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Cyberghetto or Cybertopia? Race, Class and Gender on the Internet

Editor: Bosah Ebo
Publisher: Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1998
Review Published: April 2000

 REVIEW 1: Ed Pai
 REVIEW 2: Mike Ayers
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Bosah Ebo

Rejoinder to Ed Pai's review of Cyberghetto or Cybertopia? Race, Class, and Gender on the Internet

Ed Pai makes interesting comments and raises useful questions about the book in his review. He displays an appreciable level of knowledge of the Internet and its evolving social implications, particularly as it relates to race. On several levels, however, his review does not seem to capture the essence of the book. I would even submit that the review harbors a certain pedagogical parochialism that betrays the dynamic nature of the Internet.

Pai observes that the book speaks generally about marginalized populations, but does not specifically discuss the issue of race in Part II, the section on race. He points out that the book was supposed to examine how racial identities and attributes will moderate social justice on the Internet, yet the word race was never used to describe the essays included about race. This observation may be correct, but it does not accommodate, or at least acknowledge, the premise of the book. An important goal of the book was to use a multidisciplinary approach to see if discernable traits about the Internet are emerging in terms of race, class and gender, and if such traits reflect traditional notions of the concepts or indicate new social demarcations. There was a deliberate attempt in designing the book not to impose any pedagogical assumptions or prescribe any conceptual parameters on the authors. To maintain the integrity of the goal of the book, the authors were given a great deal of latitude in developing their guidelines for conceptualizing the notions of race, class and gender, and their manifestations on the Internet.

Pai notes that he wrote his dissertation on race and the Internet and was anxious to see how the essays in the book defined the notions of race and the role that race plays in the use of the Internet. He asserts that the essays about race addressed structural issues rather than race itself, and that it is baffling because there are at least a couple of major studies that directly looked at race and the Internet. An underlying assumption in this observation is that there are universal notions of race, class and gender that could readily be transferred to the Internet. This is precisely the type of traditional mindset that the book wanted to avoid. Further, such a view does not accommodate the intellectual flexibility necessary for studying an immature social phenomenon such as the Internet.

In fact, part of the reason for assembling an eclectic group of scholars to address the issues from multidisciplinary perspectives was to minimize theoretical and methodological intrusion from a singular pedagogical orientation. The book wanted the authors to study the Internet on its own terms, instead of assuming that there are is a universal conceptualization of race, class and gender that is applicable for all social phenomena and across all social contexts. It would then appear that Pai is accusing the book of not doing what the book did not intend to do in the first place.

My only argument is that since the book was searching for new or alternative dimensions of race, the limited use of the word race in the book reflected a desire on the part of the authors to identify representative nontraditional attributes of the concept. Then, of course, to see to what extent the new attributes deviate from traditional demarcations. It may well be that alternative dimensions of race are nonexistent, and that traditional attributes of the concept are still predominant as some of the essays indicated. The search for alternative meanings is an important trigger for scholarly investigations. We must not only reify old meanings but search for new ones. We must not rely only on old mechanisms for inquiry, but introduce new ones. We must not use only old modes of interpretation, but challenge them. It may well be that at the end of the day old meanings will prevail. But that is good because it sustains their validity and legitimacy.

Pai notes that the title of the book may be misleading because the essays did not directly deal with the issues promised by the title. The title did not make any promises. The question mark in the title indicates that the title was posing a question, and not making a declarative statement. Pai also states that the book suggests that there might be a cyberghetto, which presumes a presence on the Internet, instead cyberapartheid, where the information have-nots are excluded from the coming cybertopia. Pai may have underread the book. The essays indicate that both situations are emerging in cyberspace, depending on social contexts.

I think it is advisable to make prudent projections about the Internet because the dynamic of the technology is very active, and the social implications are still evolving. Careful examination of the tendencies of the Internet indicate that many of the attributes and characteristics are still percolating, or yet to fully crystallize. Rigid application of traditional intellectual guidelines for studying race, class and gender on the Internet could deny recognition of unique characteristics of the technology.

It is important to note that the premise of the book does not dispute Pai's suggestion that some identifiable manifestations of the Internet have emerged. There is ample evidence that certain traditional characteristics of race, class and gender are regurgitating in cyberspace. We know that there are disproportionate allocations and distributions of computers and allied resources between suburban and urban areas. We know that boys have a higher technological emancipation than girls in terms of the Internet because of institutional discrimination in computer education. I suppose that my main reaction to Pai's review is that he does not judge the book on its terms, but rather imposes preconceived notions of race, class and gender on the book. In the final analysis, I agree with him that we have much to learn about the Internet and its relationship to society.

Bosah Ebo


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