29th Nov2012

Race After the Internet

by jessicavooris

Race After The Internet is a collection of essays that examines our conceptualizations of race and racial identities in an era of increasing digital media use.  It has been almost 20 years since the iconic New York Times cartoon “No-one Knows you are a dog on the internet” came out, and much scholarly work on the digital and race has critiqued this idea of internet anonymity as a utopian ideal that does not reflect the reality of racial representation and access online.  Referencing these early concepts of the internet, as well as the subsequent critiques, Race After The Internet pushes the conversation beyond questions of racial representations and access, to provide a more nuanced understanding of what counts as the digital, what we mean by the digital divide, and what we can learn about racial constructions through examining digital media and technology.  Situating itself in the current moment when the first generation of ‘digital natives’ is coming of age, when we have elected our first “digital” and first African-American president, within an era which has been called post-racial and post-feminist, this book makes critical arguments about the continuing importance of examining both race and the digital together.

The first part of the book “The History of Race and Information: Code, Policies and Identities” addresses the ways in which racial constructions are linked to the very codes within the technology that we use.  The essays here examine the development of particular programming alongside concepts of racial formation; race and racial segregation as technology; the links between narratives around black inventors and the OLPC program; and the raced and classed labor within narratives around Star Wars and the Silicone Valley.  The second and third parts of the book, “Race, Identity, and Digital Sorting” and “Digital Segregations” question the rhetoric of “the digital divide,” critiquing the idea of access as always privilege/good, and arguing for more nuanced examinations of internet use. These essays address racial coding online and off-line, the ways in which computers “enable new forms of social sorting” (11), the role of race and the digital around Obama’s election, and connectivity on indigenous lands.  Furthermore, essays in part three, provide information about how internet users sort themselves into particular platforms and sites, showing the importance of not only questioning who is online, but where they are spending time and what they are doing there.  The final section of the book addresses the increased biotechnical constructions of racial identity, looking at racial formations within online games, as well as constructions of race in various media contexts around the use of new DNA technologies.

While broad in its scope and conceptualization of race beyond the black-white binary, as various essays address Asian-American, Latino, and indigenous identities, few of the texts address the intersectional dynamics of gender, class, sexuality and other aspects of identity and I would have liked to have seen more layered analysis about these different identity formations as linked to race.   The links to transnational concepts of race and labor are a bit clearer, and essays address the concept of the Chinese gold farmer, the ways in which globalization and imperialism influenced the OLPC, and the transnational connections people make while learning of their genetic heritage.  While this book does not make claims to a transnational analysis, and is for the most part US-centered, I found these moments of global connection to be some of the most interesting.

Overall the book provides a comprehensive and diverse selection of texts addressing different aspects of the digital: programming and coding, matrices, gaming, internet connectivity, DNA technologies, social media sites, news platforms, and technological labor.  It is useful as a text which examines contemporary social media sites and is particularly relevant to the contemporary context but the broader arguments here around technology/the digital, and racial formations will remain relevant even after the particulars of Facebook, Myspace, and other social networking sites and online spaces change.  Furthermore, as it is an interdisciplinary collection, it provides multiple sites from which to approach these questions, making it a text that will be particularly useful to a variety of scholars.

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