“Race has itself become a digital medium,” Nakamura and Chow-White write, “a distinctive set of informatic codes, networked mediated narratives, maps, images, and visualizations that index identity…race critique has to acknowledge this and respond to it meaningfully, or be left behind” (5). By this, Nakamura and Chow-White do not intend to suggest their volume will focus exclusively on the construction of race in digital spaces, but rather that “[t]he pervasiveness of the digital as a way of thinking and of knowing as well as a format for producing and consuming information” (1) requires a retooling of our current understandings of race in both digital and actual spaces.
It is this call for reorientation that is the most important contribution of this volume. While the study of the construction of race in digital spaces has been under way since at least the early 2000s, the editors rightly observed that much of this earlier work has been centered on either examining inequalities of access to digital technologies across racial and ethnic lines, on the one hand, and examining the representations of race in digital spaces on the other. The interventions offered in this volume, then, both complicate these earlier points of focus and push the scholarly discussion beyond these areas into a broader consideration of the interplay of digital structures and racialized understandings.
In order to begin this discussion, Nakamura and Chow-White have assembled fourteen essays from scholars in a variety of humanistic and social science disciplines, which they organize into four sections on, loosely speaking, race as a form of code, the rhetoric of the digital divide, sorting and segregation in platforms and networks, and the parallel development of digital media and racial genomics. Perhaps the two most provocative contributions to this volume are essays by Tara McPherson and Wendy Hui Kyong Chun. Working in tandem, the pieces by McPherson and Chun argue along similar lines for closer attention to the technological logics of race as they have taken shape in conjunction with the rise of digital technologies.
McPherson, for example, highlights points of correspondence between the design logic that emerged during development of the UNIX operating system in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the “lenticular logic” of racism in the post-Civil Rights era. McPherson is careful to point out, however, that she is “not arguing that the programmers creating UNIX…were consciously encoding new modes of racism and racial understanding into digital systems,” but rather “highlighting the ways in which the organization of information and capital in the 1960s powerfully responds—across many registers—to the struggles for racial justice and democracy that so categorized the U.S. at the time” (30). This response involves the privileging of an organizational logic of “modularity” that was intended to decrease complexity and create categorical divisions of information, a logic reflected both in computer systems and in the post–Civil Rights discourse of colorblindness.
Similarly, Chun attempts to theoretically reframe the scholarly discussion from one in which “race” exists in some relation to “technology” to one in which we consider “race as technology,” in order to shift the focus from “the what of race to the how of race, from knowing race to doing race” (38). In other words, just as we understand that technology put into practice can redefine the relations between human subjectivity and the world, race put into practice similarly restructures human experience. Therefore, as Chun concludes “the best way to fight racism might not be to deny the existence of race, but to make race do different things” (57).
Other significant contributions in the volume include Christian Sandvig’s interesting essay on fraught success of the Tribal Digital Village program developed on the Ysabel Indian Reservation, danah boyd’s fascinating ethnographic study of “white flight” and “digital ghetto” formation across social networking platforms, and Alondra Nelson and Jeong Won Hwang’s equally fascinating analysis of the performance of “roots revelations”—the moment at which a person receives the results of a DTC genetic test on YouTube videos.
Anthony Bak Buccitelli (Pennsylvania State University Harrisburg)
This book review also appears in print in American Studies 54.2 (2015) and is available via Project Muse.