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Color Monitors: The Black Face of Technology in America

Author: Martin Kevorkian
Publisher: Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006
Review Published: December 2007

 REVIEW 1: Cristina Lopez
 REVIEW 2: Paul Khalil Saucier
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Martin Kevorkian

In Color Monitors: The Black Face of Technology in America, Martin Kevorkian identifies a problematic type to add to the list begun in Donald Bogle's (2002) Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: the black computer expert. While the figure of the black computer expert ostensibly is a positive type, in fact it constitutes only a more benign form of racism. Moreover, projected onto the figure of the black computer expert are dual fears that often animate the white imagination: a fear of technology and a fear of black men. In other words, "the image of the obliging black man behind the monitor reassures viewers that the displayed body is safely occupied, both contained by and containing the threat of the computer" (2). Kevorkian's analysis successfully highlights a tendency in popular culture to contain and control black male characters in narratives in which technology plays a starring role. This book is less successful in making the connection between representations of the black computer expert and larger cultural anxieties about both technology and race.

The first chapter, "Computers with Color Monitors," identifies numerous examples of the black computer expert, who usually has a small but important role in the plot of films such as Jurassic Park, Die Hard, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Outbreak, and Mission Impossible. While there are distinctions to be made between representations in these movies, a definite pattern emerges: a black man sitting at a computer screen helps a white action hero save the world. Kevorkian compares this new image to Sam in Casablanca: "the white hero issues a request and the black man obligingly puts his hands on the keyboard" (15). The black computer expert is not only a recurring figure in Hollywood films, but in corporate advertising and marketing as well.

Kevorkian's critique is at its strongest when he addresses racism with a benevolent face. In analyses of advertisements for Dell Computers and IBM he shows that the dynamic in Hollywood action movies is also at work in corporate marketing: while the black computer expert has expertise valued by the organization and its clients, the images affirm strictly reinforced hierarchies along racial lines. Moreover, the ads promote a fantasy of integration and harmony in the workplace. Similarly, marketing campaigns that highlight corporations' efforts to address the "digital divide" put black children on display in order to show the largesse of the organization. Kevorkian points out that many of those ads suggest a "liberal condescension" and remind us that DuBois' (1903) critique of narrow vocational training for blacks is as relevant as it was in 1903 (41). Because of a common belief that we live in a "post-race" and "post-racist" society, engaging in such critique is important.

But in making the connection between the figure of the black computer expert and "fear of a black planet," Kevorkian is not always successful. In the second chapter, "Lost Worlds," Kevorkian expands on his analysis to explore how in a postmodern era "the black computer expert, specified as a uniquely American subject, serves to mark an online national vitality that hearkens back to the earlier colonial contest" (48). Much of the chapter focuses on the genre of the techno-thriller, which has been perfected in the novels and films of Michael Crichton. After reading the chapter it is quite clear that the white male protagonists in Crichton films and novels either fear or disdain computers and that computers are often the origin of grave threats to masculine autonomy and bodily integrity. But where Kevorkian falls short is in establishing that the black computer expert ameliorates that threat, thereby acting as a "civilizing force" that both contains and is contained by technology. As is his tendency throughout the book, when Kevorkian turns to the scene in which that minor character appears, his analysis affirms once again that the expertise of the black man at the keyboard is treated dismissively by a while male character. This pattern is not insignificant, but the analysis does not go much beyond that assertion and strikes me as thin.

For example, consider Kevorkian's critique of Congo. For Kevorkian, the novel's description of Amy the gorilla, a "dark figure" sitting at the keyboard, affirms his claim that in the world of Crichton technology is equated with the "primitive," with Africa and with black people. But in the film version Amy the gorilla is not "primitive." She uses language (thanks to technology), paints, and has an affectionate relationship with Peter, the gentle primatologist who brings her "home" to the Congo. I would argue that the film does not demarcate clearly the lines between the binaries civilized/primitive, nature/culture. Amy the gorilla (like her real-life counterpart Koko) is a cyborg, a border creature as explicated in Primate Visions (1989) and Donna Haraway's other work. I would also argue that the threat depicted in this film is not technology as such, but corporate greed personified by a white male character.

In other chapters, Kevorkian again is not persuasive in making the case that popular culture texts symbolically contain the imagined threat of the black man. In "Integrated Circuits," Kevorkian's analysis of corporate marketing and advertising once again demonstrates that the black computer expert is firmly contained in a corporate hierarchy with white men at the top. However, the analysis does not go much beyond that to explain how situating the black computer expert in this way contains white male anxiety about black men. When the author does address this in his examination of an advertisement for Office Depot, the analysis takes an unfortunate turn. Kevorkian says that the black male figure in the ad, labeled a "RAM expert," has been rendered a "black eunuch" in contrast to the stereotypical "black ram" of Shakespeare's Othello (102) and he then spins out his discussion of the threat of the sexualized black male for two full paragraphs. It is difficult to imagine that Kevorkian's reading would hold up under a synchronic analysis of the signifiers in this advertisement and their connection to the contemporary cultural context in which it is embedded. In studies of popular culture, it can be productive to turn to literature to "imagine things otherwise," as the author does in the final chapter. But to ground the interpretation of texts in arbitrary connections between popular culture texts and a literary canon is problematic. Kevorkian does this on more than one occasion.

With regard to establishing the other part of the equation, fear of technology, the book also has mixed results. While the aforementioned reading of Crichton's novels and films did not fully flesh out the role of the black computer expert, in this case Kevorkian shows that these popular works do reveal a deep-seated technophobia. In other sections of the book Kevorkian is less successful. For example, in the chapter "Integrated Circuits" Kevorkian takes a look at an intriguing example, the "natural voice" technology of AT&T, which is modeled on the voice of a black actor [1]. Citing Eldridge Cleaver, Kevorkian asserts that this disembodied voice stands in for the black manís body, which provides a "saving link" between "man's biology and man's machines" (91). Kevorkian does not entirely explain how in this case a disembodied voice stands in for the black male body. And I wonder whether in an age when it is not unusual to encounter disembodied and/or artificial voices, if creating a synthetic voice signifies a deep-seated fear of being "chopped up into digital bits and being reassembled," thereby "occupying the ambiguous space between man and machine" (90). Again, the analysis is free-floating -- the author does not contextualize it historically, theoretically, or culturally. What is also missing in this section is evidence of deep-seated technophobia. As it turns out, what the "natural voice" placates is frustration, not fear, the "frustrated caller on hold, a metaphor that draws emotional strength from a very real common experience" (94). True, the frustration of being on hold is a real experience, but I wonder if it warrants the considerable cultural work involved in the symbolic disembodiment of black men.

In the chapter "Techno-Black Like Me," Kevorkian argues that even anti-corporate narratives, often produced by disgruntled workers, "tend to associate technologization with blackness" (117). Office Space presents a good example of a film in which white male characters appropriate black culture and his reading of the film is good. But does technophobia motivate the characters? While the central characters in the film happen to work for a technology company and there is violence committed against a fax machine, the hostility is not directed at technology as such, but at a soul-killing corporate work environment. The protagonist does not address his anxiety by minimizing the contributions of a black computer expert, or by successfully resisting the threat technology poses: he takes a blue-collar construction job. This and other examples in the book make me think Kevorkian conflates technophobia and hostility towards corporations.

In sum, Kevorkian sets out some intriguing ideas and provides some good insights into popular culture texts along the way, but his assertion that the black computer expert neutralizes the imagined threat of technology and black masculinity doesnít quite cohere. His readings of popular culture texts would have been more persuasive had he taken more care with establishing historical, cultural, and theoretical contexts.

[1] Are voices raced? Can a voice "sound black?" Kevorkian himself acknowledges that making such a claim can be problematic. At a time when we encounter many disembodied voices this worthwhile discussion requires more than a few pages and is beyond the scope of Kevorkian's project.

Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. New York, Continuum, 2002.

DuBois, W.E.B. "Of the Training of Black Men." The Souls of Black Folk. (1903, republished New York: Dover, 1994).

Haraway, Donna. Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Cristina Lopez:
Cristina Lopez is an Educational Technology Consultant in the Digital Media Center, OIT, at the University of Minnesota. She has a Ph.D. in Communication with a specific focus on rhetoric and cultural studies and has taught courses on media and cultural studies and media representations of race and gender.  <clopez@umn.edu>

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