on January 21, 2004
Within the field of cybercultural studies no single writer is as widely recognised for exploring the oft-ignored categories of race and ethnicity in cyberspace(s) as Lisa Nakamura. Her writing is mandatory for any undergraduate course exploring identity online and her new book Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet finally collects all of her articles under one cover. Of the five main chapters, each is based upon one or two previously published articles or chapters, although most have been reworked to some (usually minimal) extent. The additional framing elements of the introduction and conclusion, while brief, do contextualise and historicise Nakamura's work in important ways and provide important signposts for future work.
The first chapter, 'Cybertyping and the work of race in the age of digital reproduction', opens with an introduction of the term 'cybertype', built upon the nineteenth century word stereotype, which originally referred to a machine which could easily mass reproduce specific images. Nakamura uses cybertype since 'identity online is still typed, still mired in oppressive roles', and expands the term 'to describe the distinctive ways that the Internet propagates, disseminates, and commodifies images of race and racism' (3-4). The chapter then deals with a number of cybertypes-including Indian Silicon Valley workers (cybertyped as efficient and cheap immigrants)-and also examines the theory that access to the internet equals equality online, a theory touted in much of the US government's 'digital divide' rhetoric. Nakamura also reworks and deploys some provocative terminology: for example, she uses the term 'remastered', which in technical terms describes the process of converting analogue media into digital, to mean the transference of previous racial stereotypes from the offline world into online contexts.
Chapter two, 'Head-hunting on the Internet' looks at three specific online environments: the text-based LambdaMOO and graphically oriented chat spaces The Palace and Club Connect. Nakamura examines how race is represented in these spaces, and specifically how racial identities are maintained or performed both by those people who are portraying their 'real' identity and those who are presenting their digital selves differently to their material lives. Nakamura discusses two main features of online identity: 'passing', whereby netizens can pass as having a different racial (or gender or class) identity online via avatars and textual descriptions; and 'identity tourism' which specifically looks at white users who 'try out' other racial identities online, thinking they have experienced being 'other', but have really done nothing of the sort due to the different ways race operates online and in the material world. While Nakamura's points are well made, she makes the unfortunate choice of comparing avataristic identity online with the television programmes Fantasy Island and Quantum Leap. This unproblematised cross-medium referencing detracts from Nakamura's very medium-specific insights about race online, and is hampered more so by an erroneous summary, explanation and thus analogies drawn from Quantum Leap (58-59; for example, describing Sam Beckett's body leaping as a purposeful 'quest' when it was actually caused by an error during scientific experiments).
Chapter three, 'Race in the construct and the construction of race: the "consensual hallucination" of multiculturalism in the fictions of cyberspace' examines four cyberpunk works-Blade Runner, Neuromancer, Snow Crash and The Matrix-and the racial politics of these cyberspace-related works. Nakamura argues that in the first two works from the 1980s there is an evident 'techno-orientalism', whereby figures from the Japanese past become signifiers for a supposedly hip multicultural future. However, Japanese and other Asian characters still end up in peripheral or supporting roles, suggesting that cultural appropriation by no means ensures equality. The latter two texts are analysed as presenting more complex ideas of race and Nakamura's analysis of The Matrix, which still ultimately installs a white messiah above all else, is particularly strong. However, Nakamura's readings of Neuromancer and Blade Runner are both very straight forward, offering little new to readers familiar with cyberpunk criticism, making this the least inspired chapter of the collection. In direct contrast, the following chapter '"Where do you want to go today?" Cybernetic tourism, the Internet and transnationality' contains a much more focused reading of advertising campaigns for software and technology during the mid-nineties. Nakamura's argument for the paradoxical nature of these advertisements, which presented an image of digital boundlessness where race no longer matters while simultaneously using the exoticised other as something Western computer uses could digitally visit, is made precisely and powerfully. With some disappointment, it is also the shortest chapter in the book.
The final chapter, 'Menu-driven identities: making race happen online' looks at specific ways that race happens on the web and then compares these findings with certain emailing practices. The drop-down menus and clickable boxes that are all too often used to categorically define 'race' online are traced back to the fact that race is a key marketing category. Along with gender, age and income, information about race is sought by websites in order to target advertising. Commerce is rapidly becoming the main regulatory backbone of life online. Moreover, Nakamura argues, rather than becoming more complex, these categories either perpetuate the status quo or try to simplify 'race' even further to establish an easily manageable and database-driven identity for marketing efficiency. In contrast, email is argued to still allow the greatest flexibility online. Email still facilitates flexible communication and rhizomatic formations, such as group emails and even email forwarding (which Nakamura focuses upon).
Cybertypes is not a perfect collection. Some of the material examined, especially secondary popular culture texts, is not mastered allowing poor analogies to occur. Also, some of the material reads as slightly dated, mainly due to the original publication dates of some of the article being in the mid-nineties. However, as an introductory text on race and racism online, Cybertypes is still strongly argued and easily accessible. A plethora of cyberspaces are examined, and a host of useful ideas and concepts are deployed. While Nakamura argues against simplistic menu-driven identities, it is safe to say that in Cybertypes she has provided a smorgasbord of tools and perspectives with which to further examine race online.
on January 8, 2004
One of the key problems with the book is this separation between the offline and online world Nakaumra tries to establish. Given that "race happens in 'real life' ", it is naïve to believe it would not happen on the Internet. She has some valid points, but most of her argument is rooted in false assumptions and untenable generalizations about computer science, e-commerce and demography.
Too much emphasis is put on the "Web" and its technical limitations. The materiality of the technology does necessarily explain the nature of the information found on the Internet. The book also focuses too much on specialized use of the Internet such as MUDs and not enough on mundane activities. Today, most users use the Web for very down-to-earth, practical reasons. The use of such uncommon cyber-activities as examples limits her argument to further generalizations.
In the end, the Web is nothing more than an extension of the offline world. Race happens online, but for very different reasons than the ones Nakamura expresses. Race happens online, because race happens offline.