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<nettime> Race and Cyberspace: Interview with Lisa Nakamura
geert on Wed, 26 May 2004 02:51:01 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Race and Cyberspace: Interview with Lisa Nakamura

Talking Race and Cyberspace
Interview with Lisa Nakamura
By Geert Lovink

I met Internet scholar Lisa Nakamura on a conference in Oslo, late 2001,
where she showed how techno-utopian dreams reproduced racist patterns. Her
analysis was of a shocking normality because it, once again, proved how
'the old' got teleported into the new in such a frictionfree manner.
Nakamura's material shows how the Internet, despite all its alternative
claims, is part of dominant visual culture. "No one on the Internet knows
you are a dog." It is this flirt with fluid identities, so common in the
roaring nineties that distracted Internet advocates from futher
investigations. That, of course, changed over the past years. A number of
conferences were held, and studies done and Lisa Nakamura's work stands
out within this context. The following email interview was done after we
both got involved in a debate about the merits of 'Internet research'.

GL: Let's start our dialogue with a thesis. If the Internet, in terms of
acceptance and user cultures, has reached it's phase of 'normalization'
the logical consequence of this thesis would be that the Net would be as
racist as society it stems from. Is there any evidence that this is the
case? What do you think of such a 'mirror' theory? In your book
Cybertypes you speak of cyberspace that needs to examine it's roots in

LN: Certainly the Net is as racist as the societies that it stems from.
How could this not be true? Is it not true of all other media forms such
as literature, film, television? Why should the Internet be different? I
do however, think that the Internet does more than 'mirror' ideology
from the culture at large; there are distinctive aspects of it as a
communication technology that is lacking in other media, and its
interfaces do as much to create particular kinds of identities as it
does to reflect them.

I don't think that Cybertypes was the first book to say that cyberspace
needs to examine its roots in society. The second wave of post utopian
backlash, like Sandy Stone's work, did that. I think that what it tried
to say was that the Internet’s interfaces made some identity choices
unavailable, some unavoidable, and otherwise served to police and limit
the kinds of ways that people could define themselves . It hails its
audiences in the same ways that texts have intended readers, films and
television shows have intended audiences, and made environments are
intended for particular users. And in its earlier stages it was not
hailing people of color, it assumed a normative white user, in fact
often still does.

GL: How do you see the Hollywood film industry in relation to new media?
Take the film trilogy The Matrix that you have written about. Isn't this
rather traditional content? In visual studies it is often preassumed
that films represent or even anticipate cyberculture. Why is that? Do we
have to accept the fact that the future will be traditional? And why is
it exactly the medium film that seems to shape the techno-imagination?

LN: Hackers, engineers, and interface designers all go to the movies,
and when they do they tend to gravitate towards science fiction, or
technologically oriented action movies. These films like Blade Runner,
the Terminator series, the Alien series, and now the Matrix represent
machines as sinister but glamorously telegenic. This visual style, which
has a lot to do with the conspicuous use of chrome and liquid crystal
displays, increasing miniaturization and ubiquity of technology, and
body/machine hybrids does tend to burn itself into their brains, so that
when they go to design virtual environments like websites or commercial
or gaming software, it reflects that influence. This is a little
understood but vastly interesting and important visual culture question:
while scholars have traced ad infinitum how intertextuality and
stylistic genre works in say classical painting, (i.,e, how African
sculpture influenced modernists like Picasso) when it comes to the
transmission of digital visual styles, we are uninterested in tracing
those roots. Yet there are way more people gazing at a CRT or LCD screen
right now than there are looking at Picasso. 

Digital interfaces and the movies are where people’s eyeballs are
resting right now, and they do have a reciprocal relationship to each
other. People learn how the future is supposed to look at by watching
the movies, and then when they are able to create things in the digital
realm they produce them to match. Otherwise it tends to strike them as
just plain “old” looking, as opposed to “old school” digital, which is
an aesthetic style that shows an awareness of earlier digital cultures.
The introductory credits to the Matrix movies represent that old school
digital style, with the green on black characters on the screen, and it
resonated with seasoned computer users as well as general viewers for
that reason. It used a particular interface style to attract both
insiders and general viewers. Though I would contend that the Internet
and the Matrix both are turning all viewers into insiders.

GL: Could you tell us where Internet 'race' research stands at the
moment? I remember that at some stage two large US conferences took
place. However, as you also noted, 'digital divide' statistics are
changing, both within the US and outside. Asian-Americans can perhaps no
longer be classified as disadvantaged. Without many notifying Chinese
have become the second biggest user group, after US-Americans. The
majority of content on the Net is no longer in English. Still, certain
power relations remain--and new inequalities are created. 

LN: The two events that you refer to are the “Race in Digital Space”
conferences, which are cosponsored by MIT and USC. They are fantastic
but not yet established in the way that other conferences are that are
oriented around disciplines. I agree with you about certain power
relations—such as institutionalized racism—remaining and new
inequalities being created. I think that one of the new inequalities
that strikes me the most lately is that which divides broadband vs.
dialup users, and also the way that some people, such as Asian Americans
who as you say seem to be privileged users of the Internet, are being
targeted as markets for web-base commerce rather than as communities who
can organize to get things done together. So being on the Internet is
not in and of itself an unmitigated good. But you have been saying that
for a long time yourself.

GL: How do circles like the Association for Internet Research
(www.aior.org) deal with race-related issues? Could you describe for us
the general level of academic research at this moment? On the one hand
there seems to be a tendency towards empirical studies (which is good),
but on the other hand this seems to result in a lot of boring and
mediocre work that clearly lacks imagination. There is not much
compelling theory happening. In that sense the normalization has also
reached new media theory. Isn't perhaps time to move on from the
Internet? Should we stop projecting so much hope and expectations on
this medium and it's scholars? 

LN: I very much agree with you on the issue of empirical studies tending
to dominate the Association of Internet Research, at least from my point
of view. Other conferences don’t tend to mix humanist/critical
approaches with empirical/social scientific ones, but AoIR does partly
in an attempt to be inclusive (which I don’t think is really
working—humanists tend to attend the humanist talks and the social
scientists the same—it’s really like two conferences happening in
parallel) and partly because there’s strength in numbers, and it would
be a much smaller and therefore less important conference if it were
split up by approach. I’m all for supporting the field, but the things
that a communication scientist has to say about coding and counting the
number of non verbal indicators that participants use in chatrooms is of
far less interest to me that things that literary or critical race
scholars have to say about nationality and identity. AoIR doesn’t really
deal with race-related issues, though they did ask me to give a keynote
talk at their conference in Minneapolis a few years ago, which shows
that they are wanting to do it more. Their intentions are very good, and
I can’t exactly account for the lack of good work on the topic that
appears at that conference. I like the American Studies Association or
the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conferences much better in
regards to new media theory.

I don’t assume however that new media theorists talking about things
other than or in addition to the Internet will result in more
“compelling theory” happening. I don’t think that the lack of compelling
theory is due to a narrow focus on the Internet. I think that it is due
to a lack of cultural studies-oriented instruction at the university
level here in the US, and the lack of institutional support and
intellectual community for scholars in new media. It’s really hard to
get grants from anyone to support this work: I don’t think that the NEH
or ACLS have ever given grants for it, unless they’re talking about
literary critical modes of reading hypertext or relatively boring and
unadventurous things like that. 

So I don’t think that it’s at all time to move on yet. I think that
there’s so much really fascinating stuff about the Internet now that it
has become a mass form: things like online petitions, ethnic identity
websites, the culture of IM, graphical social networked chats like Sims
online and such, that are really under-theorized still, yet millions of
people deploy them all the time. I’ll be addressing these things in my
next book, but they’re sort of arbitrarily chosen; there are plenty more
that I’ve seen nothing good written about. That’s partly how I chose
these, in fact. So I think that there’s no shortage whatsoever of things
on the Internet that are worth writing about. I think that it’s because
there’s still no compelling critical methodology or toolkit that allows
for a reading of ideology and identity in new media—like what John
Berger’s Ways of Seeing did for semiotics and visual analysis—for
critics to use. I’d like to write one of those sometime after this next

GL: Have you found racist elements in recent calls to keep IT jobs in
the USA and prevent companies to shift jobs to South Asia? I am thinking
of sites like http://www.gnp.org/.

LN: Yes, I certainly do. There was a Wired magazine cover this February
that depicted a S. Indian woman with a veil and a computer program
written in mendhi on her palm, which is turned to display to the viewer.
I found this quite perfect, since it envisions a feminine exotic as the
source of outsourcing—mendhi are traditionally used to decorate brides
in India, and the notion that the language of code has replaced all
other forms of ritual, especially those related to gender and
domesticity, seems to place the blame for the erosion (or at least
failed promise) of information jobs in America on women and racialized

As a postcolonial theory scholar I see this as an actually very
predictable and traditional continuation of the project of racial
categorization vis a vis labor that has justified colonialism since
forever. As Madhavi Kale and Vijay Prashad describe in their excellent
accounts of colonial racialization, S. Indians have long been envisioned
by the empire as ideal workers (as Kale writes they were used in various
divide and conquer strategies; on the sugar plantations of Trinidad they
were held up as examples of perfect laborers—docile, skilled, and
hardworking--to fractious Afro-Caribbean workers) and in recent years
ideal technology workers in particular. This is part of another
divide-and-conquer strategy--it’s a lot easier for cheap-ass
corporations to blame racialized others for the loss of IT jobs than it
is for them to take responsibility for their hiring practices.

GL: If we put 'old media' such as film and television aside, how do you
look at the fascination for interfaces in new media studies?

LN: I see the fascination for interfaces in new media studies coming
from two places: visual culture and formalism. A couple of years ago Lev
Manovich won a Guggenheim award in the area of “new media” for his book
The Language of New Media (he was the first winner in this area as far
as I know). I teach that book, and am certain that he deserved that
award, because in it he produced the first coherent methodology for
reading the form of new media. This is what academic disciplines need in
order to become legitimate, because all scholarly journals want to know
what sort of methodology you’re using when you submit stuff to them (and
some of us HAVE to jump through that hoop to get tenure). And if there’s
no method of formalist reading for an object of study, there can be no
methodology. So I admire his work for that. However, he does NOT talk
about the Internet hardly at all, and it has the same problem that all
formalist reading has, that is, its divorce from politics in general and
identity politics in particular. So there is nothing about race in
cyberspace in that book, and its generally got no argument or polemic to
make about new media forms, though it does say that others need to make
them and strongly advocates a cultural studies approach, which is
enabling and useful for scholars who do the sort of work I do. 

So interfaces are what he writes about in that book, and it served to
establish the interface as the privileged object of study. And of course
visual culture is interested in the interface because it is visual and
old media studies are not very good at (or interested in) saying much
about them, so it’s a ripe opportunity to establish a hegemony in
something new and growing. Though its obvious that TiVO, Replay, and
other DVRs, not to mention cable and satellite tv usage, force
television watchers to interact with interfaces all the time, so its not
as if old media studies, like television studies, can afford NOT to talk
about interfaces. I think that people also like to privilege interfaces
because they do NOT seem to have an overt politics: they seem to be
“neutral.” Which of course is not true. But they are appealing because
they can be viewed that way. I still see pervasive efforts to hold onto
at least parts of the utopian perspective from the 90’s—people would
really like to believe that the Internet is more a force for democracy
than not. I am not especially down with that program.

GL: It's stating the obvious that the world of 'code' is a white male
universe, but can we read this limited culture also in the code itself?

LN: Well, I am not a computer programmer so I can’t really speak to the
form of code. Others have noticed that some of the Unix commands like
“man” and “kill” seem oriented around a masculinist discourse, and that
seems obvious. In the Matrix trilogy, it seems that only men can read
code, or are ever shown reading it, but as to how this influences the
form of code itself, I am not sure. Obviously code is based on the ASCII
character set, which is Western, and many of the Unix commands are
abbreviations of English words (I think that “man” is short for
“manual”). So it seems that code is more about alienating non- speakers
of non-Romantic languages in a way.

GL: What do you make of the phenomenal growth of the Internet in China?
Wouldn't it for example make much more sense to broaden up Internet
studies and include the massive uptake, in particular also in
non-Western countries, of cell phones? Why do we emphasize so much the
importance of visual and written cultures and overlook oral technologies
that politely circumvent the office typewriter?

LN: I wasn’t aware of the huge growth of the Internet in China until you
told me about it, since my work focuses mainly on the Internet as part
of the popular cultures of the US. Yes, I certainly think that it is
time to “broaden up” Internet studies to include cell phones, while it
is also necessary to insist on the specificity of technologies being
used and their contexts and histories. I’m thinking in particular of the
term “cyberspace,” which was often used to describe electronically
simulated interactive environments, such as virtual reality, video
games, the Internet, even the phone. It became such a mushy term that I
was finding it hard to use. I was also getting irritated with the
privileging of virtual reality among critics, especially among
television critics, since it seems to be such an elitist one, one that
most people will never experience. It seems most interesting to scholars
because it is such a good example of simulation.

In his essay in Race in Cyberspace, David Crane writes that cyberspace
is where you are when you are on the phone. So he documents how the
original concept underlying the term really did originate with oral
technologies, and many of us remember and maybe even still use dial up
connections to the Internet that were basically hacking oral
technologies to produce visual and written documents on the computer
desktop. I think that we privilege the visual and written for the same
reasons that we always have; as visual culture scholars like to go on
about, textuality has always been privileged in relation to visuality
since it signifies cultural privilege. The word is for “educated”

It’s unfortunate that critical media theory has not really taken up the
issue of the cellphone particularly effectively. I saw David Morley give
a talk on it at a symposium at Northwestern last spring called
“Electronic Elsewheres” that started this conversation but I have not
yet heard it continued. Social scientists are looking at it but I have
not heard of or seen anything truly paradigm shifting (or creating) or
interesting. The popular press, like the “Circuits” section of the New
York Times and the Marketplace section of the Wall Street Journal, are
doing a better job considering the cultural impact of cellphones than
scholars are. And why is this? I think that the cellphone defies
“reading,” and for textual scholars and other training in reading as a
mode of understanding a cultural object, this renders it impenetrable,
in a way.

As we mentioned earlier, visual interfaces are very privileged in new
media theory, and cellphone graphical interfaces are not particularly
interesting to scholars, perhaps because they are so small (though right
now I’m writing a book chapter on the use of AIM buddy icons and how
their smallness or miniaturization creates a new fetish of possession
and consumption). They are also generally text based and not especially
iconographic yet, and that also makes them hard to read, for art
historian types who are interested in the visual, though they are
becoming more so. They remain sort of obdurate and inscrutable, yet they
are ubiquitous. What a great topic for someone to think some deep
thoughts about. Maybe it could be talked about in a lot of the ways that
we talk about IM (another undertheorized Internet activity) because it
has some textual elements, some graphical elements, a scripted quality,
an unscripted quality, a form, though there is the aspect of sound,
which needs to be talked about separately. My friend Jonathan Sterne has
done fantastic work on digital sound which I encourage everyone to look


Lisa Nakamura, Cyberhypes--Race, Ethnicity and Identity on the Internet,
Routledge, London/New York, 2002.

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