I recently finished reading Martin Kevorkian’s Color Monitors: The Black Face of Technology in America [click cover to read more about book], and it was definitely a different way to examine the idea of race and technology. I have read many articles and several books that talk about the digital divide, and the arguments for this concept always seem to box in race as the main reason for this divide. Although some do mention geography, gender, and income as other reasons, race is always near or at the top of the list. Because of this, we often see companies and organizations work tirelessly to move into underrepresented, lower-income spaces (read: black) and try to “fix the natives” with technology. Are there implications to this? Are the people helping really helping or are there other motives involved? Many writers, like Anna Everett and Kevorkian see these “race as reason for digital divide” arguments marginalizing not only the great accomplishments that African Americans have made online from the very beginning (Everett), but also the black body in general, especially the black male body as Kevorkian argues in this book. What I like about this book is Kevorkian focuses his argument on the black male and how through books, movies, commercials, advertising, etc., the “black man as computer whiz” that is illustrated in these media spaces box in the black man, silences him, marks him as inferior, dangerous…the “other.” Kevorkian covers a myriad of topics, from examining the techno-thrillers of Michael Crichton to analyzing commercials and ads that purport to celebrate eradicating the digital divide but end up (through his conclusions) focusing the divide on race in a way that delimits the black body, the black voice. Another reason I enjoyed this book is in addition to examining popular culture in an academic way (I’m a fan of academic work that doesn’t feel stodgy, that sounds smart and intellectual, and that can blend academic with the real world), Kevorkian also uses literature, especially that of Ellison and his Invisible Man to set the stage for his arguments on race and technology. Although I found the book enlightening, different, and engaging, I was left with the question of just how much of a critical lens are we to place upon the world when we set out to analyze things.
As a scholar in the throes of reading, researching, writing, and preparing for qualifying exams and academic life, this is an important question. I have to say that as I read Kevorkian’s work, I felt not-too-smart for not seeing some of the things he did while viewing the books, movies, commercials, advertising, etc. he used for analysis and discussion. At first glance of his argument (that technology has become a preferred cultural tactic for containing blackness) and of the works he would use to illustrate this argument, I thought, “Black man as computer whiz in movies, books, etc.? When did this happen? How are these representations connected to a relevant discussion on race and technology?” Yet one movie after another, one book after another, Kevorkian provided examples for his argument, examples that made me see the relevance of the discussion.
Had I been blind as I watched all of these movies in the past and failed to see these black man as computer whiz, “trapped within the computer box,” silenced and passive? Did I not see the accumulation of these images and how they could represent an argument for media’s, companies’, organizations’ need to “contain blackness”?
Was I not critical enough?
How does one even develop that type of critical eye? And do you want an eye that critical?
And it’s even more tricky in my opinion because race is something that’s always thrown about so loosely that some people (like me) might be more apt at times to not want to throw the race card out for fear that others will roll their eyes and dismiss the work before even reading and seeing the truths (or untruths, if that’s the case) of the work.
For some answers to this question regarding the scholar’s critical eye, I thought back to my MFA studies.
Before I pursued my MFA, I knew I loved to write, and I knew about character, plot, dialogue, and other components integral to storytelling, but I didn’t know of these concepts as learned in an academic setting. I didn’t have the conceptual tools that would broaden my mind and thoughts and allow me to not only see what was going on in a work but also be able to articulate those thoughts. My first year of the MFA, I took Form and Theory of Fiction and Form and Theory of Poetry, and in both classes, we learned the concepts of fiction, of poetry; we read, studied, and analyzed well-known works; and we wrote papers that illustrated our ability to discuss these major concepts in a scholarly way.
Needless to say, after taking these classes, after pursuing my MFA, I never viewed literary works the same again. Even when I came to the page to read for entertainment only, I found myself analyzing poems, arguing badly used authorial intrusion in works of fiction. Learning these things allowed my mind–for better or worse (worse when I just want to read a “bad” good book)–to open to the possibilities of other ideas in these literary works.
As a scholar who is interested in race, gender, identity, and technology, it would seem obvious that to broaden my critical eye to “see” these things at work I need to learn of the concepts of race, gender, identity, and technology so that I can have the language, the tools necessary to not only open my mind but to also open my critical eye as it traverses the cyber landscape. And to do this without using race and gender as scapegoats but to have well-articulated arguments and concrete examples that make race and gender relevant to the discussion. And the thing is, I did have a basic understanding of the need to do this, but this book and the unique way it’s situated in the race/technology discussion further solidified this for me.
I didn’t think I would get all of this from reading Kevorkian’s book, but that’s the cool thing about reading and learning new things; they always introduce you to new avenues to explore and think about.
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