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Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet

Author: Lisa Nakamura
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 2002
Review Published: March 2003

 REVIEW 1: Julian Bleecker
 REVIEW 2: Graham J. Murphy

    "There is no race. There is no gender. There is no age. There are no infirmities. There are only minds. Utopia? No! the Internet!"
This 1997 MCI advertising slogan, which has been analyzed in Cybertypes, David Trend’s Reading Digital Culture, David Silver’s essay on the Blacksburg Electronic Village in Race in Cyberspace, and doubtless in other cyberculture texts that I don’t know of embodies so vividly the sort of technoutopianism that we have all already lashed back from. Julian Bleecker’s revelation that he worked on this particular campaign back in those days of Internet triumphalism strikes me as wonderfully ironic. He knew that this slogan was "moronic," as he writes, five years ago, but most people didn’t. I was especially pleased to see his wonderfully cogent review, which in itself constitutes a thumbnail history of the political economy of the Internet for those who are still trying to figure it out, like me.

In fact, Bleecker gives me far more credit than I had ever hoped for for explicating the political economy of the Internet and its relation to creating raced markets. Initially the book had started out with a chapter on online role playing, and that seemed its core even after other parts came along. This was a nice bonus for me since just about every criticism in these reviews occurred to me at one time or another while I was writing Cybertypes, and it was both appalling and reassuring to see them in print.

First, let me deal with the question of audience. Any writer should think about audience: which one they’re trying for, and if they’re lucky enough to actually see their stuff in print, which one they actually got. I was trying for something maybe impossible: undergraduate and graduate students, cultural studies and literature people, and cyberculture critics. I initially wrote the first chapter in that book, "Race In/For Cyberspace," when I was a graduate student in English working on a dissertation on Kipling, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Thomas Hardy. I was reading a lot about passing and was sick and tired of the dissertation. I was also spending a fair amount of time on LambdaMOO, and I just wanted to understand what was going on there vis a vis a race using critical theory as a way to do it. So I guess I was initially writing for other literary scholars, not cyberculture critics. I was adjuncting at a community college, though, and was very aware of the imperatives of teaching, and that I never wanted to write something that could not be taught to my own students.

I also wanted to write it to make sure that students would not think that race doesn’t exist in cyberspace. Other fields have failed to acknowledge race and then suffered for the omission; most particularly, students have suffered as their experiences were suppressed and ignored. As the book developed it became clear to me that I wanted it to be equally relevant and accessible to ethnic studies people, cultural studies people, and people without a background in technology: it was supposed to bridge a gap in the scholarship but also a gap between disciplines, and one reviewer said that it did that, which is great. The field of cyberculture studies will become institutionally strong when it can articulate what it has to offer other disciplines, and vice versa.

Graham Murphy writes that "Cybertypes is a book that will appeal, for the most part, to newcomers to cyberculture who are unfamiliar with Nakamura’s critical work. In other words, for many in the field of cyberculture, Nakamura’s text can be repetitive of earlier work and provides little that is strikingly new." Because I was thinking specifically to write something for the "newcomers to cyberculture" I am glad to hear this, but of course not glad to hear that it is repetitive. In my next book which is in progress, I intend to hit the critical theory angle a little harder, providing the "thicker conversation with theory" that Bleecker says he wishes to see. I also intend to keep the emphasis on "first person experience" that Bleecker notes as a quality of Cybertypes. Hopefully the balance will turn out better next time.

Murphy is also right that the readings of Snow Crash, Blade Runner, and Neuromancer are weaker than the rest of the book: considering I have read these books dozens of times, and that my training as an academic is as a literary critic, it is embarrassing that they are not more fully fleshed out. I intend to remedy that in my next book, in which I will have another go at the uses of race in cyberpunk narratives. Cyberpunk is something I just can’t leave alone. He is also correct about my reading of Quantum Leap. The argument would have worked fine without it and I should have left it out or got it right.

Bleecker writes "If there is a thematic undercurrent to this book it is the reminders we are given that the ‘net as we once knew it was a large marketing project, and one in which the sustaining element was a legible schematic catalog of social bodies written in the language of advertisers and marketers." This is eloquent. Culture creates "legible schematic catalogs of social bodies" along all kinds of axes: class, race, gender, sexuality, and so on. Both reviews start from this premise in their astute commentary on my book, for which I am grateful.

Lisa Nakamura


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