Dystopian Digital Divide and Cybertyping

In contrast to critical race studies analyses of the dystopian digital divide and cybertyping, another stream of criticism focuses on utopian notions of a “race-free future” in which technologies would purportedly render obsolete social differences that are divisive now.92

The idea that, “[o]n the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” exemplifies this vision. However, this idea relies on a text-only web, which has been complicated by the rise of visual culture on the Internet.93 For example, as already mentioned, Jessie Daniels investigates the proliferation of White nationalist ideology and communities online, unsettling any techno-utopian hopes for a colorblind approach to social life in a digital era. And, as Alondra Nelson shows, both the digital divide and the raceless utopia framings posit race as a liability, as “either negligible or evidence of negligence,” so that “racial identity, and blackness in particular, is the anti-avatar of digital life.”94 It is also worth noting how, in both conceptions, technology is imagined as impacting racial divisions – magnifying or obliterating them – but racial ideologies do not seem to shape the design of technology.

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Race critical code studies would have us look at how race and racism impact who has access to new devices, as well as how technologies are produced in the first place. Two incisive works are particularly relevant for thinking about the tension between innovation and containment. In Algorithms of Oppression Safiya Noble argues that the anti-Black and sexist Google search results – such as the pornographic images that come up when you search for “Black girls” – grow out of a “corporate logic of either willful neglect or a profit imperative that makes money from racism and sexism,” as key ingredients in the normative substrate of Silicon Valley. In a similar vein, Simone Browne, in Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, examines how surveillance technologies coproduce notions of Blackness and explains that “surveillance is nothing new to black folks”; from slave ships and slave patrols to airport security checkpoints and stop-and-frisk policing practices, she points to the “facticity of surveillance in black life.”95 Challenging a technologically determinist approach, she argues that, instead of “seeing surveillance as something inaugurated by new technologies,” to “see it as ongoing is to insist that we factor in how racism and anti-Blackness undergird and sustain the intersecting surveillances of our present order.”96 As both Noble and Browne emphasize and as my book will expand upon, anti-Black racism, whether in search results or in surveillance systems, is not only a symptom or outcome, but a precondition for the fabrication of such technologies.

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