Review by Daisy Pignetti, University of Wisconsin-Stout
Race After the Internet
Lisa Nakamura and Peter A. Chow-White, editors
New York: Routledge, 2012: 343 pp.
Race After the Internet is a collection of essays that explores identity construction, the rhetoric of the digital divide, and racial technology. Nakamura and Chow-White state the crucial need for such a collection on page one: "no matter how 'digital' we become, the continuing problem of social inequality along racial lines persists." The editors then use the introduction to provide an overview of the work that has been done thus far in the field of race and digital media studies, but emphasize those collections “focused on the pre-Web 2.0 period and the popularization of the idea of the Internet as a 'participatory medium,' and much has changed since then" (6). What follows in the four sections is an excellent variety of theoretically sound and methodologically innovative studies that both the general public and scholars from the humanities and social sciences are sure to find valuable when reflecting upon their everyday use(s) of social networks and research efforts, respectively.<./p>
The first part of the book, “The History of Race and Information: Code, Policies, Identities,” features essays that reenvision race beyond the visual representations and stereotypes that "code" them. Amongst the discussions of software development history and archives of race science is Rayvon Fouché's "From Black Inventors to One Laptop Per Child: Exporting a Racial Politics of Technology." As the title suggests, Fouché offers an overview of late 19th and early 20th century African American inventors, but stresses that in addition to inspiring young people to emulate their predecessors, the black inventor myth “is also about a need to confirm the belief that the access problem in the United States has been solved with African Americans” (64). Access is an issue discussed all throughout the collection, but Fouché expertly uses it to critique Nicholas Negroponte's “American” idea for the $100 laptop for the developing world because it presumed “African technological incapability" (72). While altruism and philanthropy are not typically points of contention, Fouché’s chapter, which includes his own experience with the XO-1 laptop, gives readers a detailed look at how the OLPC program currently “satisfies no one” (78) and argues for participatory design rather than technological colonialism.
In the second part of the book, “Race, Identity, and Digital Sorting,” we see the themes of access, assimilation, and appropriation (or “appropriation toward parity”) again. Christian Sandvig’s standout chapter, “Connection at Ewiiaapaayp Mountain: Indigenous Internet Infrastructure” is a unique longitudinal study of the Tribal Digital Village (TDV), a solar wireless Internet distribution network. Funded by grants from the National Science Foundation and Hewlett-Packard, the TDV grew from one computer lab “to serve about 1,500 uses on seventeen Indian reservations” (176) in Southern California. This aspect of the story is inspiring, as are the installation and infrastructure details, but most interesting are Sandvig’s points about tribal politics and identity play. For instance, echoing the OLPC’s technologically deterministic program, the grant writers “emphasized the profoundly disadvantaged populations on the reservations and proposed the Internet as a tool for cultural preservation” (183), but Sandvig reminds us “[P]eople use the Internet in a variety of ways—probably most prominently to entertain themselves and maintain their social connections” (183). The interview data he provides in the provocatively titled section “Native Users are Different; And They Are Required to Be” supports this perspective when it describes the “moral burden—the requirement for utility—that subsidized Internet has put on Indian users” (185) as well as pressure to “perform difference…despite the fact that they may be more interested in MySpace or soccer games” (185). Notwithstanding the innovation, what the TDV case illustrates is the desire for normalcy, yet the third part of the book complicates this quest for sameness with its discussion of “Digital Segregations”.
Both danah boyd and Eszter Hargittai are scholars known for their research with “digital youth” and their contributions to this collection complement each other nicely. boyd takes a qualitative approach to explore how teens describe the differences between MySpace and Facebook and why they may have moved from one social network to the other while Hargittai relies on quantitative data to focus on who joins (and does not join) social network sites as well as which sites are chosen.
While interviewing teens about their social media practices in 2007, boyd was struck by the following racialized responses from Kat, a white 14-year old girl:
I’m not really into racism, but I think that MySpace now is more like ghetto or whatever. . .. The people who use MySpace—again, not in a racist way—but are usually more like ghetto and hip-hop rap lovers group. (203)
As boyd puts it, this response was part of a pattern she had been noticing and Kat’s “notion of MySpace as ghetto” (204) inspired her to analyze the race and class divisions between MySpace and Facebook as well as the reasons for movement from one social network to the other. After a comprehensive look at the history of the two specific social networks, the stereotypes and social categories present in youth subcultures, and, at the most basic level, personal preferences, she determined the most prominent reason for choosing a social network was the presence of friends, although she argues this could be seen as “self-segregation.” When analyzed through the lens of “white flight” or the suburbanization of white America, we see the “reproduction of social divisions in a society still shaped by racism” (218) despite “a widespread techno-utopian belief that the [I]nternet will once and for all eradicate inequality and social divisions” (220). Hargittai’s work, drawing on data from two cohorts of first-year students at the University of Illinois at Chicago, had similar findings that suggest “less intermixing of users from various socioeconomic backgrounds” (243). Even with Facebook’s popularity increasing and MySpace use declining between 2007 and 2009, the “different levels of use among racial and ethnic groups persisted from one time period to the next” (242), with Hispanic students more likely and Asian and Asian American students less likely to use MySpace than Whites.
Switching from such social science perspectives to those of biology, the final section of the book is devoted to “Biotechnology and Race as Information.” Granted, these final chapters have more to do with genetic testing, genomic databases, digital DNA and forensic science than readers in our field may be accustomed to, but what comes from these discussions are intriguing opinions on how Web 2.0 technologies allow for new and more dynamic forms of expression, for both broadcasters and their audiences, when it comes to identity, ancestry, representation, community.
As I was reading Race After the Internet, I was consistently reminded of Cynthia Selfe’s 1999 seminal work Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century: The Importance of Paying Attention. Written to raise awareness of America’s then new literacy agenda set forth in 1996 by the Clinton-Gore administration, it offered a comprehensive history of how technology and literacy have been linked and warned us against the binary oppositions and assumptions often made by those in privileged positions. Selfe argued then that Americans were accepting technological literacy as a commonsensical cultural goal, but I think it is clear Nakamura and Chow-White’s 2012 collection serves as a reminder that it is still more problematic than that, even in our seemingly “postracial” America.
Daisy Pignetti is an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout where she teaches courses in composition, rhetoric, and digital humanities.
© 2012 Daisy Pignetti, used by permission