The arrow shaped cursor, or pointer, and hand are key aspects of Internet and computer interfaces. The arrow usually turns into a white pointing and clicking hand when mousing over web links and a white grasping hand when programs or images can be changed. Depending on the operating system and settings, white hands holding writing and drawing implements and other representations of hands also demarcate computer work. The hand moves when the spectator manipulates the mouse, relates the embodied individual who is in front of the screen to representations of bodies, locates the individual in the setting, and indicates that documents and links can be controlled, grasped, and touched. Representations of hands downplay the interface because the user seems to have slipped inside the screen, engages in a hands on way, and does such things as hand code. The hand-pointer shapes our conceptions of the interface and Internet spectatorship but it has received very little critical attention.
Depictions of hands are the most common image of the Internet and computer user. Individuals become attached to these hands and empowered by them because they chronicle actions and options within the setting. However, these hands do not equally represent all individuals. They tend to be white, or white and gloved, and provide spectators with constant messages about what individuals who use the Internet and computer look like. Many literary hypertext authors and net artists also employ versions of white hands and render white users. There are also some digital art practices, including the work of Mendi + Keith Obadike, which suggest how racial inequalities are produced through technologies and propose alternative imaging strategies. Acknowledging the range of individuals, who employ the computer, and the ways they are addressed or ignored, requires a rethinking and redesigning of the interface as well as the ways we speak, think, and write about the Internet and computer.
In this article, I examine the hand-pointer, suggest connections to previous media representations and computer advertising, and consider how race is rendered through the interface. I suggest how white hand-pointers get conflated with the many representations of white users and indicate that the computer interface, Internet settings, and other aspects of the technologies and social processes can unfortunately work together to welcome white users and suggest that they are the expected participants. I employ such humanities methods as close visual and textual analysis, critical race studies, considerations of whiteness, and visual culture studies. My considerations of writings about the interface by such individuals as Anna Everett, Jay David Bolter and Diane Gromala, Steven Johnson, Lisa Nakamura, Jakob Nielsen, and Don Norman indicate that different perceptions of the interface persist. They also suggest that conceptions of the computer can have larger cultural effects. For instance, Everett analyzes her computer start-up message and its Pri Master Disk, Pri. Slave Disk, Sec. Master, Sec. Slave, which indicates that some programmers choose to base Internet and computer culture on a digitally configured master/slave relationship.2 Start-up messages and renderings of white hands, which appear each time the computer is employed, frame Internet and computer engagements and make Everett and others, at least temporarily, hold back from engaging.
Some spectators believe that on the Internet nobody knows youre a dogas Peter Steiners cartoon from The New Yorker suggests, personal information cannot be verified, and considering identity issues is unnecessary.3 Steiners assertion is supported by a variety of academic and popular texts that indicate the Internet is a place where race, and thus the challenging of racism, is irrelevant. In Virginia Sheas often-quoted netiquette guidelines, she indicates that Internet anonymity makes it impossible to judge spectators by their age, body size, class, and race.4 Sadie Plant argues that the Internet provides access to resources which were once restricted to those with the right face, accent, race, sex, none of which now need to be declared.5 The Jargon File attributes hackers gender- and color-blindness to their engagement with text-based communication.6 Unfortunately, the belief that race and other aspects of identity do not matter in Internet settings allows whiteness to continue as the norm and discourages individuals from recognizing the racist representations that persist in Internet settings. Despite celebrations of Internet equitability, instances of intolerance continue and some individuals are barraged with requests for personal information. In reaction to these conflicts, Art McGee questions the claim that there is something the matter with being a dog or having a less normative identity position.7 Imagining that individuals can be liberated from being a dogor what is imagined as an imperfect positionperpetuates the value of traditional identities. As Nakamura suggests, the offer of new positions to redress the burdens of physical handicaps such as age, gender, and race produce cybertypes which look remarkably like racial and gender stereotypes.8
The interface and Internet are raced as white by the prevalence of white hand-pointers, references to hands on web sites, and the tendency to depict white users. White gloved interface hands, which are occasionally associated with Mickey Mouse, too easily reference vaudeville and blackfacewhere gloves helped produce evaluative distinctions between blacks and whites. The spectators skin color will never correspond exactly to the white and pink colors of the interface hand but these depictions still reference whiteness, articulate what users look like, and enforce a racial inside and outside in Internet and computer settings. Dyer indicates that individuals may not literally be white, yet a colour term, white, is the primary means by which these individuals are identified.9 As Elizabeth Grosz indicates, body and identity are rendered through varied forms of cultural writing and inscriptions, which include Internet and computer spectatorship, wearing clothing and makeup, and driving and identifying with a carall of which shape and expand understandings of bodies.10 For some, the white hand-pointer is easier to map onto their body-construct and identity. Nevertheless, Johnson suggests that the same conflation of body and technology is facilitated for everyone when the interface shapes the interaction between user and computer and the pointer becomes the users virtual doppelgnger.11 While Johnson indicates that the individuals relationship to the interface is a key aspect of computer use, which allows the user to enter that world and truly manipulate things inside out, this engagement also validates and materializes white people.12 The hand-pointer acts as a kind of avatar or extension of the body and supports other renderings of the individual. It becomes attached to depictions of whites in varied Internet settings and to the bodies of white individuals.
In most Internet settings, the centered position of white men is deemed to require no explanation or additional details. Susan C. Herring, Inna Kouper, Lois Ann Scheidt, and Elijah L. Wright indicate how the privileging of political and knowledge blogs in print and broadcast reports and the blog roll links to A-list bloggersmany of whom happen to be white mencreate a setting where a very narrow demographic is featured even though blogging is imagined to be democratizing.13 Individuals who are white almost never write about their race in Internet settings, although this omission and their textual descriptions of such features as hair and eye color and photographic portrayals often position them. People self-presenting as African American, from the African diaspora, Asian, Latino/a, from an indigenous culture, and other people of color often state their ethnicity and race in descriptions. As Dyer suggests, the power of whiteness is secured by not seeming to be anything particular. While numerous advertisements and other representations of white users establish the presence and authority of white individuals, the weight of these devices and their production of larger narratives about race remain largely unaddressed. Since the interface is often understood as neutral, rather than producing particular narratives about computer technologies, such things as hand-pointers are identified as triviata or as part of a mouse fetish because of their connection to Mickey Mouse rather than as part of larger cultural narratives that privilege whiteness.14
Human computer interface researchers like Nielsen and Norman have argued that interfaces should transparently deliver information. Norman indicates that the computer should be quiet, invisible, unobtrusive, but it is too visible.15 However, displacing the ways the computer interface is understood and making design presumptions appear to be material realities elides biases and the conveyed ideas about bodies and identities. As Bolter and Gromala argue, if we look through the interface, we cannot appreciate the ways in which the interface shapes our experience.16 For instance, Cynthia L. Selfe and Richard J. Selfe, Jr. have described how computer interfaces order the virtual world according to a certain set of historical and social values.17 While analyzing Apple documentation in the mid-1990s, they noted that it included a preponderance of white people and icons of middle and upper-class white culture and professional, office-oriented computer use.18 They indicate that these devices, including the desktop metaphor, do not make the interface comprehensible to everyone but instead address a largely middle and upper middle-class white audience who is engaged with corporate and desk culture rather than individuals who are employed in such areas as service work, domestic care, and labor.
The hand-pointer derives from manuscripts, newspapers, and other print medias representations of pointing hands, which direct readers to articles and other materials of interest. When it is used in manuscript books and printed literature, the pointing hand is also known as a fist, hand director, indicator, indicator mark, index, manicule, and printers fist.19 It is also related to the yad, which means hand in Hebrew. The yad, or pointer, includes a sculpted hand and is used to read the Torah. Victorian scrap, which was subsequently collaged into books and albums, depicts white hands that are pointing and holding. Jewelry, from the Victorian to contemporary period, also depicts light-colored ivory and enameled hands directing individuals and holding objects. The hand-pointer is also related to yellow pages advertisements that began using an image of a hand in 1970.20 The let your fingers do the walking yellow pages advertisements now also refer to Internet searching.
IBMs advertisements and promotional materials for the 1981 release of its personal computers, with a command line interface, connected white-gloved hands to the computer by using Charlie Chaplins little tramp and his white-gloved hands to represent their product. By referencing Chaplin, IBM suggests that their computer can facilitate play and connects the individual and technology, including the process of upgrading components while wearing white gloves. Apple appropriated and represented Chaplin in their Macintosh for the rest of us campaign with his hand positioned like the hand-pointer in order to reference the graphical user interface and indicate the superiority of their products. Apple continued to use the figure of Chaplin in the Think Different campaign, which began in 1997. More recently, Apple has distinguished between the Mac and PC in a series of television ads. Nevertheless, they represent both platforms as white men.
Some operating systems provide the opportunity to change the pointer. For instance, Windows XP offers changeable suites of pointer images. While these consist of such schemes as Hands 1, Hands 2, and Windows Black, all of them include a white Link Select hand. In some of these pointer schemes there are also images of white hands holding writing implements that indicate such things as Precision Select, Text Select, and Vertical Resize. Some individuals argue that the hand-pointer needs to be white so that it is most easily seen but there are system schemes for Windows XP that deploy black arrows and OS X provides a black arrow that is outlined in white. All of these representations are easily seen, perhaps even more easily located than the white hand-pointer, since the edges of windows and background of documents tend to be white or a very pale color.
Formal properties and continued racial references connect hand-pointers to other representations of users. For instance, the pointer scheme images of hands holding writing implements are related to the desktop and web site icons that portray a similarly configured hand. Desktop icons with hands have been used to represent such programs as MacDraw, MacWrite, and MacPaint. They also have at least a formal relationship to M. C. Eschers The Drawing Hands. Pointer scheme and icon images of hands correlate the technology to the human and indicate that the computer facilitates cultural production, including artistry and authorship. They also depict what the individuals who use computer technologies look like.
Technology companies tend to feature white bodies in their advertising, particularly when these technologies are purported to enable the individual to produce rather than just listen and view.21 These representations get conflated and attached to the representations of white hands through a number of processes. Adesso, which sells input devices, uses a series of three images to advertise its products and provide links to Data Input Devices, Handwriting Input Devices, and Audio/Video Input Devices.22 In each of these images, white familial relationships and unions are associated with input technologies and thus hand-pointers and, more generally, with the computer and Internet. In the middle image, a young white coupledressed in a white gown and tuxare getting married. The image evokes leisure, family connections, futures, youth, and heritage and a relationship to newness since the image appears below the menu for Whats New [sic]. Despite this claim to newness, representing users as white and imagining that computer technologies facilitate connectivity, leisure time, and access to natural settings, with flowers and trees, are typical narratives. The kinds of families that might be facilitated by this connectivity and union are featured on either side of this wedding image. Adesso suggests that families are facilitated or even produced by shared time in front of the screen but they also code all of these arrangements as white.
Representations of white normative unions and families are also included, along with images of white technology workers, in advertisements for computer technologies and peripherals. Logitech has tended to associate its mice with businessmen who are depicted with technology, and a computer mouse, in the palm of their hand and on the move.23 AOpen, which produces mice as well as other hardware, depicts white corporate and household users.24 AOpens opening Flash sequence includes images of a white hand balancing a tray that displays its varied technology products, a white child who holds his finger to his lips to indicate that the products are silent, a white woman and man at a conference table, and a white couple leaning against each other in a home. They snuggle against each other, the womans head and arm resting in a submissive gesture on the mans shoulder. Their arrangement and relationship are literally framed by the computer. If the individual selects the USA link, which disturbingly conflates varied parts of the world by leading to a page that is titled N. America & Latin while English is still associated with Global, USA, Netherlands, and Asia Pacific, then the opening screen reveals two young very light skinned girls relaxing with a remote.25 In these representations, not only is the technology user coded as white but the computer is also imagined to be part of the white reproductive nuclear family.
Computer advertising not only figures white individuals but also dresses them in beige and other light colors to produce a white and light world. Rays of light, which emanate from many of the people, convey the idea that technologies facilitate knowledge and epiphanies, and also seemingly whiteness and lightness. The AOpen image of a couple has haloes of white radiating from them. A Logitech image, which promises free shipping, has a man appearing from a pile of technology.26 His body is thrust back into space, arms spread wide, and white light emanates from his torso and the laptop. These images evoke religious iconographyrays, halos, and glowing objectsand suggest that computer technologies have facilitated a new form of spiritual transcendence for the white individual. Such narratives are encouraged by early cyberpunk literature, including works by William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, which locate loas and other gods in the technology, although in these literary instances the race of users and their gods are more complicated.27
The advertising for mice and related input devices also tends to depict hand-pointers, icons of hands, and white users whose hands are positioned so that they match the formal arrangement of hand-pointers. Adessos tablet advertisements also feature white models holding pens. These representations connect the depicted hands that are featured in pointer schemes and desktop icons to the physical hand of the user. For instance, the representation of the hand in the listing for the Adesso CyberTabletM17 17 LCD Graphic Tablet Monitor is in almost the same position as the precision select pointer even though this means that the hand, and the body that is not depicted, would be at an uncomfortably peripheral position when working on the screen.28 In this Adesso image, the hand appears to be both a rendering and flesh. It is cut off just beyond the edge of the tablet and thus suggests that the user is both inside and outside the screen and can touch and control representations.
The Wacom site is divided into Americas, Asia Pacific, China, Europe, and Japan but relates these different geographies to a white man and other images of white users. Wacom maps individuals onto continents, territories, and colonial histories because English is the only language listed for the Americas and is also offered as a selection for people in other parts of the world. Wacom depicts the man in a split screen image that divides his body from his hands. One of the images features most of the tablet and the man holding a pen so that it reproduces the pointer scheme representation of a hand holding a writing implement. By using this split screen device, Wacom represents the individual who is drawing, the embodied hand, and hand-pointer schemes as part of the computer interface. Like in the Adesso advertisements, Wacom conflates the white user with the hand-pointer and other screen-based icons of hands.
Advertisements for input devices depict white hands in control of the computer technologiesmaneuvering the mouse and having a wide array of technologies literally and figuratively at hand. Bruce Tognazzini, who does human computer interface research, argues that such computer interfaces should instill in their users a sense of control.29 Websites for input devices and other hardware tend to not only address white individuals but also promise them a high level of control if they employ computer technologies. Software companies and Internet service sites provide similar narratives. For instance, Yahoo!s web hosting icon depicts a white hand supporting a globe, suggests that the world will be under the white individuals control, and represents the accompanying business owner as a white individual who can have it all!30 Print advertisements and television commercials represent a similar set of white interface hands in order to indicate the interactive power of readers and viewers. Programmers and active users tend to be depicted as white men. When software and hardware are magical or a breeze to use then they are often associated with women. An advertisement for Yahoo!s instant messenger presents the users of the program, avatars, and audibles as white.31 Another representation depicts two young women standing in the same space.32 A woman whispers into the others ear while talk emoticons hover overhead and indicate that their news is a secret. The emoticons, replete with white hands, correlate the interface hands to the actions and bodies of these individuals. The representation equates synchronous communication with gossiping, suggests that this is a womans activity, and downplays womens employment of Internet and computer technologies.
Web sites offer much fewer representations of people of color working with computers than depictions of white individuals. Among the representations of people of color, Asian individuals are the most likely to be depicted engaged with technologies in authoritative ways. Men and women from the African diaspora, as well as white women, are more likely to be depicted in social and leisure settings and using such technologies as stereo systems. For instance, Logitech presents an image of a black woman posed with iPod speakers, which through her casual clothing (rather than the more corporate and upscale clothing in other advertisements) and the placement of the speakers on her shoulder reproduces cultural narratives about black people and boomboxes.33 The woman listens to the music rather than producing content. Her rolled eyes and hugely open mouth evoke the performances that black people were called on to deliver in vaudeville shows, film, and television before the Civil Rights Movement and changing viewer demographics encouraged a rethinking of these cultural stereotypes. Melbourne S. Cummings indicates how black people in these staged settings shuffled, rather than walked; they popped and rolled their eyes; they giggled because white audiences found these lovable, enjoyable, entertaining, and controllable.34 In continuing such images, Logitech and other companies render black people as controllable rather than in control of technologies.
While many operating system designers, software developers, and producers of Internet settings downplay the produced aspects of the interface, Bolter and Gromala describe how Internet, computer, and net artists foreground the interface. They identify a corrective to the assumption that the computer should disappear in digital art.35 For example, Garnet Hertzs desktop icons for Elmers glue, fried rice, milk, red tape, and a myriad of other things playfully challenge the idea that Internet and computer settings materialize objects and desires.36 However, his representations, as well as other icons, include the typical renderings of white hands. In Jeanie Deans A New Alphabet,pointing hands are used to read the text and make it into a tactile process and a reconceived language but these hands also evoke the white user.37 These representations of hands assist in making Internet settings seem like tactile and spatial worlds where real bodies exist. Despite Bolter and Gromalas descriptions of the critical work done by new media artists, digital artworks do not foreground all aspects of the interface. Instead, these artists works are aligned with popular narratives about Internet materiality.
There are also artworks that do not facilitate the white interface. The menu for Mendi + Keith Obadikes The Pink of Stealth evokes the interface hand while suggesting that users have a range of racial positions and skin tones.38 Their artwork considers how pink articulates class and race. It references films, Thomas Pink, hunting, the hexadecimal numbers for different pinks that are used in html programming, and the coding that underlies conceptions of race. The Pink of Stealth situates whiteness within an array of pinks rather than leaving the color white and white positions unquestioned. Despite such important critiques, the hand-pointer continues to morph into new configurations inside and outside of the screen. If the hand-pointer was once a remediation of manuscript, printing, and writing processes that was incorporated into the interface; it is now a symbol of technological and computer speed, power, and interactivity in print, television, and material settings.
The hand-pointer has been literalized and materialized as a pointer with a white or pink colored hand on it for giving lectures and demonstrations.39 This hand-pointer has also been incorporated into varied childrens toys such as Pretend & Play School Set and ABC Chalk Talk Electronic Learning Chalkboard. If, as FAO Schwartz and other sellers may suggest, the ABC Chalk Talk Electronic Learning Chalkboard motivates learning through hands-on play then the kinds of play and the color of the learning childs hand have been demarcated. Learning, pointing, computing, and knowing are associated with the white hand-pointer that is raised in the air and the white body that it references. Not surprisingly, the children depicted at play with these toys in web site advertisements are white.40 Sellers may market the white hand-pointer as a device for imaginative play and classroom participation but aspects of these engagements have already been predetermined. The hand-pointer provides another view of the computer hand-pointer outside of the screen and further connects white bodies to the white interface. Dyer indicates that whiteness needs to be made strange so that it can be identified and critiqued. In order for this to occur, we need to admit that white things are often correlated to white bodies, despite the tendency to detach whiteness from race, and foreground the connections between white hand-pointer schemes, icons of white hands, advertising images of white users, print and television references to white hands, physical white hand-pointers, and other representations of white individuals using computers.
1 Some of the sites of analysis and theoretical arguments posed in this article also appear in my book and a related chapter. Michele White, The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006); and Michele White, Black Is, Black Paint: Art Practices and the Erasure of Afrogeeks in Internet Settings, in Afrogeeks: Beyond the Digital Divide, ed. Anna Everett and Amber J. Wallace (Santa Barbara: The Center for Black Studies Research, 2007), 165-181. This article could not have been written without the support of the Institute for Advanced Study, the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Mellon Foundation, Newcomb College Institute, Tulane University, and Wellesley College. I owe particular thanks to Anna Everett, Ken Gonzales-Day, Kate Hayles, and Maggie Morse as well as all of the wonderful presenters at the first Afrogeeks conference.
6 The Jargon File, Gender and Ethnicity, The Jargon File 4. 4. 7, 29 Dec. 2003, 8 Apr. 2007 <http://www.catb.org/~esr/jargon/html/demographics.html>.
8 Lisa Nakamura, Cybertypes and the Work of Race in the Age of Digital Reproduction, in New Media/Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, ed. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Thomas Keenan (New York: Routledge, 2006), 319.
Susan C. Herring, Inna Kouper, Lois Ann Scheidt, and Elijah L. Wright. Women and Children Last: The Discursive Construction of Weblogs, in Into the Blogosphere: Rhetoric, Community, and Culture of Weblogs, ed. Laura Gurak, Smiljana Antonijevic, Laurie Johnson, Clancy Ratliff, and Jessica Reyman, 2004, 6 Apr. 2007 <http://blog.lib.umn.edu/blogosphere/>.
kaizen Racing the Interface, The Wired Campus, 7 Oct. 2005, 7 Apr. 2007 <http://chronicle.com/wiredcampus/article/701/racing-the-interface>; and Lucy Bogan, Racing the Interface, The Wired Campus, 7 Oct. 2005, 7 Apr. 2007 <http://chronicle.com/wiredcampus/article/701/racing-the-interface>.
On SHARP-L, which is sponsored by the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing, participants shared this list of terms and made connections between drawings of hands in manuscripts, the carrying over of this tendency in printed literature, and the computer hand-pointer. SHARP-
L, pointing hand, 30 June 2004, 4 June 2006 <https://listserv.indiana.edu/cgi-bin/wa-iub.exe?A1=ind0406&L=sharp-l>.
Yell, Yell, 20 Dec. 2004 <http://www.yellgroup.com/802569EA00621809/%2Aview%2A/C18FFB3551B6500A80256BF200340DA7>.
Adesso, Adesso --> Home, <http://adesso.com/>.
Logitech, Logitech Leading web camera, wireless keyboard, 15 Aug. 2004 <http://www.logitech.com/index.cfm?countryid=19&languageid=1>; and Logitech, Logitech Products > Mice and Trackballs, 7 Apr. 2007 <http://www.logitech.com/index.cfm/products/categories/US/EN,crid=2133>.
AOPen, AOPen Inc., 6 Apr. 2007 <http://www.aopen.com/>.
AOpen, N. America & Latin, 6 Apr. 2007 <http://usa.aopen.com/>.
maker, 7 Apr. 2007 <http://www.logitech.com/index.cfm?countryid=19&languageid=1>.
Adesso, Adesso --> Home, 3 Apr. 2007 <http://adesso.com/products.asp?categoryid=17>.
Bruce Tognazzini, First Principles of Interaction Design, AskTog, 2003, 5 Apr. 2007 <http://www.asktog.com/basics/firstPrinciples.html>.
Yahoo!, Web Hosting Services from Yahoo! Small Business, 23 Dec. 2004 <http://smallbusiness.yahoo.com/webhosting/>.
Yahoo!, Yahoo! Messenger, 20 Dec. 2004 <http://im.yahoo.com/>.
Yahoo!, 7 July 2004 <http://yahoo.com>.
Logitech, Logitech Products > iPod/MP3 Accessories, 8 Apr. 2007 <http://www.logitech.com/index.cfm/products/categories/US/EN,crid=2407,categoryid=471>.
Garnet Hertz, desktop_10jpg. 832x264 pixels, 4 June 2006 <http://www.conceptlab.com/desktop/img/desktop_10.jpg>; and Desktop Is, DESKTOP IS *DESKTOPS* 31 Aug. 2004 <http://www.easylife.org/desktop/desktops.html>.
Jeanie Dean, A New Alphabet, 2003, 7 Apr. 2007 <http://pw.english.uwm.edu/~jdean/letters.html>.
Mendi + Keith Obadike, The Pink of Stealth, 2003, 2 July 2006 <http://www.blacknetart.com/pink.html>.
Nasco Reading Resources, Overhead Hand Pointer Large ~ Hand Pointer ~ Books & Resources ~ Nasco, 8 Apr. 2007 <http://www.enasco.com/ProductDetail.do?sku=TB18896L>.
FAO Schwarz, ABC Chalk Talk Electronic Learning Chalkboard at FAO Schwartz, 8 Apr. 2007 <http://www.fao.com/catalog/product.jsp?productId=5975>.
Teaching Trends, Teaching Trends Resources for Teachers, 8 Apr. 2007 <http://www.teachingtrends.co.uk/acatalog/ler2655.html>.