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Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life

Editor: Alondra Nelson, Thuy Lin N. Tu, with Alicia Headlam Hines
Publisher: New York: NYU Press, 2000
Review Published: September 2005

 REVIEW 1: Andre Brock
 REVIEW 2: C. Richard King
 REVIEW 3: Angela Denise Prater
 REVIEW 4: Lisa Marie Rollins

Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life, edited by Alondra Nelson and Thuy Linh N. Tu, with Alicia Hines Headlam, features essays drawing upon various encounters between minority cultures and technology. The editors maintain that "people of color produce, transform, appropriate, and consume" technologies (5). Technicolor's contributors do not exclusively limit their conception of technology to cyberspace and its environs; the essayists analyze material cultures such as women workers in high-tech factories in Silicon Valley, lowriders and Latino culture, and karaoke's articulation of Asian culture. The organizing principle for this collection is that concepts of race, class, social status, ideology, and community building all influence our engagement with technology. Technology provides mechanisms to both reinforce existing social patterns and to suborn those same social patterns; examining interactions between race or ethnicity and technology exposes those interactions to the light rather than accepting them as norms. Technicolor's articulation of minorities creating and innovating with technology flies in the face of technological determinism, countering digital divide formulations that set up people of color as hapless victims or skill deficient consumers of information and communication technologies.

Logan Hill's essay, "Beyond Access: Race, Technology, and Community," provides a foundation for several of the essays that follow. Hill begins by noting that while pundits wax rhetorical about the freedoms an Information Age will provide, high tech workers labor under many of the same constraints as other workers. He positions ethnic Internet content providers as potential bridges to the digital divide. He argues that racial/ethnic content sites give minorities reasons to go online. Hill notes that few minorities are part of the information industry at any level; moreover, studies demonstrating low minority/low-income participation are used to argue against mainstream funding of ethnic specific content both for broadcast media and Internet content. Hill also contends that for entrepreneurial ethnic content providers, profit motives clash with the communitarian ideologies necessary to attract their cultural group members.

Karen Hossfeld and Amitava Kumar elaborate upon Hill's initial premise. Hossfeld, in "'Their Logic Against Them': Contradictions in Sex, Race, and Class in Silicon Valley," notes that historical divisions of labor -- white management and minority line-workers -- persist in semi-conductor factories in Silicon Valley. Women of color, often Latina and Southeast Asian, are paid less and denied opportunities for advancement because of ideologies that view them as cheap, expendable, and vulnerable to exploitation. The women survive, however, through informal small-scale acts of resistance exploiting gender and racial prejudices held by management. Kumar's "Temporary Access: The Indian H-1B Worker in the United States" examines a classic form of labor exploitation: importing foreign nationals to perform labor for less than American workers with similar credentials. In this case, Indian programmers and IT professionals are brought over on H-1B visas only to find that while they may make more money in the United States, they have little protection from the vagaries of capitalism and labor. Despite technology's promise of progress, hi-tech labor practices and standards, built from economic and ideological rationales, continue to exploit people of color

"Net-Working: The Online Cultural Entrepreneur" features an interview of McLean Mashingaidze Greaves by Andrew Ross. Greaves founded cafelosnegroes.com to serve as an editorial voice for "the Gen X niche of urban America" (66). Greaves argues that Black websites, in order to attract and maximize advertising revenue, can only present ethnic content from a "safe" or "urban" editorial approach. Mimi Nguyen, in "Tales of an Asiatic Geek Girl: Slant from Paper to Pixels," writes of her translocation from the copier-centric world of 'zine culture to the Web. Nguyen writes of her disillusionment in finding punk was not egalitarian, race-blind, or non-sexist, and her discovery that the so-called egalitarian, race-less, genderless Web did not live up to its billing either. Nguyen offers a poignant explanation of her constant conflict against her body's online construction through discourses of patriarchal domination and sexual violence. She refuses to "pass" into the public fora of online discourse by revoking the materiality of her existence, arguing that the same people who demand that she give up her raced/sexed/gendered corporeality derive their self-perceived authority from identifying themselves as white straight men. Greaves and Nguyen exhibit an unwillingness to cater to mainstream discourse and values seeking to legislate their embodied states, suffering attendant penalties ranging from the loss of a web presence due to a lack of capital to the vicious commentaries of site visitors seeking to remind people of color of their "place."

Technicolor also offers several essays examining the intersection of art, social status, and technology. The factor uniting these essays is the re-appropriation and re-purposing of technology to express identity and culturally specific values. "The Virtual Barrio @ the Other Frontier: (or The Chicano Interneta)" details Guillermo Gomez-Pena's exploration of his Mexican identity and how it mediated his understanding of technology -- first through performance art and later through the Internet. In "Appropriating Technology," Nelson and Tu interview filmmaker Vivek Bald. Bald's oeuvre explores the reformulation of technology to express immigrant identities; in Taxi-vala, South Asian cabdrivers use CB radios not for dispatch but to maintain unity and community, while in Mutiny Bald documents how British South Asian youth synthesized their own cultures with hip hop through music and music technology. In "'Take a Little Trip with Me': Lowriding and the Poetics of Scale," Ben Chappell examines how Latino men have co-opted automobile design and artistry for beauty, rather than speed, through low-rider culture.

Music is an essential component of culture; it can express the desire for freedom or inscribe patterns of domination. The technologization of music -- particularly the contributions of hip hop -- has given voice to people of color. Casey Man Kong Lum describes how karaoke helps to both define and subvert social patterns in immigrant Asian communities in his essay "Karaoke and the Construction of Identity," while Tricia Rose's interview of Beth Coleman, "Sound Effects," is highlighted by a discussion of the limited roles women occupy in the technology-centric field of electronic music production. Coleman observes that gender roles constrict the possibility for women to do "osmosis learning," or absorbing the practices and discourse surrounding technology simply by being around people using the tech (150). Finally, there is Ben William's essay on techno, a musical genre that, despite its genesis in Black culture and environs, is more popular in Europe than in the United States. In "Black Secret Technology: Detroit Techno and the Information Age," Williams discusses how techno achieves a complex layering of African-American musicology, post-industrial Detroit, the futurism of Alvin Toffler, and a fascination with technology's sterile, robotic embodiment of humanity.

The essays in Technicolor are revolutionary for cyberculture studies in that they encourage the reader to consider the material possibilities of cyberspace for people of color by placing cyberculture analyses side-by-side with essays on material culture. Cyberculture studies place people in front of a computer to examine their communicative interactions within that virtual space, but I find the unintentional divorce of computer usage from wider social patterns of tool usage to be problematic for a number of reasons. As the authors of Technicolor have skillfully pointed out, people create, defy, and submit to technologies for a variety of political, ideological, and social reasons. In turn, technologies are designed as an articulation of a certain way of thinking about the world. As information and communication technologies become infrastructure and fade into the fabric of our daily lives, they are often examined with regard to the ways they configure or empower their users. Nelson and Tu's collection asks us to instead learn from the ways all users domesticate technologies and incorporate them in their daily existence.

Technicolor's essays remind us that our bodies define our interactions with technology; it is our (and others') embodied perceptions of ourselves (and others) that drive us to create things with which we encounter the world. This is especially true for information and communications technologies, whose communicative powers allow the ideologies of others to be disseminated with ease and, conversely, grant people of color to establish the power of their own worldview. The emergence of community informatics as a research movement in recent years is a step in the right direction. Examining technology on a local scale encourages attention to the larger problems of the "developmental divide": poor or unavailable infrastructural access to health care, education, legal systems, or economic opportunity. All of these may affect ICT utilization, but it is typically only those who have been failed by these institutions that become the subject of digital divide research. We should consider that ICT penetration into all areas of our lives means that people normally considered on the wrong side of the digital divide have somehow, when possible, learned to coexist with (and many times, without) technologies that the rest of us take for granted. As Technicolor's editors conclude in "Introduction: Hidden Circuits," this book serves as an affirmation for the way people of color produce and innovate as members of technological communities.

Andre Brock:
Andre Brock is a Ph.D. candidate and Posse Mentor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois - Urbana Champaign. A lurking member of the Afrofuturism listserv, his emerging research interest interweaves rhetoric, critical race theory, social construction of technology, and digital divide research into developing an articulation of cultural informatics.  <andre.brock@gmail.com>

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