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Cyberghetto or Cybertopia? Race, Class and Gender on the Internet

Editor: Bosah Ebo
Publisher: Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1998
Review Published: April 2000

 REVIEW 1: Ed Pai
 REVIEW 2: Mike Ayers

Race, class, gender, and the Internet are big-ticket issues in any forum. On the Internet, these issues come together in what has been labeled the "digital divide," and recent research has confirmed not only the existence of a divide, but also that along the lines of race and class, the divide is growing (see, for example, Yahoo's page on the digitaldivide). Cyberghetto or Cybertopia? Race, Class and Gender on the Internet is a collection of fourteen chapters which by its title provides an opportunity to look more closely at race, class, and gender on the Internet.

The goal of the book is to use a "multidisciplinary approach to examining how issues of race, class, and gender will be manifested on the Internet" (x). Bosah Ebo, the editor of this volume, succeeds in assembling fourteen chapters that "use a variety of methodological and theoretical perspectives, including historical overview, philosophical speculation, sociological projection, cultural introspection, virtual ethnography, discourse and quantitative analysis." Further contributing to the multidisciplinary approach are the authors, who are "an eclectic assortment of contributors, including political scientists, sociologists, and communications and information systems scholars" (ix-x).

The essays are grouped into three parts: "Class on the Net," "Race on the Net," and "Cybergendering." Part III, "Cybergendering," is the most focused. Nadine Koch and H. Eric Schockman begin the section by attempting to define a "gay political identity" and provide a demographic and political profile of the users of the Queer Cyber Center website. Kevin Crowston and Ericka Kammerer provide a review of the literature on gender differences in computer-mediated communication and report on an experiment designed to identify differences between men and women in their preferences for Usenet newsgroups. Charlene Blair provides a discussion of Internet sex, arguing that in Internet sex, "women are equal to men and can assert their power and dominance." Andrew F. Wood and Tyrone L. Adams use a case study on the Web to demonstrate "how technology might be reappropriated, reshaped, and embraced as a tool for feminist liberation instead of captivation." How do gender and the Internet interact? Blair, Wood, and Adams argue that the Internet is an "equalizer;" that is, the Internet allows individuals to be equal, regardless of gender. Koch, Schockman, Crowston, and Kammerer argue that gender roles are perhaps reinforced, or at a minimum, maintained, on the Internet.

Unfortunately, the two remaining sections are much less focused. In Part I, "Class on the Net," Alecia Wolf "demythologizes" the notion of Internet equity by examining the demographics of the typical Internet user. Rather than the "great equalizer," Wolf's analysis suggests that access and use of the Internet is the domain of an "information elite." John McNutt discusses the nature of "information poverty" and provides a perspective on how to address the needs of the information poor. Mark Borchert presents the notion of "communication as a social right" and the implications of this right for persons with disabilities. Morten Ender and David Segal explore communication media use by U.S. Army personnel, offering an analysis of data collected on new and traditional media use by military personnel and their spouses during several U.S. military operations. James L. McQuivey examines the idea that consumer expectations, rather than corporate strategies, drive the commercialization of the World Wide Web and analyzes data collected to test this idea. For the most part, these chapters conclude that not only are there class distinctions on the Internet, but the chapters suggest that a new class of "information have-nots," and perhaps a class of "information don't-wants," is being created.

Part II, "Race on the Net," is the least focused of the three sections. It begins with an analysis of nationwide newspaper coverage of the Internet, 1993-95 by John C. Pollock and Elvin Montero. They suggest that, with regards to the Internet, "newspapers seem to be linked systematically to concerns about too much accessibility for too many too soon." Meta G. Carstarphen and Jacqueline Johnson Lambiase present an ethnographic case study of students using electronic discussion, describing how the "rhetoric of cyberspace may be emulating the power structures and hierarchies of the dominant discourse in the 'outernet,' making the Internet a domain far from free of built-in bias." Paulette Robinson provides a summary of several large, government studies of computer and Internet use in schools. Robinson's presentation argues that access in K-12 schools continues to be unequal for minorities and the poor along three dimensions: 1) facilities, equipment and software; 2) teacher and student computer use; and 3) changes in social knowledge construction. Rebecca Carrier suggests that "college graduates from poorer post-secondary institutions during the 1990s present the biggest risk for marginalization in the growing Information Age" and examines the reasons for this risk and strategies for reducing the risk. Aside from speaking generally about marginalized populations, there is really no discussion of race to be found in this section.

My criticism of the book is not about what is covered, but rather what is not covered. Overall, the chapters provide useful insights into the issues which they cover. We have much to learn about the Internet and its relationship to society and, individually, the chapters offer contributions to our knowledge of the Internet. However, the title promises a discussion of race, class, and gender and the Internet but the sections on race and class barely scratch the surface of these issues. This weakness is most clear in the section on race. For example, in the introductory essay, Ebo states that the "focus of Part II is on how racial identities and attributes will moderate social justice on the Internet," yet the word race is never used to describe the essays included about race. Instead, terms like "democratization," "competing cultures," "minorities and the poor," and "limited financial resources" are used to imply the presence of race without addressing race directly. Or are these the "attributes" of race that Ebo identifies in the Introduction?

Having written my dissertation on race and Internet use, I was keenly interested in reading about how other researchers have dealt with the issue of race. In particular, I was anxious to see how the essays defined the notion of race and the role that race plays in the use of the Internet. Instead, the essays about race addressed structural issues, such as socio-economic status or marginalization, rather than race itself. Moreover, the single definition of race in the volume was found in a brief footnote. There was no meaningful discussion of race anywhere. Yet there are so many questions about race that need to be addressed. For example, is race a biological construct, measured by a single variable? Or is race a multidimensional, social/political/legal construct that has changed over time and continues to change? Not only were these questions ignored, but I found myself simply looking for the appearance of the word "race" in the text of the essays.

The omission of race from the volume is even more difficult to understand in light of the work that had already been done on the topic. There were at least two major studies of Internet use which looked directly at race by 1995 (the "Falling Through the Net" series of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which began publication in 1995, or the work at the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, which began publishing a series on Latinos and the Information Superhighway in 1994). Research on the nature of race, such as Marin and Marin's Hispanic heterogeneity scale or Suinn, et al.'s Asian acculturation scale, had been completed in the early 1990s. Further, work in critical race theory, in particular Omi and Winant's Racial Formation in the United States (Routledge, 1994), had established the multidimensional nature of race. Yet none of these works, save a third-party review of the NTIA reports, was cited in the volume.

While the individual essays themselves are valuable, I was left a little disappointed by the volume as a whole. The essays did not directly deal with the issues promised by the title. If you are looking for a book about race and the Internet, or an extensive discussion about class and the Internet, this is not the book. To this extent, the title is rather misleading. Is there really a "cyberghetto?" Ebo's introductory chapter title, "Internet or Outernet" is more to the point -- what this volume points out, and what has been confirmed by subsequent research, is that there is not so much a cyberghetto, which presumes a presence, but more a cyberapartheid, where the information have-nots are excluded from the coming cybertopia. Perhaps the real weakness of the book is that it is overambitious -- or mistitled.

Nota Bene: For more current information on these topics, please consult Arthur McGee's compilation of Web sites on "Culture, Class and Cyberspace."

Marín, G., & Marín, B. V. (1991). Research with Hispanic Populations. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Omi, M., & Winant, H.. (1994). Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. 2nd edition. New York: Routledge.

Suinn, R. M., Rickard-Figueroa, K., Lew, S., & Vigil, P. (1987). "The Suinn-Lew Asian Self-Identity Acculturation Scale: An Initial Report." Education and Psychological Measurement 47: 401-407.

Wilhelm, T. (1996). Latinos and Information Technology: Preparing for the 21st Century. Claremont, CA: The Tomás Rivera Center.

Ed Pai:
Ed Pai wrote his dissertation on race and Internet use. He is an adjunct faculty member in the California State University system, where he teaches courses on the computer's impact on society, and a consultant providing information technology services to non-profit, community-based organizations.  <epai@pacbell.net>

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