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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

When the hot air went out of the "internet bubble" along went with it the onslaught of slick advertising and marketing efforts, all designed to lure us to this innovative, radical new medium. The promises came fast, and were almost always about changing the way we work, live, consume, relate, interact, share.

And we all bought into that half-baked promise.

Lisa Nakamura's Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet takes a close look at this promise and, with a keen critical analysis, explicates the representational technologies that sustained the 'net gold rush.

The dollars that once supported the 'net's promise evaporated in its crash. MCI/Worldcom was the brand that spent tens of millions of dollars to create the internet-era "Generation D" advertising campaign, a campaign Nakamura reads closely. And now Worldcom has gone spectacularly bankrupt. Gone are the dozens of community web sites and portals that Nakamura makes problematic for the clumsy way their interfaces force one to identify one's race or ethnicity. The sort of shape-shifting identity role playing Nakamura describes with wit and first-hand experience used to be fun, but now who has time to bother when your retirement savings have been swindled by your boss and war looms in the Middle East?

The internet as we knew it is dead. It must be, there are no more jobs, no more advertising to support the dot-coms with tenuous business plans. With its demise, one might wonder why the need for a book about race, ethnicity, and identity on the internet?

As Nakamura describes it, race has always mattered on the internet. Despite the reversal in fortunes that, broadly, marked a transition to a type of internet that is distinct from the gold rush 'net, it has never been more important to sustain this sort of conversation.

Part of the force of Nakamura's analysis comes from the fortuitous timing of Cybertypes' publication. Although several chapters are reprinted from essays written while the 'net party was in full swing, in the context of a more sober period, the strength of her insights seem more relevant now. Aligned with the fall of the 'net, this book provides a more powerful, critical analysis than it may have had had it been published two years ago.

So why is a book relevant that takes as its topic the questions of race, ethnicity, and identity in a nearly abandoned wasteland? I can see at least two reasons. The first is that the internet as we knew it was an experiment with the noblest of intentions. Born, one could argue, of the earliest of online community building projects, the internet held forth a radically progressive ideal that is still most certainly worth striving toward and discussing. Second, without a considered analysis of what worked and what did not, the project of refiguring the next iteration would fail as clumsily as the 'net we once knew. Nakamura seems to be saying that, yes, there were many problems here -- and nearly all of them oddly familiar, despite the apparent inventiveness of the 'net. But clearly we aren't ready to throw out our modems quite yet.

The sort of social communities Nakamura vividly describes undergird the internet, and it is worthwhile to at least sketch the story of the early communities. The early dial-up bulletin board systems (BBS) are one prototypical instance of the sorts of community building frameworks we found on the 'net. These BBS's were almost exclusively based on notions of shared interests that defined some sense of community. Some of these BBS's were almost exclusively community building projects, and could be found in the early frontier of the internet, in the mid to late 1980s. There, an innovative front-guard was laying the groundwork for networked communities in the form of dial-up bulletin board systems. These BBS's required a fair degree of technical savvy to access -- and provided some of the earliest experiments in "online" community building. Notably, given the particularly rarefied expertise necessary to plug into these BBS's, many of the communities were related to the interests of the technically minded. Gradually, as standards evolved and computers became less the province of a small specialist culture, the communities one could find on BBS's expanded. Soon the network expanded as well, becoming a more public internet. The translation from dial-up BBS-based communities to community sites on the public internet was in some sense a move to take care of economies of scale. (With dialup BBS's the "operator" of the bulletin board would need one phone line -- and its attendant costs and operational headaches -- for every user who dialed in.) For instance, the community site Blackplanet.com is a direct descendant of the BBS New York Online, a very popular dial-up whose audience of participants was largely urban African-American.

BBSs such as the popular Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (WELL) and New York Online, were able to create sustained communities of shared experiences in a purely digital setting. That particular digital setting changed, of course, becoming the 'net we now experience. And it is important to not forget that upon which the "frontier" internet evolved. What the internet grew upon -- on its way to becoming the gold rush 'net -- was speculative money betting that it would become a marketplace that took advantage of a particular efficiency made possible by technology. That efficiency is the capacity of technology to allow for exceptionally refined targeting of individuals across the parameters of brand-marketing -- age, income, education, ethnicity, and so on. It shouldn't be surprising that the 'net demographic skewed toward the "darling" markets -- brand conscious consumers like 12-24 year olds or urban African-Americans or high-income individuals, and so on. Community sites sprang up to attract these demographics not because they were necessarily more "techno-savvy" than other consumer groups, but because to marketers and advertisers they were the most desirable groups of consumers. So we saw, in this context, "identity" web sites that were devoted to communities like urban African-Americans, white suburban young adults, and so forth.

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. The sorts of community web sites Nakamura presents became what they were for the millions and millions of dollars of investments they attracted on the basis of their providing a conduit to a prized, highly targeted audience of consumers. The more notably sites that Nakamura discusses, like Blackplanet.com and AsianAvenue.com, aren't just normatively good community sites because they create a sustained, invigorated, and articulated exchange of ideas relevant to particular racially or ethnically defined cultures. Nakamura gives hints to us that these sites are what they are for far more instrumental reasons. These sites are sustained by the same old flows of consumer capital that sluice from the wallet of the community sites' participant to Nike's $100 million marketing budget, to advertisements for Nike on community sites. On the 'net, the snake ate its own tail just as voraciously as ever.

When Nakamura starts the analysis with an eye upon the ways in which one may ethnically identify oneself through menu item selections, we're getting more than a hint as to the purpose of this sort of data harvesting. Nakamura's discussion of menu-driven identity politics provides an analytically useful ground upon which to critique the rather stark or just plain imbecilic identity categories on some community sites.

The way Nakamura describes this sort of web browser, selection-list awkwardness alerts us to the impossibility of distinguishing the community building aspects of these sites from their efforts to create readily targeted markets for advertisers. It isn't that first there was the community building site, and then it became food for hungry advertisers. One did not precede the other, and it is politically deleterious to dismiss the relationship as a chicken and egg paradox. In the context of the gold rush 'net, they are the same. One does not have a language that speaks about "identity" alone without also stuttering out marketing, and conversely, in this context, marketing cannot be mentioned without identity as a hyphenated appendage. And Nakamura reminds us, if not explicitly then through the web of examples she presents, that these sorts of sites are in the business of the hyphenated, knotted hybrid called "identity-marketing."

Ironically, some of the largest players in the brief history of the 'net attempted to use the erasure of identity categories as a means to sell the appearance of a progressive endeavor. The boldest example of this is the patently maudlin MCI/WorldCom "Anthem" slogan that Nakamura subjects to a lucid media reading. It is worth quoting the slogan here:
    There is no race. There is no gender. There is no age. There are no infirmities. There are only minds. Utopia? No. The Internet [1].
At first read, one may be tempted to dismiss such tear-jerker slogans as hardly worthy of critical attention. But there is a complexity here that Nakamura carefully coaxes out. The insights she derives from this and other close readings of 'net advertising point to a familiar but subtle elision, which can be described succinctly: Across the surface of these advertisements are familiar, painfully liberal desires to create harmonious communities by accepting difference. Just below the surface, though, is the express possibility that such harmonious communities are to be attained by eradicating difference, viz., with no race, there could never be racial hatred. Nakamura correctly points out that the promise of these advertisements is a kind of conformity that requires giving up the complexity of our unique identities -- what else is left if there is no difference? As Nakamura notes, "[t]he spectacles of race in these advertising images are designed to stabilize contemporary anxieties that networking technology and access to cyberspace may break down ethnic and racial differences. These advertisements that promote the glories of cyberspace cast the viewer in the position of the tourist, and sketch out a future in which difference is either elided or put in its proper place" (87).

Examples of this kind of rhetorical elision are found throughout Nakamura's essays. In the essay titled "Race in the Construct and the Construction of Race," Nakamura juxtaposes two sets of science fiction films and novels, from the "early" and "present" periods of, roughly, the cyberpunk genre. Admittedly, I was a bit skeptical of another reading of Blade Runner and Neuromancer, having felt that, for the purposes of genre analysis, those works had been put comfortably to bed. But her analysis proved insightful, and particularly so for the fashion by which the "early" set (Ridley Scott's, Blade Runner and William Gibson's Neuromancer) is put in play alongside the "present" set (the Wachowski's The Matrix and Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash) with an explicit close reading of the way race presents itself. Her conclusion to the analysis of "The Matrix" provides a unique insight into that film's moral architecture, albeit with a specific emphasis on how race matters, and how this elision works therein: "Beneath the great look of the film . . . lies the insight that we are in much the same position of the enslaved humans trapped in their pods, dreaming that they are living lives of privilege that do not exploit others. While it is tempting to 'deal for bliss,' to buy into the prepackaged vision of the cybersociety as a democratic, raceless, 'free' space, doing so means engaging in a deal that perpetuates the digital racial divide" (85).

What is never completely unknotted in Cybertypes is a painfully telling irony: MCI/Worldcom, as but one example, having spent hundreds of millions advertising its vision of a raceless 'net is now bankrupt (monetarily and ethically one might argue), while enterprises such as AsianAvenue.com, Blackplanet.com and other explicitly "raced" community sites consistently rank at the top of the charts as most heavily trafficked sites, certainly one measure of success (as reported by Nielsen/NetRatings). It is an irony that indicates the multivalent meanings available in the ongoing arguments about the digital divide.

Throughout Cybertypes, Nakamura provides us with many similarly compelling examples of how race, ethnicity, and identity on the 'net are made complex and make for fruitful scholarly thought. I would be surprised if this book did not make for engaging and discussion provoking undergraduate reading. By now, much of the work she presents has a familiar ring to it, largely because we've lived through the internet's glory days. Academics and students will have also participated in the sorts of online communities she discusses, and have first-hand knowledge of the clumsiness of whatever portal sites still exist. This level of experience-based insight is useful and it is what makes Cybertypes accessible, particularly beyond the active community of internet researchers. There are short-hand references here that will be quickly familiar to scholars and others who are exposed to the "theory" that variously precedes, anticipates, entangles, and undergirds many of Nakamura's insights. At times, one seeks an additional degree of engagement beyond the short-hand, to see a thicker conversation with this theory. Not so much to change the "prerequisites" necessary to read this enjoyable book, but to reveal, in a sense, the degree to which the 'net has become socialized, even in its death.

The complex relationship that obtains between creating something innovative and radically new, and the conservancy of the "money people" make for strange bedfellows. And this is what may be described as the undercurrent that registers in Cybertypes. On the one hand, Nakamura reminds us that there was the radical promise. But, she quickly points out, it was a radical promise brought to you courtesy of MCI/WorldCom and IBM and Compaq and Microsoft. And in this way, Nakamura forces us to consider that we're being setup. MCI/WorldCom has no particular stake in really crafting radical new human/nonhuman hybrids. They need people to use their telecommunications infrastructure pretty much the same old way, and certainly in exchange for the same old dollar bill. The same may be said of any multibillion dollar entity that has a significant capital investment in the ontological equipment of an old and familiar way of life. It would be telling to open the books and see, on balance, how much such companies as these spent on programming computers versus programming humans through their prodigious advertising and marketing efforts. We were told that we were about to embark on a new human experience -- but did we get the same experience with a new veneer? Did we humans get reprogrammed, told that something new was happening and sold on the idea of a new technology who's only evidence lives with us in the form of an expensive cable modem, an upgraded CPU, and a pile of account statements of worthless stock? Were we looking for a way to make a distinction between what was old and what could be new, whether a new device or a new raceless world? The representations of these worlds as indicated by 'net advertisements certainly indicate such. When Nakamura explicates an ad depicting a Bedouin sitting on his camel considering whether to "download" some data, she's reminding us that we were driven to fully enroll in the new experience through its peculiar joking culture, shaking our head with fascination at the heavy irony in such images. But Nakamura also reminds us is that, left to our own devices it would seem that not much has changed.

When we look closely, as Nakamura does, we see in the 'net the same way of life. If the radical promise ever existed, it's a familiar old one that has a unique history, at least here in the United States. Equality, democracy, participation, inclusion, "one people" are the keywords to Google. The problem is that once these technological "advances" fully socialize within the human/nonhuman collective, they, virus-like, present symptoms of the whole of our own history. Innovation occurs not with machines, but with our own commitments to refiguring the worlds in which we live. Lisa Nakamura writes about a potent machine -- the 'net -- as a particularly messy entanglement of machines, race, ethnicity, identity, markets, commerce, and exchange. In this way she reminds us that the 'net is in the zone of Haraway's Cyborgs, where our machines are us, where we have willingly discarded desires for pure identity categories, and where drop-down menus are as infused with politics as holes in the ozone or spotted owls.

1. It is worth mentioning that I was working as a computer programmer at the advertising agency that produced this slogan. My involvement was less frequently at the "creative" level, and more operational. I did work in the "online" group that attempted to translate this slogan's sensibilities into MCI/Worldcom's online marketing and advertising efforts. I have been waiting patiently for five years for someone to make short work of this moronic slogan, and I am thankful for Nakamura's incisive critique.

Julian Bleecker:
Julian Bleecker is a Technologist, working with technology as a practice of culture writing the machine and narrative codes that reveal provocative human / nonhuman entanglements. He recently collaborated with the polymedia artist Marina Zurkow and Scott Paterson, an architect, on PDPal, a Palm-based technoart project, which received the Emerging
Artist, Emergent Media Grant from the Walker Art Center. He is completing his Ph.D. at the History of Consciousness Board at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  <julian@fatdonut.com>

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