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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

Mapping the distinctions between how raced bodies are impacted by technologies and how the raced body utilizes technologies is part of the work inside this collection edited by veteran Afrofuturist Alondra Nelson, Thuy Linh N. Tu, and Alicia Headland Hines. The collection, Technicolor: Race, Technology and Everyday Life is not just about adding race to the conversational mix on the technological in a way that furthers the mythologies and realities of the digital divide. Nelson, Tu and Hines attend not only to the question of access for racialized communities, but move to discuses how usage, lived experience, and technology intersect and how meaning is made in the space of this intersection.

Much like the work of the Center for Race and Technology in Santa Barbara and the edited volume Race in Cyberspace (Kolko, Nakumura, & Rodman, 2000), Technicolor does the similar work of talking back to what cultural studies scholars argue is the "myth of the digital divide" in an attempt to redefine the discussion of lack and access to include the impact of economic, cultural, and technological interplay. For the editors, the struggle is not just about use, but the additional question: Use for what ends? Technicolor suggests that people of color provide a particular usage of technologies that is linked to historical circumstances, social positionality, and political organization. Technicolor insists that race has a place in the conversation other than simply about lack of access and "moves beyond the binary logic that insists that race and technology are always at odds with each other . . . and presents a full spectrum of stories about how people of color produce, transform, appropriate and consume technologies in their everyday lives" (3).

Logan Hill's essay, "Beyond Access," frames the collection by narrating the history of the development of the digital divide, explaining how its presence simply reflects conservative political alliances that continue to ignore the realities of low-income communities, and primarily communities of color. These communities do not have a computer in every home, or even a computer lab at school with brand new equipment and many times receive the hand-downs from higher-income school districts. Hill argues that this technological inequality is par for the course even with the corporate rhetoric of universal access. However, Hill pushes past the overdetermined conversation around lack of minority access to explore the community technology center (CTC) as one method of providing access and training to black and brown users who would otherwise have no computer facilities available. Hill also examines the proliferation of racial/ethnic content providers on the internet and corporate investment in niche market of sites that market themselves toward particular cultural communities.

Karen Hossfeld's contribution to the collection, "Their Logic Against Them: Contradictions in Sex, Race and Class in Silicon Valley," shifts the conversation from access and usage to how racialized groups of Third World women immigrant workers who are on the production lines in Silicon valley are restricted in violent and inhumane ways by their managers, predominantly white and male. Hossfeld explores how race, class, and gender concerns all function simultaneously, and how the language of resistance, useful for immigrant women, becomes co-opted by their managers to distract them from organizing for better wages and working conditions. The chapter pulls upon Hossfeld's larger study (1988) that examines the articulations of sex, race, class, and nationality in the lives of immigrant women high-tech workers. Hossfeld argues that microelectronics as a field, while touted as a way of the future and a model for global capitalist production reveals itself to be replicating age-old models of production that contain the same sharp divisions in gender, race, and class in its divisions of labor.

Microelectronic companies outsource production to places like Southeast Asia, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. The reason for the geographical change in production has been to cut labor costs and, as Hossfeld argues, continues the undervaluing of black and brown bodies in the third world who receive one-tenth of the earnings of those working in Silicon Valley. What is especially important about Hossfeld's essay, however, is her assertion that the immigrant women workers have particular methods of utilizing the same language and ideologies that position them at the bottom of the division of labor to assert resistance strategies for organizing against oppressive work conditions. How gender stratification and racial/ethnic identity play out on the work floor becomes central to how the women first, are conditioned to participate in labor control tactics, but also to how they are able to identify ways to participate in forms of struggle. For example, many of the women working are the primary bread winners in their households, even as their labor is undervalued as somehow being secondary to a live-in male wage earner. Hossfeld explains how patriarchical ideology in its assertion of the man as the head of the household is a crucial component in the maintenance of women workers' refusal to acknowledge their worth as workers. However, worker manipulation, slow-downs, purposeful equipment breakage, and "hormonal" issues and "feminine needs" are all tactics the women used to challenge the labor hierarchy. Hossfeld acknowledges the contradictory nature of the women's refusal to participate in union organizing, but uses these resistances as a call for recognition of women worth in the field of microelectronic production.

Much like Hossfeld, Amitava Kumar, in "Temporary Access: The Indian H-1B Worker in the United States," discusses the problematic of outsourcing in global corporations that have reconfigured the traditional workplace to include "bodyshops" of computer programmers from India living in the United States under provisional (H-1B) visas and working under oppressive circumstances. Much like the sweat-shop trade in humans migrating from Mexico, Indian programmers come to the states with similar promises of jobs and better lives, but are entrapped into contracts with those who pay their original passage and indeed are referred to as "techno-braceros" (78). The continued devaluation of raced labor is revealed in the reference of these programmers as low-wage and temporary earners who seemingly have nothing to contribute to the companies in Silicon Valley. However, Kumar argues that the insertion of programmers from Indian into the dominant ideology of developed countries' imagination has fundamentally changed the face and future of technology production in the United States, while simultaneously providing India with a method of increasing their stake in the production of software in the global marketplace.

In his online interview with McLean Mashingadze Greaves in chapter three, Andrew Ross asks Greaves to recount his experiences, his joys, and the pitfalls of developing a culturally specific online publication. As CEO of one of few black-owned technology companies (Virtual Melanin Incorporated) in the 1990s and the founder of cafelosnegros.com, Greaves struggled with his attempt to provide an alternative to popular journals like Essence or Jet that were just beginning to have an online presence. Geraves' goals were to tap into a population of middle-class, multicultural in the diasporic sense, and independent black audience with much to contribute. Interestingly, what Greaves and Ross reveal is not only how Greaves sharpened his focus to further his work in the online marketplace, but how black diasporic participation and use of the internet takes on decidedly political and cultural shapes. The most successful aspects of his sites became discussion boards and music and poetry sections. Greaves and Ross' discussion projects into the future a bit, and explores the question of internet regulation, and the "manifest destiny" attitude of those who are monied and are attempting to control cyberspace. Greaves points to a disturbing affect of the technological divide that reveals the costs of people of color being left out of the digital picture, a cost that continues to further the very real and material economic divide.

In "Appropriating Technology," Alondra Nelson and Thuy Linh N. Tu interview filmmaker Vivek Bald. Analogous to how Tricia Rose (1994) describes the construction of music technologies for African diasporic communities in New York who develop completely new musical forms (hip-hop) from piecing together old sound systems, Vicek Bald's films are visual narratives that describe the use of non-digital technologies to create a cyber-like world that exists on sound waves. Similar also to Rose's examination of hip-hop, Alondra Nelson and Thuy Linh N. Tu are interested in the social and political implications this use and "refashioning" of technologies reveals. Bald expresses how for her, music, technology and politics are all "intertwined." She describes her experiences as a child and in undergraduate school enmeshed in both the punk and reggae worlds, and her interest in their political and practical uses of high and low technologies. Bald argues there is a long lineage of an approach to technology that is simultaneously political and utilitarian in impoverished communities of color. It is an approach shaped by lack of access and limited resources, but also an approach that fundamentally alters both the use (the technology itself) and outcome (the ends).

In the instance of her film, Taxi-Vala, which examines the use of CB technology in diasporic South Asian community in New York, Bald explores the appropriation of the use of the CB radio from its original use in United States trucker culture, to a method of communication for the South Asian taxi driver. This method of communication is filled with shifts that for Bald articulate not only a technological shift, but a change that is shaped by South Asian cultural framework. The taxi drivers constructed a computer chip that allows the CB to be tuned into "subfrequencies that lie in between the set channels of the radios" (92, italics mine). These hidden channels are used to communicate in different languages and for communicating different needs: gossip, news, work related information, traffic, police watching, or calls for assistance (92). This creation of what Bald calls another kind of "virtual community" allows for South Asian taxi drivers to communicate and organize politically in a workplace setting that places between them actual physical distances. Bald extends this understanding of appropriation and shaping of technologies (old and new) to her other film, Mutiny, which explores the ways in which South Asian communities utilize technologies to construct in their music the political and analytical space to resist social and economic oppression.

In his essay "'Take a Little Trip with Me': Lowriding and the Poetics of Scale," Ben Chappell introduces us to the history of lowriding as a partial response to the flood of used or discarded vehicles in East Los Angeles in the 1930s. Chappell examines the idea that lowriders and the culture of lowriding is an expression of Chicano identity and argues that there are symbols from the urban United States that are combined with Mexican cultural symbols and ideology that run through the adornment of the vehicle. Mexican nationalist imagery and religious symbolism from the Catholic church are used in decoration, placed alongside sounds and sights borrowed from hiphop music and graffiti art that express a sentiment that, for Chappell is specifically Chicano. Chappell suggests lowriding itself can be considered a "subset of American car culture" (103). This is an important point when we consider how gender identity, nationalism, and the status symbol of the car as a particularly masculine territory also shape the expression of Chicano identity. Chappell does indeed in his footnotes express an understanding of the multiple approaches feminists take to lowriding culture, however, he does not insist on a similar understanding of how these magazines utilize similar sexist (U.S.) and machismo (Mexico) ideologies in their use of women as accessories or additional pieces of adornment to the vehicles in lowriding magazines. Is this not too a comment on Chicano identity in the United States? For feminists, is it just about the resistance to it being a "boys club" or does lowriding as a masculine practice speak to larger institutional, social, and political understandings of gender performance in the United States? Class and race factor into Chappell's analysis as he points out how the "baroque luxury" of the individual, custom lowrider car becomes a safe haven and an expression of future-casting for impoverished, policed brown bodies. Activists and political organizers have taken note too, and come to lowriding as a place of possibility and a site of resistance.

Similarly, in chapter seven, "Karaoke and the Construction of Identity," Casey Man Kong Lum uses the cultural practice of karaoke as a particular expression of identity in the Chinese diaspora living in the United States. A practice originating in Japan, for the Chinese immigrant, karaoke and the karaoke bar become places to examine Chinese American style, performance, cultural norms, and what Lum calls "codes of decorum." These styles, codes, and norms reveal community networks, indigenous cultural patterns and a re-interpretation of traditional ideologies in the new "Americanized" setting. Lum concentrates on three different ethnic communities while utilizing the lens of class and gender to express the complicated, multilayered nature of Chinese-American cultures.

Chapter eight is an interview of DJ and academic Beth Coleman by cultural critic Tricia Rose. In "Sound Effects," Coleman articulates the historical and continued problematic of working in the hyper-gendered hiphop industry and her experimentation with musical technologies. Coleman remembers her early days as a DJ working in all-male settings, and her eventual creation of all-female DJ spaces. Coleman's experience as a DJ revealed to her the importance of the musician and political worker who works with highly technological tools, and works hard to understand the structure of the "rules" of music, while simultaneously trying to stretch and shape the technology to make new sounds and new structures. For Rose, however, what is distinctive about this digital work is that in the creative process, it is the technology itself that allows for the sonic articulation, an articulation that was impossible before the insertion of that particular technology. Rose argues that the idea of the sound that emerges was already visible in black diasporic culture. Thus, the use of technology remains about expressiveness of the dreams, contradictions, and joys of Africans across the globe. Rose and Coleman shift their focus and have a spirited disagreement about the art of "sampling" as a response to particular circumstances and as a passing on of history and popular historical icons. The two struggle over questions of taking a political figure from her/his original political context, creating new meaning when she/he is inserted into a contemporary moment. Rose argues it is responsibility of the contemporary artist to keep a political context intact, while Coleman asserts a particularly postmodern view of assemblage as providing a perspective that understands history, yet redefines in within the contemporary moment. Finally, Rose and Coleman end their essay with the question of how the masculine environment of the music studio produces a cultural product that is gendered and at times excludes or limits the participation and thus creative possibility that women can contribute.

In his essay "Black Secret Technology," Ben Williams is also interested in the sonic nature of how African diasporic communities utilize old and new technologies. In his investigation of the techno musical scene in Detroit, he positions music technologies in similar ways of Rose and Coleman, arguing that the political, social, and spiritual contexts of black communities at a particular historical moment are revealed in the ways in which musical technologies are employed. For black youth, the early 1980s are informed by the sonic noise of video games, and the visual lights and flashes of the graphic of both the arcade and the game itself. Williams argues that techno music and its hybrid in the black community, electro, reflect this immersion in digital culture. Kraftwerk, Afrika Bambatta, Cybotron, George Clinton and others participate in music with an "Afrofuturist" dialectic [1]. As a place where post-industrial mechanization hit hard, the Detroit music scene echoed its urban and suburban nature with a digital and highly constructed soundtrack. In an exquisite analysis, Williams also articulates the emergence of the black body as a cyborg body and argues that the post-industrial moment of Detroit allowed for an identity informed as half-human and half-technologized to develop. The mastery of oppressive technologies becomes imperative for survival of the human side of the body can live with the contradictions of a hybridized existence and for Williams, Detroit techno is one place where a secret language for mastery is developed.

Mimi Nguyen continues the conversation on the cyborg body to explore the conflict of representing oneself in cyberspace. In "Tales of an Asiatic Geek Girl: Slant from Paper to Pixels," Nguyen recounts her participation in and obsession with the paper 'zine as a medium to communicate revolutionary punk ideals and explores how the medium of the 'zine is ultimately transformed in the transition from print to cyberspace. In her research quest to articulate her body online in a visible way, she notices the lack of similar "Asian/bi-queer/feminist" (or any feminist) online representations of Asian women. Nquyen herself and her website, exoticize this! (www.exoticizemyfist.com), struggles with the notion of carving out a space for oneself in a cyberspace that, even in its desire for democratic and limitless definition, has already created its Asian woman and replicated her body across the Net.

Cyber-vato Guillermo Gomez-Pena is also conflicted in his use of digital technologies. At once, he critiques technology as dehumanizing and struggles how it furthers the chasm between those with access and those without. Gomez-Pena argues that Mexico suffers from similar afflictions as the United States in its ability to participate in a highly technologized world. The question of who has the equipment, and for what means, remains. For Gomez-Pena, this question and the mythology of Chicano inability to properly utilize technologies works specifically to relegate them outside of the cyber
world.

Gomez-Pena's essay is a fitting conclusion to the collection which begins with the difficulty of whether or not race and technology always exist in conflict with one another. The suggestion of the entire volume is that while the reality of the digital divide looms large, participation, innovation, and creativity in a wide variety of technological fields must also be part of the conversation around race and technology. I find the book to be an essential reading for any cybercultural worker, not only for what is begun in its understanding of placing race as a central part of the matrix of social and political realties that shape digital medias, but how it can push us to question essentialist racial frameworks by revealing something new to us about our lived experiences. What is revealed? Powerful visions, future-fantasies that as science fiction writer Nalo Hopkinson would argue, "can make the impossible, possible" [3].

[1] For an excellent starting point for Afrofuturism, see the special issue of (May 2002), as well as Alondra Nelson's "Afrofuturism: Past Future Visions," Colorlines (Spring 2000) and Mark Dery's "Black to the Future" Social Text 71, Vol 20, No 2 (Summer 2002). Also see afrogeeks.com.

[2] This lack has changed in the four years since the publication of this anthology.

[3] Gregory Rutledge, "Speaking in Tongues: An interview with Science Fiction Writer Nalo Hopkinson," African American Review Vol. 33, No. 4: 589-601.

Karen Hossfeld. "The Triple Shift: Immigrant Women Workers and the Household Division of Labor in Silicon Valley." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Atlanta, 1988.

Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1994.

Lisa Marie Rollins:
Lisa Marie Rollins is a Ph.D. Candidate in African Diaspora Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation, "Imagined Worlds, Imagined Life: Technology and Space in African Diaspora Women's Speculative Fiction and Film," examines how the impact of both industrial and digital technologies articulate the black women's body.  <lrollins@berkeley.edu>

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