Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet
Author: Lisa Nakamura
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 2002
Review Published: March 2003
Ever since her essay "Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet" first appeared in the journal Works and Days, the most noted or, at least, most visible critic in the function of race as it pertains to both cyberspace and cyberculture is Lisa Nakamura, evidenced by the reprinting of the germinal essay in David Bell and Barbara Kennedy's The Cybercultures Reader, her co-editing (with Beth Kolko and Gil Rodman) of Race in Cyberspace, and, most recently, Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. At the end of Cybertypes, Nakamura remarks that cyberculture, as a relatively young critical discourse, has seen no "single-authored, book-length studies on the topic [race]. Indeed . . . the elision of questions of race has led to cyberspace's 'whitinizing.' The same can be said of cyberspace studies" (139). Tellingly, the conclusion Nakamura addresses is the exact starting point for Cybertypes, a text that serves to redress cyberculture's raced oversights, exploring "the ways in which racial, gendered, and cultural histories and the identities conditioned by them in turn shape the discourses that are audible in and about cyberspace" (146).
Cybertypes brings together many of Nakamura's previously published work into one volume, allowing the reader to see the breadth of her critical work encapsulated within one easily accessible and engaging text. Thus, the motivation for the text, as Nakamura repeatedly remarks, is the observation that "[t]he Internet is a place where race happens" (xi); consequently, to explore the methods of just how race happens, Nakamura deploys the neologism of cybertype to "describe the distinctive ways that the Internet propagates, disseminates, and commodifies images of race and racism" (3). In particular, she explores how race factors into both the cultural layer of the Internet (i.e., content) and the computer layer (i.e., infrastructure) of computer networks (2). Therefore, in this single-authored, book-length study of race and cyberspace, Cybertypes explores many angles, including the role of online avatars, the images of corporate advertising, the function of e-mail jokes, and representations of cyberspace in science fiction. As a sustained analysis of race and cyberspace, Cybertypes is an ambitious text that draws upon a multitude of venues (theory, science fiction literature, and film) to flesh out the multiple facets of cybertypes and, as such, is a valuable resource for the study of cyberculture. Yet, in spite of its importance and value, Cybertypes is a text 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. More damaging, however, is her analytical deployment of science fiction wherein questionable, unsupported, and even, at times, erroneous critical commentary is put forward that misrepresents the content and problematizes her critical engagement.
Cybertypes is divided into five chapters: "Cybertyping and the Work of Race in the Age of Digital Reproduction," "Head-Hunting on the Internet: Identity Tourism, Avatars, and Racial Passing in Textual and Graphic Chat Spaces," "Race in the Construct and the Construction of Race: The 'Consensual Hallucination' of Multiculturalism in the Fictions of Cyberspace," "'Where Do You Want to Go Today?': Cybernetic Tourism, the Internet, and Transnationality," and "Menu-Driven Identities: Making Race Happen Online." Throughout the text, Nakamura deploys Said's notion of Orientalism to structure the dominant critical position that runs throughout these chapters; namely, in spite of the hyperbolic claims that the disembodied "nature" of the Internet will result in an utopic erasing/e-raceing of such corporeal markers as race, popular discourse often repeats Orientalized images of race in a specific attempt to identify both the ethnic Other and the privileged Occident. As a result, ethnicity becomes an anachronistic straitjacket.
This evocation/elision of race is especially the case in the final two chapters of the text. In Chapter Four, "'Where Do You Want to Go Today?': Cybernetic Tourism , the Internet, and Transnationality," Nakamura brilliantly demonstrates that companies like Microsoft, MCI, and IBM advertise a McLuhanesque electronic village that, in one deft move, evoke racial difference at the same moment they elide including race as a difference that could constructively challenge cyber-homogenity: "The iconography of these advertising images demonstrates that the corporate image factory needs images of the other in order to depict its product: a technological utopia of difference. It is not, however, a utopia for the other or one that includes it in any meaningful or progressive way" (99). In what Nakamura calls a "global Coca-Colonization of cyberspace" (99), ads that, for example, juxtapose Amazonian rainforests or sandstone mesas with computer technology (as in a Compaq ad she deconstructs) place the computer user at the forefront of both power and agency, the computer allowing the user to become the tourist and gain a mobility denied the ethnic Other:
Continuing the critical momentum, the final chapter of the text, "Menu-Driven Identities: Making Race Happen Online," is quite possibly the most innovative and striking chapter as Nakamura demonstrates the methods by which Orientalism is perpetuated in the very manner by which the Internet is coded and administered. Specifically, Nakamura shifts her gaze towards the Web and portals such as Excite that legitimize certain ethnicities through standardized drop-down menus: "When users are given no choice other than to select the 'race' or 'ethnicity' to which they belong, and are given no means to define or modify the terms or categories available to them, then identities that do not appear on the menu are essentially foreclosed on and erased" (102). It is at this point that the mestiza, an identity advanced by Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands/La Frontera, comes into play. Specifically, Nakamura uses Anzaldúa to make a critical leap into cyberspace and demonstrate that Internet-based drop-down menus force users to click pre-determined boxes when, in the case of the mestiza consciousness, identity is quite often diverse and fluid:
As part of the resistance to menu-driven interfaces and drop-down decisions, Nakamura explores content and the function of e-mail as a critical tool central to the discourse of race and cyberculture; in particular, she looks at the joke e-mail "101 Ways to Tell if You're Japanese American" and, with a brilliant eye that uses critical work by Gayatri Spivak and Donna Haraway, determines that the circulation of these race-based, multi-participant jokes hail the user "individually as raced, as 'Japanese American.' However it does so in such a way as to strategically challenge the essentialist notion of what that race identification might constitute, since plenty of the people who receive this e-mail are conventionally defined in the world as 'white,' 'interracial,' or just plain 'other'" (131). Such joke lists serve to speak to the multiplicity of the mestiza consciousness, a welcome antidote to the "box click" mentality that powers the menu-driven programming of drop-down menus, creating, in Nakamura's assessment, the opportunities where "we can find both the pleasure and pain of being raced in cyberspace" (134).
While the final two chapters of Cybertypes are critically engaging and quite fascinating, the previous three chapters that pave the way are fraught with significant issues that problematize the text. The first chapter, "Cybertyping and the Work of Race in the Age of Digital Reproduction," lays the groundwork for the bulk of what Nakamura explores and, in so doing, includes a critique of an advertisement, placed in the New York Times by the Turning Point Project, featuring an African woman, with child in tow, walking down a dirt road balancing a television on her head. Nakamura remarks that "the tourist gaze would like to see her outside of time, protected from the incursions of digital 'culture' (or monoculture) by Western intervention: the authenticity of the timeless primitive is threatened by the television set" (17). Nakamura is quite right in her analysis; yet, the problem is its textual placement. Structurally, the material should be included with the fourth chapter, "'Where Do You Want to Go Today?': Cybernetic Tourism, the Internet, and Transnationality," to create a more unified text. This is a problem with reprinting previously published essays given that the material sometimes appears fragmented because similar arguments are explored over the course of two, sometimes three, separate chapters when a sustained chapter would be more effective. In this particular case, the discussion of media(ted) representations of the Internet begins in Chapter One and then is picked up again in Chapter Four, some fifty pages later, creating a disjunction in the critical enterprise.
This disjunction carries forward to a temporal problem; specifically, the material offered in Cybertypes could have been resituated to address developments in cyberculture that have emerged since the publication of the original essay. This is especially the case with "Head-Hunting on the Internet: Identity Tourism, Avatars, and Racial Passing in Textual and Graphic Chat Spaces," the second chapter. At this point and in much the same fashion that the ethnic is Orientalized, Nakamura demonstrates that the selection of online avatars available to users who frequent such sites as LambdaMOO, Time Warner's The Palace, and Avaterra's Club Connect is equally restrictive and anachronistic. As Nakamura explains it, such users who adopt stereo/cybertyped avatars are engaging in a digital tourism wherein privilege is afforded to the tourist that is, typically, identified with "a national sense of self that is defined as white" (37). As a result, such drop-down avatars as the samurai, ninja, geisha girl, Mr. Sulu, or Akira establish race along culturally pre-determined lines that undercut the "freedom of expression" attributed to the Internet: "The suppression of racial discourse that does not conform to familiar stereotypes, and the enactment of cybertyped notions of the oriental that do conform to them, extends the promise of mobility and exchange only to those who wish to change their identities to fit accepted norms" (43). In her exploration of identity tourism, Nakamura is quite thorough in her analysis of LambdaMOO. While she does expand her focus to The Palace and Avaterra, the critique is still heavily weighted to LambdaMOO, terrain that cyberculture critics know quite well from the chapter's previous incarnation as "Race In/For Cyberspace." While the material would certainly appeal to the novice unfamiliar with cyberculture discourse, the chapter offers very little that is new or critically engaging for the cybercritic.
A by-product of this disjunction is a contradiction in the content Nakamura offers. Earlier in Cybertypes, Nakamura remarks that, in the year 2000, Media Metrix reported that "Web use became balanced between sexes for the first time year with 31.1 million men and 30.2 million women online in April . . . [and in] some months this year [. . . ] female users have significantly outnumbered their male counterparts" (26); yet, she remarks in this reworked chapter that "[i]t is commonly known that the relative dearth of women in cyberspace results in a great deal of 'computer cross-dressing,' or men masquerading as women" (43). While this "gender dearth" may have been true at the time of the piece's original writing some six years ago, the first quote demonstrates this to be under challenge and indicates a revisiting to the terrain of identity tourism could have been more productive than what is essentially a cosmetically modified reprint of the earlier essay.
Even more distressing, however, is Nakamura's use of science fiction as a critical apparatus to expand upon cyberculture. First, Chapter Two ends with a critical inaccuracy; specifically, Nakamura, in an extended tangent, uses the television shows Fantasy Island and Quantum Leap as a lens to reflect back upon identity adoption on the Internet. In particular, she remarks that Quantum Leap embodies "a more disturbing variety of identity switching" (58). In the show, Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) travels through time and rectifies errors in the timeline, taking over individuals native to that timeframe and temporarily displacing their consciousness over the course of the "mission." Nakamura notes that he is "the active, leaping agent of history, while the bodies (often of color) he occupies represent its passive, penetrable, and mute subjects. . . Read in terms of the Internet, this tale serves as a cautionary narrative about the power of technology to gift privileged subjects with a form of agency inaccessible to others" (59). First, Nakamura provides no statistical evidence that the characters Beckett inhabits are "often of color" and, as such the statement is dubious; yet, that is a minor point compared to the misinterpretation of the show. While Nakamura accurately summarizes the surface-level narrative, she completely misrepresents the character and reduces the material to a simplistic level. In fact, Beckett is not active in the narrative nor is his privileged status equivalent to agency. Throughout the run of the television show, Beckett is forced to carry out his missions by an unknown entity who dictates where, when, and in whose body he will appear. The cost of his heroic deeds is encapsulated in the opening monologue:
The misinterpretation of Quantum Leap is indicative of what I believe to be the problems that accompany her science fiction readings in "Race in the Construct and the Construction of Race: The 'Consensual Hallucination' of Multiculturalism in the Fictions of Cyberspace," the third chapter of Cybertypes. In particular, Nakamura explores the representations of cyberspace in William Gibson's Neuromancer, Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, and the films Blade Runner and The Matrix. Early in Cybertypes, she remarks that "it makes no more sense to discuss the Net as one 'thing' than it does to discuss literature without reference to period, genre, style, or audience" (xiv). Unfortunately, Nakamura does not heed her own advice and has no problem deploying "cyberpunk" without any critical interrogation regarding period, genre, style, or audience, and, as any critic working in the realm of science fiction (myself included) can attest, the term "cyberpunk" is contentious and discursively-loaded. Furthermore, at the beginning of the chapter, she purports to engage in a "close reading of four canonical cyberpunk texts" (61) when, in reality, she offers a superficial overview of Blade Runner, Neuromancer, and Snow Crash, spending the bulk of the time exploring The Matrix. Granted, her insight into Blade Runner's pan-Asian atmosphere is a useful anchor for her exploration of "[p]aradigmatic cyberpunk narratives like Blade Runner, William Gibson's Sprawl trilogy (of which Neuromancer is the first volume), and Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash" (62). The pan-Asian environment that saturates Gibson's text is well-documented and visually striking in Blade Runner, allowing Nakamura to make the following statement:
Finally, when it comes to Snow Crash and The Matrix, Nakamura uncritically uses David Porush's idea of a "second-generation" cyberpunk without identifying the key differences between the two generations. Then, she spends a minimal amount of space exploring Snow Crash; rather, she dilutes the 400+ page to three pages of discussion before moving onto The Matrix. Now, to give credit where it is due, her analysis of The Matrix is quite informative and sustains itself in its exploration of the multicultural aspects of the film. Yet, there is still much debate regarding its "cyberpunk" appellation given that cyberpunk writing expressed an attitudinal shift in science fiction on top of the thematic content and, as the debate indicates, such an attitude is lacking in contemporary works. All in all, the groundwork is present for a sustained analysis of cyberspace in fiction, but this chapter fails on a multitude of levels to critically engage the fiction in a manner that, given the final two chapters, Nakamura has clearly demonstrated she is able to achieve.
In conclusion, one cannot undervalue Lisa Nakamura’s critical insight into the functioning of race in cyberspace, a key strength in both Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet and her work in cyberculture as a whole. In particular, Nakamura’s work is a critical tool serving to engage and bridge the digital divide between what she identifies as an academic focus upon "ethnic" studies that, at the same time, veers away from the issue of ethnicity and technology. As she remarks in her conclusion, "Keeping It (Virtually) Real: The Discourse of Cyberspace as an Object of Knowledge," cyberculture occupies "what is, in some sense, a privileged position: as ‘current,’ on the cutting edge" and, unfortunately, "is also a young and embattled field, the site of disciplinary struggle, and has yet to find a consistent disciplinary home" (142). Cybertypes is an attempt to redress the gaps and silences in a predominantly "whitinized" cyberculture discourse and, given the paucity of text-length discussions of race in cyberspace, the text should be a required text for the bookshelf of any (cyber)critic and, more importantly, newcomers to the discourse. Yet, while valuable for newcomers, the critic who is familiar with Nakamura’s earlier work and/or is well-versed in the terrain of this emerging critical discourse will bump up against the limitations of the text: it is equally illuminating in the scope of its critical insight and frustrating for its omissions, misrepresentations, and coverage of earlier terrain. Nevertheless, as Nakamura correctly insists, race does happen and, in spite of its limitations, Cybertypes pushes the reader to look forward to critically interrogate how race continues to happen but, more importantly, how race will happen as both cyberspace and cyberculture continue to develop.
Dery, Mark. "Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose." Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Ed. Mark Dery. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. 179-222.
Quantum Leap. NBC. WGRZ, Buffalo. 26 March 1989.
Graham J. Murphy:
Graham J. Murphy graduated with his Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Alberta, successfully defending his dissertation "Cy(ber)borgs and Netizens: (Re)Configuring the Post/Human Body in the Nodal Intersections of ScyberFiction and Cyberspace." He currently teaches at Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology and Trent University. His previous review for The Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies was on Pierre Lévy's Collective Intelligence: Mankind's Emerging World in Cyberspace (July 2000); in addition, his article "Post/Humanity and the Interstitial: A Glorification of Possibility in Gibson’s Bridge Sequence" appears in Science Fiction Studies (March 2003). He has also published material on Samuel Delany and Arthur C. Clarke for Contemporary Novelists, Tarzan comic books, N. Katherine Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman, and co-edited Paddy Whacking: The Irish in Popular Literature of the Early American Republic. Forthcoming material includes entries on Ursula K. Le Guin (The Literary Atlas of Regional North American Writers) and hackers (The Encyclopedia of American Conspiracy Theories). <Graham.Murphy@senecac.on.ca>
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