010) New Media and Cybercultures (7). Finally, Nakamura and Chow identify key monographs that have been instrumental to establishing the field of race and the Internet, including Nakamura’s own Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity and Identity on the Internet (2002), Anna Everett’s Digital Diasporas (2009), Wendy Chun’s Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics and Jessie Daniel’s Cyber Racism: White Supremacy Online and the New Attack on Civil Rights (2009).

While this is a very well-written introduction, the genealogy of race and new media studies it constructs is more North American than international. It would have been helpful to see how the authors would consider how forms of racialization on the global Internet would disrupt or support similar forms back in the United States. While Nakamura and Chow-White argue that works that they cited such as Nayer, Ghosh and Kyra Landzelius’s Native on the Net “internationalize Internet and race studies in much needed ways” (7), the genealogy could have included specific examples of how this internationalization had impacted Internet cultures and race within the United States. Adding works which discussed race and the Internet in other countries would have also been instructive, for example Christopher L. McGahan’s Racing Cyberculture: Minoritarian Art and Politics on the Internet (2007), which focuses on race in UK-based Internet cultures would have been useful, as well as Mark McLelland’s work on ‘Race’ on the Japanese Internet.

Ultimately, Nakamura and Chow-White’s introduction provides a critical new foray into thinking about race and technology. In many ways, their introduction recalls what Foucault termed the “technologies of the self,” or the practices by which individuals represent to themselves the ways in which they order, divide and govern themselves. If, as the Internet meme goes, that “no one on the Internet knows that you’re a dog,” Nakamura and Chow-White’s introduction has shown a different side to the meme: that even if no one knows the species of the entity controlling an online avatar, that the concept of a species still has meaning and resonance on the Internet. In other words, the Internet is not a liberating space, but one which relies on the technologies of the self that come from our “real” social worlds. The Internet has not freed us from race; on the contrary, race has literally become a technology of the self on the Internet.

This entry has been cross-posted on my personal blog. Find me on twitter @adelinekoh.

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