Data & Society

On Race and Technoculture | Part I

Episode Summary

André Brock gives a talk on his book, "Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures," with Data & Society’s Director of Research Sareeta Amrute.

Episode Notes

In Distributed Blackness, André Brock asks where Blackness manifests in the ideology of Western technoculture. Using critical technocultural discourse analysis (Brock, 2018), Afro-optimism, and libidinal economic theory, this talk employs Black Twitter as an exemplar of Black cyberculture: digital practice and artifacts informed by a Black aesthetic.

Technoculture is the American mythos (Dinerstein, 2006) and ideology; a belief system powering the coercive, political, and carceral relations between culture and technology. Once enslaved, historically disenfranchised, never deemed literate, Blackness is understood as the object of Western technical and civilizational practices. This critical intervention for internet research and science and technology studies (STS) reorients Western technoculture’s practices of “race-as- technology” (Chun 2009) to visualize Blackness as technological subjects rather than as “things.” Hence, Black technoculture.

Episode Transcription

Sareeta Amrute: 
Hello everyone, welcome to Databite Number 132, on Race and Technoculture featuring André Brock. My name is Sareeta Amrute, I am Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington in Seattle and Director of Research here at Data & Society.

I ask you to join me in acknowledging the Lenape community, and the exclusions and erasures of many Indigenous peoples, not just the Lenape community, on whose lands Data & Society is located, in what we now refer to as New York City. This acknowledgement demonstrates a commitment to beginning the process of working to dismantle the ongoing legacies of settler colonialism. Acknowledgments invite us to ask, What does it mean to live in a post and neo-colonial world? What did it take for us to get here? And how can we be accountable to our part in this history? Today I'd also like to take a moment to acknowledge the ongoing work being done to reclaim these lands for black and brown people, wherever that work is happening, in the streets, from the podium, everywhere. And I'd like to invite all of you now to use the Q&A function to acknowledge the lands that you're on, the traditional stewards of those lands, and also any other people who you want to acknowledge today in particular. 

And now I'd like to turn it over to our featured presenter, André Brock, an associate professor of media studies at Georgia Tech. His scholarship examines racial representations in social media, video games, Black women and weblogs, whiteness, and technoculture, including innovative and groundbreaking research on Black Twitter. His first book, titled "Distributed Blackness, African American CyberCultures," which just came out from NYU Press in February, theorizes Black everyday lives mediated by network technologies. Welcome André.

André Brock: 
Thank you for having me. Before I begin, I'd like to thank Sareeta Amrute for the invite, CJ Landow and Rigoberto Guzmán for their impeccable stewardship of this event, and danah boyd for encouraging me to give this talk to Data & Society. Virtual greetings to you all. This talk is drawn from my NYU Press book, "Distributed Blackness." As CJ mentioned, it just came out in February with NYU Press. It is available for purchase but because I love you all it is also available in open access and I'll share that link on my final slot. 

So let's get started. My work on race in the digital is grounded by a three-part formulation of technology: that technologies must be understood as an artifact, the practices associated with that artifact, including the organizational aspects and belief. The digital is often only understood as artifact and practice. That is, what the technology is and what the technology does, leaving uninterrogated our beliefs about whiteness and technology, or Western technoculture which pervade the design of both. These beliefs are often presented as hosanna's to the twin deities of innovation and disruption, masking their very real destructiveness to our social fabric. Belief about technology is very much grounded in culture but it is as difficult to apprehend as water is to a fish because technologies are an extension of ourselves, how we perceive and control the world around us. To make the role of culture and technology practice visible, I needed to find a way to systematically investigate how belief manifests before technology use, within technology artifacts and technology practices, and after technology diffusion and deployment. 

When it comes to technology practice, I have long been bemused by the connotation of race with respect to information technologies and communication. In social science and indeed in society, race is primarily ascribed to nonwhites, leaving whiteness and masculinity to embody an unmarked humanity and a default person or digital practitioner. With respect to Blackness and white racial ideology, Blacks are marked as primitives, and here I'm citing Ron Eglash of the University of Michigan, "Blacks are considered beings of uncontrolled emotion and direct bodily sensation, rooted in the soil of sensuality." And this can be seen in recent videotaped encounters between whites and police, and blacks and police, where the whites were armed in confronting police directly, shouting in their face, yet were unmarked and untouched, while blacks were assaulted with tear gas, rubber bullets, and in some cases, arrest. These attributes of uncontrolled emotion and direct bodily sensation render Black folk incapable of the rationality and objectivity apprehended as virtues of white masculinity and of technical institutions. 

This apprehension, or capture, is far from accidental. Whiteness draws its energies, or libidinal tensions, from its fraught relationship with anti-Blackness. The carceral fixity of Blackness allows whiteness to possess what Richard Dyer calls "interpretive flexibility," where white racial identity can be highlighted as individualism, even as it recedes into the background to become universal. Every other group is marked by its differentiation from that norm. In "Distributed Blackness" I argue that the digital has a similar interpretive flexibility, thanks to its characteristics of virtuality and simulation. For example, consider your experiences using someone else's phone. It's often a familiar device because they're all shaped the same, but everyone configures their phone according to their own needs and desires, rendering them hard to navigate once you're holding someone else's phone in your hand. From this perspective, you should understand the internet as an unmarked yet individuated common space. At least until you get to spaces like Pinterest or BlackPlanet. These spaces, where marginalized digital practitioners congregate, are marked as niche online destinations, never universal destinations. From this perspective, I argue for something that I love to call technoculture. One way to define it is, "the beliefs, the relations between, and the politics of culture and technology." And Joel Dinerstein argues that technology is how America understands itself; an American mythos. And this slide lists his excellent Western technocultural qualities that describe the libidinal tensions powering belief about technology in the West: progress, religion, whiteness, modernity, masculinity, and the future. Strangely, these tensions trick off of the racial formation of whiteness as civilization. That is, these qualities could easily be substituted as the characteristics of white folk as Du Bois argues as much in his book "Dusk of Dawn." 

When tied to technoculture, white racial ideology reserves the quality of control over enterprise, over the spirit, over the future, the world and other bodies, and deems them as norms for "their" technology use. In this simulation of a technocultural world, Black bodies are objects to be acted upon, rather than as agents or people with subjectivity. And that obviously wouldn't do for a book on Black technoculture. For me to argue for Black technoculture, it became necessary to interrogate how Black culture makes sense of itself as agents and subjects in their own right. Utilizing technical artifacts, services and platforms in the social-historical context. Those who are familiar with my work will understand this framework as originating from a method that I devised called "critical technocultural discourse analysis," which argues that you must understand technology use from the perspectives of the users, rather than the designers or a society which doesn't regard them as human beings. 

Reorienting technoculture to incorporate Blackness invites an inquiry into the possibilities of Blackness as technology. But how to articulate a Black presence in the technoculture designed around their chattel origins and political death? One way to begin answering this question starts with a callback to a seminal print culture artifact, "The Green Book." As you may remember, this critically-acclaimed movie featured a white protagonist helping a black man discover his Blackness on a road trip through the South. Oh wait, that's not the right "Green Book." I am referring instead to Victor Green's "The Negro Motorist Green Book" which was the inspiration poorly drawn upon for the movie I just showed a screenshot of. For those who are interested in exploring it further, several scanned editions are available for free on the New York Public Library website. At first glance, the NGB is just a book; a directory of Black businesses published by blacks for blacks, or the original FUBU long before the internet. Some argue for the NGB as a tool to resist postcolonial and postbellum legacies of white racial violence and hegemony, and I agree, but I insist that the NGB should also be viewed as one of the first cultural-oriented network browsers. The network in this instance was a United States Highway System, a developing infrastructure tailored for the exponentially growing numbers of automobile owners. 

As early as the 1910s, black drivers saw automobile ownership as a pathway to personal mobility, technological expertise, and a signal of having made it, or attaining the newly-formed American middle class. Arguing for the NGB as Black technoculture, an informational artifact linking black information-seekers to Black cultural resources seems like a no brainer. For you old heads, the NGB was the Yahoo open directory of its time. A human-powered search engine for those seeking culturally vital, protective, and vivifying information. The NGB imagine the United States Highway System as a black technological apparatus. Not as an Afrofuture, but as a modern marvel, containing possibilities for spanning time and space while experiencing joy and limiting, but not erasing, possibilities for violence. Reorienting technoculture to incorporate black agency then, invites an inquiry into the possibilities of Blackness as technology. Shout out to Wendy Chun. Not Black bodies because we've been there and done that, but Black folk as technical experts, employing an ethics of care and self-repair to make a dollar out of 15 cents. While the information doesn't offer the same physical potential for discrimination and racist violence against Black bodies, there is still a pressing need for the curation of digital and online resources for Black folks seeking information or even safe spaces. 

Today the need for casting internet spaces as refuge has become hardly evident with social media's capacity to publish and redistribute images of Black death at the hands of the state. So in short, network cultural information, or as my book is titled, "Distributed Blackness," is essential to Black identity in the form of resources for identification, community, self-defense, joy, resistance, aesthetics, and more. So I've named-dropped the libidinal, and let me tell you why. Libidinal economy offers a powerful counter to cultural-theoretic, social-scientific, and political-economic theories used to understand both Black agency and information technology use. The sociologists among you may recognize the reference here to Oscar Lewis's "Cultural Poverty" as popularized by Daniel Moynihan's report. For example, social scientific analyses of the internet are often beholden to concepts of objectivity and rationality, even as they are undergirded by Western beliefs about Black folks perceived capacities for deviance and deficit, or conversely to glorifying Black capacities for labor and political resistance. Libidinal economy makes clear the effective tensions undergirding modernity and Western technoculture, while providing a path towards conceptualizing black technology use as a space where the mundane, the banal, and the celebration of making it through another day. 

The libidinal is not pre-cognition, nor is it pre-intention. And instead, it can be understood as the combustion powering the engine. A visceral, powerful, and necessary component in any figuration of social design. It is infrastructure invisible to our perceptions just like the materials and processes that we pass by or utilize every day until a rupture occurs. I'm going to interject on my own presentation. Someone posted a Tweet talking about how Spike Lee received a lot of criticism when "Do the Right Thing" was screened in the 1980s because people were upset that he depicted someone throwing a trash can through the window of Sal's Pizzeria as the riot. And he said it's so fascinating to them that they were worried that that image of starting a riot would be destructive of racial relations but very few people seem to comment on the fact that Raheem was choked out by the police. That was a norm, where the riot, where white property and white perceptions of civility were threatened, was considered a rupture.

André Brock: 
So libidinal economic perspective on Black technoculture allows for the teasing apart of multi-layered reasons behind Black practices, distribution, performance, and aggregation against digital and material social structures. While Black folk are indeed American, and use technologies not designed for them to make money and to get over, they also use them in ways that confound traditional technology analyses. And this approach is intended to readdress that shortcoming. This approach offers multiple beneficial outcomes. One is the aforementioned disinvestment and technoculture substrate of logic and rationality. Logic and rationality are invested with libidinal tensions. They require divesting emotion from cognition in order to achieve an objective decision. Libidinal economy and its formulation as 'an excess of life,' expands my inquiry into digital distributed Blackness from productivity or efficiency, to incorporate analyses of Black digital practice engendered by joy. Or by playfulness. Or by anger. Or ratchetry, racism, and respectability. 

Another is the acknowledgement and the theorization of Black communal identity as a meaning-making strategy for information use. This allows for understanding Blackness as a discourse in conversation with, but not wholly subject to, white supremacist ideology and a refutation of the category on nature of capitalist identity. So the beliefs about Blackness as deviance and deficit I mentioned on the previous slide, can be understood as anti-Blackness. And as a significant aspect of white racial ideology, anti-blackness is a carceral attitude towards Blackness, Black bodies, and Black culture. From this position, Blackness in America is lived as social, political, and occasionally even physical death. And one way to understand this ongoing state of affairs is the powerful theory of Afro-pessimism. Frank Wilderson argues that because Black folk have no legible stature in the West as political or civil agents, they have no inalienable rights to Black cultural production, Black labor, or even their own Black bodies. Thus, Blackness and online spaces and elsewhere, is immediately captured and occasionally commodified by others, leaving little possibility for blacks to have agency, much less emancipation, from Western culture. 

I agree, but instead of going fully towards Afro-pessimism, I instead adopt an Afro-optimist perspective. That is, my pressing concern for Black technoculture is to reinvision agency. That is, to express the vitality and joy. A libidinal economy of Black uses of information technologies and all other technologies of the everyday. While these libidinal impulses may become commodified or surveilled, they are para-ontological in that the embodied cognition they expressed preexists the platforms upon which they are published, visible, and deemed appropriate for consumption. Usually I try to lighten it up at this point, but there's some things going on that I felt the need to address in this presentation. So let me skip a little bit. I mention earlier that in "Distributed Blackness" I explore three libidinal frames of Black digital practice, and those three again are: racism, ratchetry, and respectability. By libidinal frame, I mean that beyond productivity or commodification, there are underlying tensions that also contribute to the content and behaviors that you see online. 

I want to turn briefly to the one frame describing an external influence on Black digital practice. Racism. I argue, and feel free to debate, that racism is a set of external practices, institutions, and beliefs, that deprecate and delineate, but do not overdetermine. Thank you for the use of alliteration at that moment. Or is it continence? We'll figure that out. They delineate but do not overdetermine Black identity. That is, not every black activity is determined by the racism Black folk experience through daily or systemic micro and macro aggressions. But, some of it is. And while the practice of online racism has received enormous attention, the effects of online racism on Black folk have not been as thoroughly researched. In "Distributed Blackness" I argue that racism implicitly and explicitly compels Black interiority through the libidinal frame of reflexivity. While the explicit is agregious, the implicit is more damaging over time. 

Black folk can, and do, build a communal identity over their awareness of racism, their positionality to racist and racist acts, and through their responses to racism, whether it's immediate outrage like getting a new TV from Target, or whether it's posting online, please don't repost those pictures of Black death. Libidinal Black digital clapbacks, to weak-tie online racism, and we can discuss that in the Q&A, create an affective and intimate and in-group bonds that are responsive to racist ideology, but not solely constituted by racism. These acknowledgements are what I'm calling black interiority. Where they repost or respond to racism as a hail, or the capitalist for a cathartic or emotional rejoinder. Remember I said libidinal clapbacks. This is a libidinal clapback to the effects of racism, the pandemic, this photo that I have on the screen. 

In experiencing racism, Black folk must evaluate both the ontology and epistemology, the what and the why, of white supremacy as well as how it affects them. Those of you in the know understand that microaggressions require daily vigilance to assure that one's sanity has not been compromised. In online spaces, network libidinal tensions arise from the diffusion of racist and racialized content through social media practice, connectivity, and algorithmic publishing. I call this phenomenon weak-tie racism; where racism manifests through digital media's affordances for sharing information. These microaggressions have no author and are not individually performative. It is Bonilla-Silva's "Racism without Racists." Instead, the algorithm serves them up as the reproduction of banal social signals deemed important through the commodification of minute traces of social interaction, leading to an anti-Black libidinal effect on Black digital practice. 

The algorithm is the catalyst and weak-tie relationship between content and node, demanding as it does its own interaction and reciprocity to sustain this inimical relationship between user and network. Weak-tie racism is nebulous and draining. Its injury accretes over time. A slow violence that is dispersed across time and space, and an attritional violence that is typically not viewed by the network as violence at all. It is the hate speech act, rather than the hate speech itself. Switching gears slightly, actually not slightly, I'm going from two to four. But I wanted to talk briefly about another way of trying to understand what black interactions with technology could look like. And one of those is Afrofuturism. We can talk about it in the Q&A but to briefly describe, Afrofuturism is a marvelous construct in which to examine black engagement with and through technology, past, present, and future. But Afrofuturism I argue is more concerned with Black futures. And Black cyber culture, or technoculture, is better argued for the post-present. Particularly as constructed and contested through the mundane digital practices in Black cultural digital spaces and the like. By post-present, I mean that Black folk in digital spaces are constantly engaged with the moment, or kairos. And by kairos, let me offer an example. If you've ever tried to enter a group chat after an event has been discussed, you already know what it means.

André Brock: 
I deploy kairos here to articulate Black digital practice as a celebration of the now, one that incorporates past inequities and future imaginings. Black kairos is simultaneously racial performance, discursive invention, and appropriate, timely engagement within communicative and cultural context. Timeliness, or the lack thereof, is a significant aspect of Black discursive identity. For example, the concept of colored people's time describes a joyous disregard for modernity and labor capitalism. Or I might be late, but I'm always on time. Kairos as deployed here, refers to the temporality afforded Black discourse by network protocols, communal structures, and the instantaneity in archival capacity of information networks. For example, showing the receipts is one black discursive digital practice situating past transgressive behaviors. You know, that blackface photo that you had Ralph Northam when you were in high school, or college, right? Often in the form of digitized documents, but occasionally in visual or multimedia testimony in the now, usually via social media to become into the pond and read, as evidence in the moment. 

There are other practices that we can talk about during the Q&A but I'm running short on time so let me skip. So, in the process of claiming that Blackness should have agency in technoculture, and trying to understand what the aspects of that agency would look like, I constructed a Black technocultural matrix. It is similar to the Western one. I was strongly influenced by it, but it has its own qualities and these are: blackness, intersectionality, invention/style, "America," modernity, and the future. And I wanted to briefly touch on the reason why I have America in asterisk. And I do that because I am specifically referring to the African diaspora although Africa itself, the very nations over there, have their own forms of African technocultures. I wanted to separate out the ways that the middle passage in some ways, but also interaction with indigenous and white colonial enterprises has changed the way that black folk in the New World respond to and understand themselves through technology. 

The thing I want to focus on here though, is Blackness. Blackness for this matrix stands for the embodied and critical valances of Black cultural identity revolving around subjectivity, cultural performance, and communal identification. So Rachel Dolezal can do subjectivity and cultural production, but she won't be accepted by the community. Right? For those of you who might want to try to throw a transracial at me later on. One reason a theory of Black technoculture is necessary is for the articulation that information, communication, and technology afford's Blackness space within which. Pause. One reason a theory of Black technoculture is necessary is because it articulates Blackness a space within which it can luxuriate and grow, enclave from, but never free from, white racial ideology. This possibility exists because of the disembodiment enabled by virtuality and simulation. That is, when participating in an online space, Blackness lives as an existential here, largely unrestricted by the fixity and pejorative reduction of the Black body that occurs offline.

 It's not that the Black body is left behind, assembling that it is not as easily available to be criticized or commented upon in online spaces. So online I am not only a point of view, but I am also a point that is viewed. The matrix category of Blackness then, is a communitarian enactment of intentionality across cultural aspects of Black culture, or that Blackness is irreducibly social. Along the way, Blackness highlights how the white Western libidinal economy of anti-Blackness structures the world that Black Americans find themselves at. And as a counter, the Black libidinal economy, or Black pathos, begins with the celebration of Black thought. Not solely as joy, but in its embodied Black existence. It is at once a response to the effects of modernity and white supremacy on the Black psyche, and a politics of the erotic engaging with honest bodies that like to also fuck. 

Shout out to Dr. Joan Morgan. Where whiteness gains power from obscuring its internal differences, Blackness is a recognition of that which makes black folk different. In closing, my claims for informational Blackness and Black cyber culture are indebted to Gilroy's "The Black Atlantic," where he argues that analyses of Black modernity require attention to the formal attributes of expressive culture and a distinctive moral basis. The aesthetic which the continuity of expressive culture preserves, derives not from a dispassionate and rational evaluation of the technical object- Gilroy says artistic, but I'm taking a little liberty- right, but from an inescapably subjective contemplation of the mimetic functions of technical performance. I read this in the context of technoculture, Black and other, as a plea for researchers to interrogate the meaning-making functions of digital media and information technology. Both the artifact and the culture. They do not just serve as conduits for expression but are inextricably linked through enactment as part of the performance of identity itself. Similarly, information and communication technology serve as conduits and enactments of white identity as well. This is never been more clear since the ascendancy and impeachment of the 45th president, whose Twitter activities have been translated into executive orders, employment mandates, domestic and foreign policy, and even injunctions to the legislative and judicial branches of the government. As with other expressions of whiteness, xenophobia, classism, racists, and misogyny, it's tempting and depressingly common to attribute 45 social media activities, to the actions of a deviant individual. However, as the public intellectual and activist Alyssa Milano recently learned, this is the America she grew up in. Apart from the election of a black president, little has changed.