Monday, November 02, 2009

Control is an illusion.

I usually try to start my blog entries with some pithy or cute anecdote of something I've either witnessed or read about in the media. Not today. I really need to just get this out before I'm completely overwhelmed by the task of situating Nakamura and Foucault in the same context.

One of the ideas put forth by Nakamura that I find intriguing is the concept that the Internet "functions as a tourism machine; it reproduces digital images of race as Other" (326). She spends much of the article discussing how the Internet allows this function and coins the term "identity tourism" to explain just how the Net enables users to adopt personae other than their own. What is damaging about this, she argues, is that while people claim to be enriching diversity the Internet by portraying diversity, they're really only fostering the continuation of racial stereotypes that exist off-line.

This can be seen in the following line: "I coined the term 'cybertype' to describe the distinctive ways that the Internet propagates, disseminates, and commodifies images of race and racism...cybertyping is the process by which computer/human interfaces, the dynamics and economics of access, and the means by which users are able to express themselves online interacts with the 'cultural layer' or ideologies regarding race that they bring with them into cyberspace" (318).

As well as this line: "Until we acquire some insight into racial cybertypes on the Internet, we are quite likely to be hoodwinked and bamboozled by the images of race we see on the net, images which bear no more relation to real people of color than minstrel shows do to dignified black people" (331).

This statement reinforces the concept that cybertyping is partly due to the fact that minorities - including women - have limited access to the Internet.

Though access is clearly improving among both minorities and women, the problem remains that most commercial sites tend to view these two groups, in particular, as nothing more than advertising and marketing opportunities. Rather than offering thoughtful discussions, many of these sites focus their attention on driving sales. They aim to convince women and minorities to empty their pocketbooks rather than engage their brains. Even the Oxygen network, a 24-hour cable-TV network geared to for women founded by (among others) Oprah Winfrey , falls victim to this methodology, says Nakamura.

While the network actively bills itself as someplace where women can "take a breath" from the exhausting task of being female (Salon.com), the channel seems to be little more than a marketing outlet designed to convince women to keep shopping. (Full disclosure: I do not have cable and have never watched the Oxygen network. My observations are based on what I've read, seen and heard about the network through mainstream media organizations and the network's own Web site.) A cursory visit to the site uncovers ads about toothpaste and cell phones alongside video clips highlighting the Bad Girls Club, virtual makeovers and celebrity gossip.

Now, I am not in any way trying to slam the network. It clearly serves an audience and does it well. It wouldn't have remained in existence if it didn't meet those basic qualifications, even with Oprah's backing. My premise and I believe Nakamura's premise, is that the site doesn't do enough to counter the white maleness of the Web.

So, how does this idea that the Internet is controlled by rich, white males relate to Foucault? In more ways than I imagined when I first read the two articles, it turns out. The chief similarity, however, has to do with the concept - whether real or imaginary - of control.

Whereas Nakamura argues that the Internet is largely controlled by white males - Foucault takes a more historical approach to show how many of society's fundamental institutions - prisons, schools, businesses, and other entities that have historically been founded and led by white males - reflect this fascination with control.

He does this by first describing the Panopticon, a circular prison with a surveillance tower at its center. The Panopticon is designed to instill in the prisoners a feeling of constant surveillance. The inmates cannot see who’s watching them from the tower, but they constantly “feel” the presence of authority because of the omnipresent tower - much like I do today when passing through an airport or sitting in a classroom at UTD. I feel that someone is watching my every move, but I have no idea who's doing the watching, when they're watching, or even what they're looking for.

Foucault further explores this idea of an unseen authority when he argues that the Panopticon is designed to empower society. To him, Panopticon's role is not one of submission, but of amplification: "although it arranges power, although it is intended to make it more economic and more effective, it does so not for power itself, not for the immediate salvation of a threatened society; its aim is to strengthen the social forces - to increase production, to develop the economy, spread education, raise the level of public morality; to increase and multiply" (472).

I'm not sure the idea that "our society is not one of spectacle, but of surveillance" is empowering. It actually seems a bit creepy to me, very "Big Brotherish."

Going back to Nakamura, though, I think she's right in the sense that "the digital divide is both a result of and a contributor to the practice of racial cybertyping." Since emerging media is all about collaboration, though, I do wonder how this will play out in the next few years as technology becomes more widespread. Will women take the reigns from men? Will African-Americans? Hispanics? Will the groups work together? Will all their efforts ultimately fail because we're culturally programmed to view the Internet as the white man's domain? I, for one, will be watching with open eyes.

5 comments:

John Kay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Kay said...

The American marketing machine is one of the fastest acting institutions in our country. If marketers see an untapped market, many of them chase it, not to help those people by rushing a better product to them, but to earn more money for themselves before someone else does; therefore as you and Dr. Nakamura stated, marketers have used the internet to sell also to women and minorities.

Anonymous said...

I don't care for Oxygen, myself. It seems to me, it's all about emotions, eating chocolate, and oh, by the way, shop a little. It, personally, makes me sick.
I hope that one day, we can relate to each other without labels, cybertypes, or any others.

Chelsea said...

Isn't all marketing designed to keep us shopping in some way or another? And I have to agree that surveillance society doesn't seem empowering. It's more just a deterrent for bad behavior. Since you know you're being watched by red-light cameras, you might think twice before you run that light. I guess that works. It would be interesting to see if red-light running has decreased at those intersections that have cameras. OR if fines have just gone up.

Gary said...

It seems to me that we rarely stop and question why we act the way we do, why we just accept the rules of the society we live in. Nobody teaches us, in a formal classroom, how to be Texan, American, Western. Nobody lectured me on what it means to be white and male. I just absorb. (I remember being asked, because I was the only male in the group, to help fix a car that had stopped. Hell, I don't know anything about cars, but guys fix cars!) To me that's the analogy to the Opticon. We are judged every day -- by the clothes we wear, by our mannerisms, our gender, our race -- by this cultural standard that we know judges us, watches us, but we don't really know who's up in that tower determining how we should be judged. We just live within the trap.