Michael's Reviews > Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet

Digitizing Race by Lisa Nakamura
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's review
Jun 01, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: tech-studies-comps
Read in May, 2010

In Digitizing Race (2008), Lisa Nakamura explores gender and race identity formation in various digital media, employing visual culture studies. As Nakamura explains it, visual culture studies analyses have all too often simplified digital communication because they employ a human-computer interaction (HCI) model rather than a computer-mediated communication (CMC) model of digital spaces (9), so they have often ignored networking and power, whereas communication studies have often ignored what websites do visually (10). 

Chapter 1 explores buddy icons on instant messenger services, which all too often get discussed as verbal-only. Nakamura sees these buddy icons as sophisticated ways to present identities online. One interesting aspect of options for buddy icons on some websites is the neoliberal notion of colorblindness, where race is effaced and represented instead through the category of "nation" (57). 

Chapter 2 analyzes the website Alllooksame? (a website that asks viewers to guess whether pictures are of Chinese, Korean, or Japanese ethnicity) to explain how the website is used by Asians to resist the reification of race as visually identifiable and readable (78). Nakamura uses this analysis to question postcolonial fears that the Internet might be a homogenizing technology that might erase endangered cultures or languages (78, 91-92). 

Chapter 3 analyzes the racial visualization in the Matrix films, Minority Report, and Apple advertisements, especially exploring the ways that Black authenticity is deployed in the films. Whiteness in the Matrix series is portrayed as inhuman, replicable, and machine-like, whereas Blackness is presented as "natural" and "authentic" (100) and "the source of human agency in this techo-future" (103). However, Nakamura argues that this "authenticity" and "singularity" are serviceable to white audiences: "blackness is singularity, but never for the black subject, always for the white subject" (116). 

Chapter 4 explores the visual self-representation of pregnant women in online communities, showing how they bring bodies into websites that offer alternatives to the hyper-exaggerated feminine bodies that are often seen as the "norm" on the Internet (136). These images also show resistance to the ways in which institutions (such as medicine) have tried to manage identities (170). 

Chapter 5 explores the limitations of discussions of the "digital divide," arguing that much of these studies fail to take into account digital production, which means they are not telling the whole story and might even deepen a digital divide because they inform policy (172). Nakamura argues that these studies need to take into account production, especially production that questions hegemonic norms of race.
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