Interview with Lisa Nakamura

Race and Cyberspace

I met Internet scholar Lisa Nakamura on a conference in Oslo, late 2001, where she showed how techno-utopian dreams reproduced racist patterns. Her analysis was of a shocking normality because it, once again, proved how ‘the old’ got teleported into the new in such a frictionfree manner. Nakamura’s material shows how the Internet, despite all its alternative claims, is part of dominant visual culture. “No one on the Internet knows you are a dog.” It is this flirt with fluid identities, so common in the roaring nineties that distracted Internet advocates from futher investigations. That, of course, changed over the past years. A number of conferences were held, and studies done and Lisa Nakamura’s work stands out within this context. The following email interview was done after we both got involved in a debate about the merits of ‘Internet research’.

GL: Let’s start our dialogue with a thesis. If the Internet, in terms of acceptance and user cultures, has reached it’s phase of ‘normalization’ the logical consequence of this thesis would be that the Net would be as racist as society it stems from. Is there any evidence that this is the case? What do you think of such a ‘mirror’ theory? In your book Cybertypes you speak of cyberspace that needs to examine it’s roots in society.

LN: Certainly the Net is as racist as the societies that it stems from. How could this not be true? Is it not true of all other media forms such as literature, film, television? Why should the Internet be different? I do however, think that the Internet does more than ‘mirror’ ideology from the culture at large; there are distinctive aspects of it as a communication technology that is lacking in other media, and its interfaces do as much to create particular kinds of identities as it does to reflect them.

I don’t think that Cybertypes was the first book to say that cyberspace needs to examine its roots in society. The second wave of post utopian backlash, like Sandy Stone’s work, did that. I think that what it tried to say was that the Internet’€™s interfaces made some identity choices unavailable, some unavoidable, and otherwise served to police and limit the kinds of ways that people could define themselves . It hails its audiences in the same ways that texts have intended readers, films and television shows have intended audiences, and made environments are intended for particular users. And in its earlier stages it was not hailing people of color, it assumed a normative white user, in fact often still does.

GL: How do you see the Hollywood film industry in relation to new media? Take the film trilogy The Matrix that you have written about. Isn’t this rather traditional content? In visual studies it is often preassumed that films represent or even anticipate cyberculture. Why is that? Do we have to accept the fact that the future will be traditional? And why is it exactly the medium film that seems to shape the techno-imagination?

LN: Hackers, engineers, and interface designers all go to the movies, and when they do they tend to gravitate towards science fiction, or technologically oriented action movies. These films like Blade Runner, the Terminator series, the Alien series, and now the Matrix represent machines as sinister but glamorously telegenic. This visual style, which has a lot to do with the conspicuous use of chrome and liquid crystal displays, increasing miniaturization and ubiquity of technology, and body/machine hybrids does tend to burn itself into their brains, so that when they go to design virtual environments like websites or commercial or gaming software, it reflects that influence. This is a little understood but vastly interesting and important visual culture question: while scholars have traced ad infinitum how intertextuality and stylistic genre works in say classical painting, (i.,e, how African sculpture influenced modernists like Picasso) when it comes to the transmission of digital visual styles, we are uninterested in tracing those roots. Yet there are way more people gazing at a CRT or LCD screen right now than there are looking at Picasso.

Digital interfaces and the movies are where people’€™s eyeballs are resting right now, and they do have a reciprocal relationship to each other. People learn how the future is supposed to look at by watching the movies, and then when they are able to create things in the digital realm they produce them to match. Otherwise it tends to strike them as just plain ‘€œold’€ looking, as opposed to ‘€œold school’€ digital, which is an aesthetic style that shows an awareness of earlier digital cultures. The introductory credits to the Matrix movies represent that old school digital style, with the green on black characters on the screen, and it resonated with seasoned computer users as well as general viewers for that reason. It used a particular interface style to attract both insiders and general viewers. Though I would contend that the Internet and the Matrix both are turning all viewers into insiders.

GL: Could you tell us where Internet ‘race’ research stands at the moment? I remember that at some stage two large US conferences took place. However, as you also noted, ‘digital divide’ statistics are changing, both within the US and outside. Asian-Americans can perhaps no longer be classified as disadvantaged. Without many notifying Chinese have become the second biggest user group, after US-Americans. The majority of content on the Net is no longer in English. Still, certain power relations remain–and new inequalities are created.

LN: The two events that you refer to are the ‘€œRace in Digital Space’€ conferences, which are cosponsored by MIT and USC. They are fantastic but not yet established in the way that other conferences are that are oriented around disciplines. I agree with you about certain power relations’€”such as institutionalized racism’€”remaining and new inequalities being created. I think that one of the new inequalities that strikes me the most lately is that which divides broadband vs. dialup users, and also the way that some people, such as Asian Americans who as you say seem to be privileged users of the Internet, are being targeted as markets for web-base commerce rather than as communities who can organize to get things done together. So being on the Internet is not in and of itself an unmitigated good. But you have been saying that for a long time yourself.

GL: How do circles like the Association for Internet Research ( deal with race-related issues? Could you describe for us the general level of academic research at this moment? On the one hand there seems to be a tendency towards empirical studies (which is good), but on the other hand this seems to result in a lot of boring and mediocre work that clearly lacks imagination. There is not much compelling theory happening. In that sense the normalization has also reached new media theory. Isn’t perhaps time to move on from the Internet? Should we stop projecting so much hope and expectations on this medium and it’s scholars?

LN: I very much agree with you on the issue of empirical studies tending to dominate the Association of Internet Research, at least from my point of view. Other conferences don’€™t tend to mix humanist/critical approaches with empirical/social scientific ones, but AoIR does partly in an attempt to be inclusive (which I don’€™t think is really working’€”humanists tend to attend the humanist talks and the social scientists the same’€”it’€™s really like two conferences happening in parallel) and partly because there’€™s strength in numbers, and it would be a much smaller and therefore less important conference if it were split up by approach. I’€™m all for supporting the field, but the things that a communication scientist has to say about coding and counting the number of non verbal indicators that participants use in chatrooms is of far less interest to me that things that literary or critical race scholars have to say about nationality and identity. AoIR doesn’€™t really deal with race-related issues, though they did ask me to give a keynote talk at their conference in Minneapolis a few years ago, which shows that they are wanting to do it more. Their intentions are very good, and I can’€™t exactly account for the lack of good work on the topic that appears at that conference. I like the American Studies Association or the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conferences much better in regards to new media theory.

I don’€™t assume however that new media theorists talking about things other than or in addition to the Internet will result in more ‘€œcompelling theory’€ happening. I don’€™t think that the lack of compelling theory is due to a narrow focus on the Internet. I think that it is due to a lack of cultural studies-oriented instruction at the university level here in the US, and the lack of institutional support and intellectual community for scholars in new media. It’€™s really hard to get grants from anyone to support this work: I don’€™t think that the NEH or ACLS have ever given grants for it, unless they’€™re talking about literary critical modes of reading hypertext or relatively boring and unadventurous things like that.

So I don’€™t think that it’€™s at all time to move on yet. I think that there’€™s so much really fascinating stuff about the Internet now that it has become a mass form: things like online petitions, ethnic identity websites, the culture of IM, graphical social networked chats like Sims online and such, that are really under-theorized still, yet millions of people deploy them all the time. I’€™ll be addressing these things in my next book, but they’€™re sort of arbitrarily chosen; there are plenty more that I’€™ve seen nothing good written about. That’€™s partly how I chose these, in fact. So I think that there’€™s no shortage whatsoever of things on the Internet that are worth writing about. I think that it’€™s because there’€™s still no compelling critical methodology or toolkit that allows for a reading of ideology and identity in new media’€”like what John Berger’€™s Ways of Seeing did for semiotics and visual analysis’€”for critics to use. I’€™d like to write one of those sometime after this next project.

GL: Have you found racist elements in recent calls to keep IT jobs in the USA and prevent companies to shift jobs to South Asia? I am thinking of sites like

LN: Yes, I certainly do. There was a Wired magazine cover this February that depicted a S. Indian woman with a veil and a computer program written in mendhi on her palm, which is turned to display to the viewer. I found this quite perfect, since it envisions a feminine exotic as the source of outsourcing’€”mendhi are traditionally used to decorate brides in India, and the notion that the language of code has replaced all other forms of ritual, especially those related to gender and domesticity, seems to place the blame for the erosion (or at least failed promise) of information jobs in America on women and racialized Others.

As a postcolonial theory scholar I see this as an actually very predictable and traditional continuation of the project of racial categorization vis a vis labor that has justified colonialism since forever. As Madhavi Kale and Vijay Prashad describe in their excellent accounts of colonial racialization, S. Indians have long been envisioned by the empire as ideal workers (as Kale writes they were used in various divide and conquer strategies; on the sugar plantations of Trinidad they were held up as examples of perfect laborers’€”docile, skilled, and hardworking–to fractious Afro-Caribbean workers) and in recent years ideal technology workers in particular. This is part of another divide-and-conquer strategy–it’€™s a lot easier for cheap-ass corporations to blame racialized others for the loss of IT jobs than it is for them to take responsibility for their hiring practices.

GL: If we put ‘old media’ such as film and television aside, how do you look at the fascination for interfaces in new media studies?

LN: I see the fascination for interfaces in new media studies coming from two places: visual culture and formalism. A couple of years ago Lev Manovich won a Guggenheim award in the area of ‘€œnew media’€ for his book The Language of New Media (he was the first winner in this area as far as I know). I teach that book, and am certain that he deserved that award, because in it he produced the first coherent methodology for reading the form of new media. This is what academic disciplines need in order to become legitimate, because all scholarly journals want to know what sort of methodology you’€™re using when you submit stuff to them (and some of us HAVE to jump through that hoop to get tenure). And if there’€™s no method of formalist reading for an object of study, there can be no methodology. So I admire his work for that. However, he does NOT talk about the Internet hardly at all, and it has the same problem that all formalist reading has, that is, its divorce from politics in general and identity politics in particular. So there is nothing about race in cyberspace in that book, and its generally got no argument or polemic to make about new media forms, though it does say that others need to make them and strongly advocates a cultural studies approach, which is enabling and useful for scholars who do the sort of work I do.

So interfaces are what he writes about in that book, and it served to establish the interface as the privileged object of study. And of course visual culture is interested in the interface because it is visual and old media studies are not very good at (or interested in) saying much about them, so it’€™s a ripe opportunity to establish a hegemony in something new and growing. Though its obvious that TiVO, Replay, and other DVRs, not to mention cable and satellite tv usage, force television watchers to interact with interfaces all the time, so its not as if old media studies, like television studies, can afford NOT to talk about interfaces. I think that people also like to privilege interfaces because they do NOT seem to have an overt politics: they seem to be ‘€œneutral.’€ Which of course is not true. But they are appealing because they can be viewed that way. I still see pervasive efforts to hold onto at least parts of the utopian perspective from the 90’€™s’€”people would really like to believe that the Internet is more a force for democracy than not. I am not especially down with that program.

GL: It’s stating the obvious that the world of ‘code’ is a white male universe, but can we read this limited culture also in the code itself?

LN: Well, I am not a computer programmer so I can’€™t really speak to the form of code. Others have noticed that some of the Unix commands like ‘€œman’€ and ‘€œkill’€ seem oriented around a masculinist discourse, and that seems obvious. In the Matrix trilogy, it seems that only men can read code, or are ever shown reading it, but as to how this influences the form of code itself, I am not sure. Obviously code is based on the ASCII character set, which is Western, and many of the Unix commands are abbreviations of English words (I think that ‘€œman’€ is short for ‘€œmanual’€). So it seems that code is more about alienating non- speakers of non-Romantic languages in a way.

GL: What do you make of the phenomenal growth of the Internet in China? Wouldn’t it for example make much more sense to broaden up Internet studies and include the massive uptake, in particular also in non-Western countries, of cell phones? Why do we emphasize so much the importance of visual and written cultures and overlook oral technologies that politely circumvent the office typewriter?

LN: I wasn’€™t aware of the huge growth of the Internet in China until you told me about it, since my work focuses mainly on the Internet as part of the popular cultures of the US. Yes, I certainly think that it is time to ‘€œbroaden up’€ Internet studies to include cell phones, while it is also necessary to insist on the specificity of technologies being used and their contexts and histories. I’€™m thinking in particular of the term ‘€œcyberspace,’€ which was often used to describe electronically simulated interactive environments, such as virtual reality, video games, the Internet, even the phone. It became such a mushy term that I was finding it hard to use. I was also getting irritated with the privileging of virtual reality among critics, especially among television critics, since it seems to be such an elitist one, one that most people will never experience. It seems most interesting to scholars because it is such a good example of simulation.

In his essay in Race in Cyberspace, David Crane writes that cyberspace is where you are when you are on the phone. So he documents how the original concept underlying the term really did originate with oral technologies, and many of us remember and maybe even still use dial up connections to the Internet that were basically hacking oral technologies to produce visual and written documents on the computer desktop. I think that we privilege the visual and written for the same reasons that we always have; as visual culture scholars like to go on about, textuality has always been privileged in relation to visuality since it signifies cultural privilege. The word is for ‘€œeducated’€ people.

It’€™s unfortunate that critical media theory has not really taken up the issue of the cellphone particularly effectively. I saw David Morley give a talk on it at a symposium at Northwestern last spring called ‘€œElectronic Elsewheres’€ that started this conversation but I have not yet heard it continued. Social scientists are looking at it but I have not heard of or seen anything truly paradigm shifting (or creating) or interesting. The popular press, like the ‘€œCircuits’€ section of the New York Times and the Marketplace section of the Wall Street Journal, are doing a better job considering the cultural impact of cellphones than scholars are. And why is this? I think that the cellphone defies ‘€œreading,’€ and for textual scholars and other training in reading as a mode of understanding a cultural object, this renders it impenetrable, in a way.

As we mentioned earlier, visual interfaces are very privileged in new media theory, and cellphone graphical interfaces are not particularly interesting to scholars, perhaps because they are so small (though right now I’€™m writing a book chapter on the use of AIM buddy icons and how their smallness or miniaturization creates a new fetish of possession and consumption). They are also generally text based and not especially iconographic yet, and that also makes them hard to read, for art historian types who are interested in the visual, though they are becoming more so. They remain sort of obdurate and inscrutable, yet they are ubiquitous. What a great topic for someone to think some deep thoughts about. Maybe it could be talked about in a lot of the ways that we talk about IM (another undertheorized Internet activity) because it has some textual elements, some graphical elements, a scripted quality, an unscripted quality, a form, though there is the aspect of sound, which needs to be talked about separately. My friend Jonathan Sterne has done fantastic work on digital sound which I encourage everyone to look at.

— Lisa Nakamura, Cyberhypes–Race, Ethnicity and Identity on the Internet, Routledge, London/New York, 2002.