From edition

Race in Cyberspace, Beth E. Kolko, Lisa Nakamura,

One side effect of the hi-tech transformation of recent years has been the accompanying transformation of language, from the ease with which we attach the prefixes e- and cyber- to existing words, to our enthusiastic uptake of metaphors like webpage and rebooting. Computational logic has even been used to refer to the “extra-technical” facets of our everyday lives. In the introduction to Race in Cyberspace, the editors compare discussions of racial identity in virtual space to a “binary switch.” Race is either “off,” and therefore unmarked and undisclosed-the most common example being the promises of a technologically-enabled color blind democracy-or it is “on,” with any effort to invoke race making one a fire-starter or a digital muckraker. But, while binary code is vital to the function of information and communication technologies, it does little to help us understand the reconfigured processes of racialization brought about by these technologies. As the editors make clear, thinking about “race” only in terms of zeros and ones-or “black and white”-is a limited way of understanding the complexities of real and virtual life in the 21st century.
The essays in this noteworthy collection challenge this Manichean logic from diverse perspectives, including textual analysis, participant observation, media analysis, and critical theory; each chapter works in its own way to bring into relief the racial politics of cyberculture.Race in Cyberspace is the first concerted effort to tackle the dearth of research, writing and theorizing about race in the emerging discourses of cyberculture, and similarly important, among the first to systematically expose a presumption of what one contributor terms”cyberwhiteness” in existing scholarship. Contributors provide many examples of why race matters as much, if differently, online, as it does offline.
A fine essay from Lisa Nakamura examines the ideological work of commercial advertising. Her keen reading of ads for computer companies reveals a complex use of images of Southeast Asians, Africans and South Americans to drive home a myth of technological universalism. But as Nakamura makes clear, these multi-culti images are in fact stereotypes re-tooled for the digital age. In revealing how influential these advertisements have been in framing popular ideas about technology and race, and in being among the first to challenge these ideologies, this essay also suggests how much scholarly theorizing about race in cyberspace has taken the lead from capitalists and marketing experts.
Another excellent essay challenges a second typical starting point for work on race in technoculture. The innovative scholarship of Allucquere Rosanne Stone, Sherry Turkle and others on the split subjectivities allowed in virtual space and the liberatory possibilities they open up has become canonical in the study of cyberculture. However, Tara McPherson’s contribution to the volume, an examination of online neo-Confederate communities, shows that the immaterial identities in neo-Dixie are irrevocably white, Southern and male. In fact, the virtual community is committed to the preservation of these whole and unmediated selves. McPherson’s essay ends with the provocative question: “I wonder what we might gain from shifting our theories of cyberspace away from tropes of `play,’ `multiplicity,’ and `theater’ toward explorations of `citizens,’ `politics,’ and `publics.'” Other essays in the collection deal with a matrix of topics including representation, cultural politics, access, and community activism from a wide-range of experiences and points.
One broad critique of the anthology, applicable to many of the essays, is the tendency to reduce racial identities to “the primitive,” “the Other,” and the exotic object of the cyber-tourist’s gaze. Although such terms are of course used to bring to light the reification of people of color in cyber-discourse, one might hope that a path-breaking collection such as this might have served as a catalyst for a new dialect. Such dated theoretical foci undermine one of the main contentions of the collection, that cyberspace has in many ways changed how we think about race, how race is lived, and the future priorities of efforts for racialjustice. This notwithstanding, as information technologies gain prominence, scholarship of this sort is equally critical to obliterating the “color line” and bridging the so-called “digital divide.”

Alondra Nelson and Thuy Linh N. Tu are co-editors of Technicolor: Race, Technology and Everyday Life (NYU Press, February 2001) and doctoral candidates in the American Studies Program at New York University.

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