New Media and Digital Culture

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New Media and Digital Culture

Throughout the 1990s the terms new media and digital culture were commonly used phrases to describe several technological, social, and political developments during the period. A major consumer change during this decade was the growth in technologies available to individual consumers, the personal computer being the most influential and common of them all. The popularity of the personal computer as a consumer item in households was partly a result of the growth of the Internet beginning in the early 1990s. While the Internet was praised as a technological revolution at the end of the millennium, its origins can be dated back to the Cold War era. As tensions escalated between the United States and the former USSR after World War II, the U.S. Department of Defense put a great deal of effort into creating a communications network that would outlive a possible nuclear war. In the 1960s this research became known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency. Over the next several years the developing network of linked computers became useful for educational institutions but maintained its strong connection to military explorations. Yet the growing technology did not serve the commercial function that would define it by the 1990s. Continued technological developments and the growth of the computer workstation in the 1980s provided an environment for the Internet to become more sophisticated and influential. Many date the Internet revolution, as it became known to the general public, to 1994.

Part of the impact of the Internet is its reliance on innovations in digital technology. Digital technology is different from previous analog technology in how information is processed, stored, and displayed. Digital technology processes information as binary code, that is, zeros and ones. The information can be recalled at any point and reproduced in identical replicas. With analog technology, information is carried through varying frequency to carrier waves. Reproductions through analog technology degrade with each generation of copying. This is why a second-generation videotape is of lower quality than a firstgeneration tape. Thus, the digital technology's breakthrough is in recording, reproducing, and disseminating identical information to limitless numbers of people.

By the late 1990s the promises of the Internet and digital technology had reached a global scale. In fact, the world was often referred to as a global village where human communication between people in the remotest parts of the planet could happen with ease. Advertisements from technology companies, such as IBM, Sun Microsystems, Compaq, and Microsoft, showed a multiracial, harmonious world brought together by advances in technology. This period is known as the digital boom. A large number of what were known as start-up high technologies developed in a short period of time. Many employees involved in these companies became extremely rich during the late 1990s, but a large percentage lost their wealth when the digital economy collapsed at the turn of the millennium. For the most part blacks and Latinos did not benefit financially from this economic trend, as their numbers were extremely low on the payroll of high-technology companies.

The Digital Divide

The term digital divide became an increasingly popular way to refer to the disparity between technology haves and have-nots. The origin of the term is debated but can be traced back to journalist Amy Harmon in 1996, then writing for the Los Angeles Times, and to U.S. president Bill Clinton's administration's technology initiatives during the same period. Digital divide refers loosely to the imbalances between those who have access and know-how and those who lack technological resources, specifically people from developing nations and rural communities and lower-income blacks and Latinos in the United States. While this period saw an astronomical growth in the number of homes that had personal computers, blacks and Latinos lagged behind whites and Asians in such purchases. Often, schools in poor communities were not equipped with the new technologies used in richer school districts. In other words, many minority communities lacked access to technology and, more importantly, technological literacy. For the most part, black Americans' participation in technology consumption and Internet usage was the standard for measuring the digital divide in the United States. Social policy and local community attempts to counter this technological imbalance included creating computer centers in low-income neighborhoods and initiatives to equip poor schools with new computers. Several Web sites by nonprofit groups and collaborations between businesses and communities addressed more sustainable approaches to bridging technological gaps.

Yet critics of the digital divide have challenged the framework of the digital divide as too simplistic by focusing on access alone. Several writers and scholars, including Anna Everett, Lisa Nakamura, and Alondra Nelson, have offered more complex analyses of race and new technology issues. Instead of just focusing on the issue of access, these scholars analyze the formation of racial communities on the Internet and how issues of race are addressed through digital practices. Scholar and curator Erika Dalya Muhammad began to write about and curate black new media artists in the late 1990s. She was one of the organizers of the first Race in Digital Space Conference sponsored by the University of Southern California and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2001. These conferences brought together scholars, journalists, artists, and business professionals to consider the myriad of social implications of new technologies and race.

New Media and Digital Art

In addition to social policy and community activism, the field of art has been an important site for countering the digital divide. During the 1990s, artists, art critics, and art historians began to refer to a range of experimental art based in recent technological innovations as new media art. The term expressed a level of discontent with previous labels used to describe arts that relied heavily in form and content on technology, including media art, multimedia art, and interactive media art. At the same time, because technology is always evolvingthat is, new technologies are always emergingnew media does not adequately describe the multifaceted works that challenged traditional notions of art disciplines. What it does describe is the influence of the Internet on art making, the use of modern technologies in the art-making process and for presentation, and the close relationships between art and science.

Individual artists and collectives used technology as medium for artistic production and as a tool to criticize some of the negative effects of the digital revolution, especially the reproduction of racial imbalances. Others, such as Cinque Hicks with his multimedia project We Are All Global Nomads (2003), use digital technology to explore the forms of human communication facilitated by new technology and to envision future possibilities in which technology is used to counter racism and other forms of discrimination. Many of these artists question how identity is formed and the uses of the social implications of technology.

Some key figures include Fatimah Tuggar, Leah Gilliam, Roshini Kempadoo, Keith Piper, Roy LaGrone, and Mendi and Keith Obadike. Tuggar, Kempadoo, and Gilliam appropriate both archival imagery and mass media to create new narratives about identity, history, and race. In Gilliam's installation Agenda for a Landscape (2002) at the New Museum for Contemporary Art, the media artist considers the social, technological, and representational implications of space exploration, specifically the space robot named Sojourner Truth used by NASA to explore Mars. Important online art projects by black visual and media artists include artist Fatimah Tuggar's Changing Space (2002) for the Art Production Fund and Charles Nelson's Charles Nelson Project (2001). Black British artist Keith Piper's multimedia installation, interactive Web site, and CD-ROM, Relocating the Remains/Excavating the Site (1997), is a sophisticated artistic exploration of the history of the black Atlantic. Artist Damali Ayo has combined art making with activism through her project,, a satire on the commodification of black culture and the rampant consumerism promoted by the Internet by the turn of the millennium. Such exhibitions as Digital Africa (2003) at the Electronic Arts Intermix in New York offer venues for black diasporic media artists to present their works.

Important predecessors for these artists are video artists and media activists of the 1970s and 1980s. In the mid- 1960s portable recording equipment became available because of the advent of the Sony Portapak. Through this first-generation portable video camera, individuals and groups previously excluded from media production gained access to the means of creating visual media. Artists, collectives, and activists began to use video technology to produce alternative media, that is, programs that would not be broadcast on television or in cinemas. Many of these projects challenged the large broadcast systems and mainstream American politics. Key figures in this movement include such collectives as the Downtown Community Television and the People's Communication Network in New York and the documentary work of William Greaves and St. Claire Bourne. With regard to the medium of video art, works by Adrian Piper, such as her video installation Cornered (1989), and photographic works by Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems influenced these practices.

Besides photography, video, and other image-based media, music and sound recording have been greatly impacted by digital technology. Digital recording devices and software make it easier for artists to have access to high-quality sound recording, and CD burners allow artists to master and copy their own music for distribution. Just as important, the Internet became a site for artists without recording contracts to build an audience by sharing their music online. Many musical artists began sharing their music free of charge or for a small fee through Internet downloads. Yet in the late 1990s large recording companies became concerned about the availability of copyrighted music on the Internet. The companies filed lawsuits against such companies as Napster that made it easy for consumers to download music despite copyright protection. On another front, digital sound art grew in popularity. Sound art is influenced by the hip-hop movement and club culture. Key black sound artists include Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid), Pamela Z, and artist and scholar Beth Coleman (aka DJ Singe).

Black Digital Culture

The growth in black-oriented Web sites is an important development of the Internet culture. The Internet has become an essential tool for scholars and students of African-American studies. One important site, launched in 1999, is, spearheaded by Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard University. is an online encyclopedia of African-American history and culture with a wealth of articles and accessible archival materials, such as footage of speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Other vital black online communities include, with over five million members, and; Web forums such as; and black search engines such as and Groups such as the Association of African American Web Developers have been active in increasing black professional presence on the Internet. Companies and organizations such as Black Entertainment Television and the Black Women's Health Network have used their Web sites for educational and social campaigns targeted at black communities.

One of the most significant influences that digital culture and new media have had on black communities throughout the world is in the formation of digital diasporas. The notion of digital diaspora has emerged as the Internet gets used to form communities among people of similar heritage, geography, race, and ethnicity located throughout the world. Several active online communities have emerged among blacks from all walks of life, including a wide range of chat rooms, from those dedicated to African nationals residing in different parts of the world to those specifically for blacks interested in science fiction. One example is Afrofuturism, a site founded by scholar Alondra Nelson, as an online community of black diasporic artists, technology experts, scholars, and individuals interested in futurist themes in black culture and the possibilities of technology to impact culture and society. In terms of social policy, a partnership of nongovernmental organizations through the United Nations called the Digital Diaspora Network-Africa promotes access to technological resources, professional skills, and education in the African diaspora. In essence, the concept of the black diaspora continues to strengthen through the notion of the digital diaspora.

See also Digital Culture


Alkalimat, Abdul. The African American Experience in Cyber-space: A Resource Guide to the Best Web Sites on Black Culture and History. London: Pluto Press, 2004.

Everett, Anna, and John T. Caldwell, eds. New Media: Theories and Practices of Digitextuality. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Kolko, Beth E., Lisa Nakamura, and Gilbert Rodman, eds. Race in Cyberspace. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Muhammad, Erika. "Black High-Tech Documents." In Struggles for Representation: African American Documentary Film and Video, edited by. Phyllis R. Klotman and Janet K. Cutler. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Nelson, Alondra, Thuy Linh N. Tu, with Alicia Headlam Hines, eds. Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Nelson, Alondra, ed. "Afrofuturism Special Issue." Social Text 20, no. 2 (2002).

Wardrip-Fruin, and Nick Montfort, eds. The New Media Reader. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003.

nicole r. fleetwood (2005)

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New Media and Digital Culture

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New Media and Digital Culture