Color Monitors: The Black Face of Technology in America
Author: Martin Kevorkian
Publisher: Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006
Review Published: December 2007
Over the past decade, scholarly interest on the relationship between race and technology has grown by leaps and bounds. The scholastic interest and enthusiasm has been so high that the Center for Black Studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara has launched the Race and Technology Project, while also playing host to an international Ford Foundation sponsored conference (in 2005) entitled "AfroGeeks: Global Blackness and the Digital Public Space." Noteworthy texts on the intersections of race and technology include Race in Cyberspace (2000), TechniColor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life (2001), Crossing the Digital Divide: Race, Writing, and Technology in the Classroom (2004), Race, Rhetoric, and Technology: Searching for Higher Ground (2005), and many peer-reviewed journal articles. Despite the academic eagerness, most, if not all, the work on race and technology -- and by extension technological practices -- focuses on the ways people of color use technology, the seemingly ever-growing digital divide, and potential remedial initiatives to bring about universal access and participation in new informational technologies for people of color nationally and globally. Important issues no doubt, but issues about race and technology extend beyond the focus of recent scholarship. To this end, Martin Kevorkian's Color Monitors: The Black Face of Technology in America, a 2006 Choice Magazine award winner, is an important contribution of timely and advanced scholarship that highlights how black subjects are being contained via technology and technological representations.
Kevorkian begins his important study by investigating the increasing ubiquity of black techno-geeks in popular culture and more specifically film. He critically engages with films like Die Hard, Outbreak, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible, and others. By linking black people with technological know-how, especially given the proverbial digital divide, the films create the idea that integration is working or, even more dangerously, policies oriented toward increasing integration, like affirmative action, have worked. The role of the black techno-geek, while advanced, is a "veneer of technical gloss" (15). It is a facade without substance and a means to contain blackness. According to Kevorkian, black techno-geeks are on the rise due to the apparent cyber/technophobia of white supremacy in popular culture. As he states much later, "these guys don't want to get too close to the machine" (100). Like black slaves from decades past, black techno-geeks in popular culture do the work white men see as undesirable. Further, Kevorkian finds various media examples that juxtapose blackness and robotics. To this end, all odious work can be performed "either by dark-skinned servants to technology, or, subsequently, by fleshless technological servants" (88).
Kevorkian proceeds to investigate the ways in which white corporations have embraced blackness in advertisements and annual reports. He distinctly illustrates how companies like Dell and others use race to sell technology. Again, he cogently observes that the black techno-geek is positioned in cultural texts to assuage the cyberphobia of white supremacy. Ironically, as advertisements feature professional and well-dressed black techno-geeks, black bodies toil by servicing and rebuilding computers. For instance, while "Carl," a serviceman depicted in a Dell advertisement is there to help -- that is, is to answer all your questions and concerns regarding your newly purchased computer -- a half a million black men work in federal and state penitentiaries, some performing tech support for Dell. While companies would like you to buy into their allegiance to and investment in diversity, thousands of "Carl's" are stored in prisons providing "Free Lifetime Tech Support." Like the machines they service, black bodies become technological mutations ready to be used and broken.
Other points of interest include Kevorkian's ability to illustrate how companies like IBM have reconstructed Rudyard Kipling's "white man's burden." Here the white man leads the way, while the black man develops -- that is, does the work. Similar to the places that many black bodies inhabit, Kevorkian has found that black workers work in marked off places. In other words, black bodies live in places where they are invisible and now work in professions of invisibility. Kevorkian creates a theory of containment by literally and metaphorically using the idea of the "black box." He is also keen to show how cultural texts describe the victimization and alienation of white workers in the techno world using the language of "anticorporate techno-blackness." To this end, the least desirable forms of computer labor are connected to racialized subaltern bodies; again, computer toil is equated with blackness and by extension contained.
Despite illustrating various examples of technological containment, Kevorkian ends on a promising note, for he gives a sample of alternative popular cultural narratives that work against the racializing tendencies of cyberphobia. He shows how the cultural work of people like DJ Spooky, Richard Powers, and Walter Mosley confronts the black face of technology in America by creating a world of cyberphilia that allows for the peaceful coexistence between black and white, human and machine. The cultural texts of the aforementioned authors dream of a posthuman condition, rather than a cybernetic nightmare.
In short, connecting blackness with technology and computer know-how is one of the many ways in which a colorblind society is fictiously being constructed. The face of technology is not white, but one of a darker hue, it is black (and brown). Just as African slaves toiled on the plantations of old, the new black worker toils in the subjugating realm of informational technologies. To this end, Kevorkian clearly shows the representational logic behind the black techno-geek.
Although I find little wrong with Color Monitors, Kevorkian fails to explicitly critique white supremacy, yet simultaneously shows its perverse slickness. Further, the book is repetitive in its general trajectory, but nonetheless a valuable contribution. His interdisciplinary approach, simultaneously Ellisonian and Latourian, could potentially confuse and frustrate readers not used to such an eclectic academic approach to understanding cultural texts. In the end, Color Monitors is an extremely useful text, for it clearly and smartly illustrates how race in America is being reconceptualized and how blackness is creatively being contained.
Banks, Adam. (2005). Race, Rhetoric, and Technology: Searching for Higher Ground. Florence, KY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Kolko, Beth, Lisa Nakamura, and Gilbert Rodman (eds.) 2000. Race in Cyberspace. New York and London: Routledge.
Monroe, Barbara. (2004). Crossing the Digital Divide: Race, Writing, and Technology in the Classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.
Nelson, Alondra and Thuy Linh N. Tu (eds.) (2001). Technicolor: Race, Technology and Everyday Life. New York: New York University Press.
Paul Khalil Saucier:
Paul Khalil Saucier is an assistant professor of sociology at Rhode Island College. Over the years he has taught courses on African-American history and political thought, race and ethnci relations, social theory, and cultural studies at various institutions. His work on hip-hop, social movements, race, and social theory has appeared in edited books, reference works, and journals. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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