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Digital Culture

Digital Culture


In the mid-1990s, a confluence of factorsincluding exponentially increasing microchip processing power, the diffusion of personal computing, the largesse of venture capitalists, and the conception of the World Wide Webculminated in a thoroughgoing transformation of American society. Dubbed the "information revolution," the digitalization of ever-larger segments of American life irreversibly changed modes of communication, circuits of commerce, methods of governance, and rhythms of work and leisure.

However, the social power of new information technology was neither universally nor equally distributed in the United States. The "digital divide," a phrase coined in 1995 by an Ohio reporter and popularized as the subtitle of a 1999 National Telecommunications and Information Administration report entitled Falling Through the Net, soon became shorthand for a host of inequities that attended the emergence of the United States as an information society, including disparities in language (English remains the lingua franca of the Internet); accessibility to computer hardware and software; the availability of the basic telephony infrastructure that supports networked computing, especially in rural areas; and the age of those most likely to log on.

For the most part, however, the phrase "digital divide" connotes the uneven access to information technology that exists among different racial and ethnic communitiesin particular, between African Americans, who report the lowest rates of personal computer and Internet usage, and other social groups. Although this gap is steadily diminishing, black Americans remain somewhat less likely than Latinos, and appreciably less likely than whites and Asian Americans, to regularly use the Internet. In 2002, for example, 45 percent of African Americans had Internet access compared with 60 percent of whites and 54 percent of Latinos.

Although the digital divide paradigm, which measures the adoption of networked computing to the exclusion of other technologies, succinctly describes a new frontier of race-based social stratification, it also at times obscures the diversity of African-American digital culture. Encompassing the Internet and World Wide Web, yet ranging beyond them, African-American digital culture can be said to include multiple forms of technical and artistic creation, a proliferating network of virtual communities, and a unique standpoint on contemporary technoculture that stems from black diasporic experience. And, though black digital culture is characterized by the use of new techniques and media, it also extends an already rich tradition of aesthetics and critical reflection.

Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Tim Berners-Leethe captains of computer science and industry whose combined efforts ushered in the information revolution are now legendary. Other founding figures are less renowned, but their labors were no less important. Among these are African-American entrepreneurs, engineers, programmers, and creatives who played a role in the conception of the hardware and software architecture that supports information society and who continue to contribute to its growth. Nigerian-American computer scientist and engineer Philip Emeagwali, for instance, has been called "a father of the Internet." In 1982 Emeagwali conceived of a globe-shaped network of interlinked microprocessors spanning the planet that has been credited with prefiguring the idea of the Internet, a similarly expansive international network of computers. Mark Dean, an IBM executive, also contributed to the foundation of the information society: Working with a collaborator, he devised a flexible plug-in technology that opened up personal computers (PCs) to an array of peripheral devices such as headphones, speakers, and printers. First used commercially in 1984, this technical innovation enabled personal computers to evolve from business tools into technologies of leisure and entertainment as well. PC culture was further pushed in this direction with the introduction of programs that enabled the evolution of the Internet and the World Wide Web from text-based mediums to multimedia platformsincluding images, animation, text, and sound. Two such programs were Macromedia Director and Shockwave, which were built on the backbone of the Lingo scripting language developed by African-American computer scientist and engineer John Henry Thompson.

The creation of a hardware-software information infrastructure readied the way for new configurations of the black community. An early pioneer in this effort was Brooklyn-based computer aficionado and businessman Omar Wasow. In 1993 Wasow founded New York Online (NYO), a dynamic virtual gathering place for people of color in the New York metropolitan area. This undertaking became the inspiration for his pathbreaking subsequent project, blackplanet.com. Soon after its founding in 1999, blackplanet.com, a website fostering online community among people of African descent, became one of the most popular sites on the Web; the site continues to draw an impressive audience. Other websites popular among African Americans include africana.com, a joint venture between Harvard University academics K. Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the Microsoft Corporation that features original reporting and cultural criticism across the African diaspora; the multichannel arts and entertainment site seeingblack.com; and the politically oriented blackcommentator.com.

While recent technological advances provided a vehicle for novel forms of African-American community, these developments also inspired social observers to theorize African-American engagement with technology. Sometimes grouped together under the general rubric of Afro-futurism, cultural critics Mark Dery and Greg Tate and novelists Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler, among others, observed a tradition of technical experimentation and futurist themes in African-American culture that both anticipated and found continued expression in black digital culture. Black critical reflection on new technologies spans utopian and dystopian perspectives, including parts of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man in which the nameless narrator becomes a cog in the machine of modern life; labor activist James Bogg's optimistic essay "The Negro in Cybernation," which opines that technology might help create the conditions for social equality; the Black Panther Party's Vietnam Warera lament that "The Spirit of the People is Greater Than the Man's Technology"; and the symbolism in black music genres such as techno and funk that likens the experience of black Americans to that of space travelers, cyborgs, and robots.

The innovative music production techniques pioneered by black American hip-hop artists, as documented by scholar Tricia Rose in her Black Noise (1994), also partake of this Afro-futurist spirit, as do the creations of artists like Keith and Mendi Obadike, whose art transports interrogations of black identity into the digital realm with multimedia projects. The Obadike's The Interaction of Coloreds project, for example, uses the familiar image of the color dialog box, familiar to users of word-processing software, to simultaneously comment on information society and the politics of color caste in American society.

Digital culture comprises the ways in which new technologies figureliterally, figuratively, and virtuallyin black experience. Black technoculture reveals that the "digital divide" is but one perspective on African Americans' interactions with new technologies. Moreover, there is a longer continuum of black theory and practice around technology that proliferates and finds novel form in contemporary digital culture.

See also New Media and Digital Culture

Bibliography

Afrofuturism : Special issue of Social Text (Summer 2002).

Dery, Mark. "Black to the Future." In Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, edited by Mark Dery. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994.

"The Ever-Shifting Internet Population: A New Look at Internet Access and the Digital Divide." Pew Internet and American Life Project, April 16, 2003. Available from <http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Shifting_Net_Pop_Report.pdfStudy>.

National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, 1999.

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1994.

Williams, Ben. "Black Secret Technology: Detroit Techno and the Information Age." In Technicolor: Race, Technology and Everyday Life, edited by Alondra Nelson and Thuy Linh N. Tu with Alicia Headlam Hines. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

alondra nelson (2005)

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