Considering Castells’ point about the symbiotic relationship between technology and society, this book employs a conceptual toolkit that synthesizes scholarship from STS and critical race studies. Surprisingly, these two fields of study are not often put into direct conversation. STS scholarship opens wide the “Black box” that typically conceals the inner workings of socio-technical systems, and critical race studies interrogates the inner workings of sociolegal systems. Using this hybrid approach, we observe not only that any given social order is impacted by technological development, as determinists would argue, but that social norms, ideologies, and practices are a constitutive part of technical design.
Much of the early research and commentary on race and information technologies coalesced around the idea of the “digital divide,” with a focus on unequal access to computers and the Internet that falls along predictable racial, class, and gender lines. And, while attention to access is vital, especially given numerous socioeconomic activities that involve using the Internet, the larger narrative of a techno-utopia in which technology will necessarily benefit all undergird the “digital divide” focus. Naively, access to computers and the Internet is posited as a solution to inequality.87 And, to the extent that marginalized groups are said to fear or lack an understanding of technology, the “digital divide” framing reproduces culturally essentialist understandings of inequality. A focus on technophobia and technological illiteracy downplays the structural barriers to access, and also ignores the many forms of tech engagement and innovation that people of color engage in.
In fact, with the advent of mobile phones and wireless laptops, African Americans and Latinxs are more active web users than White people.88 Much of the African continent, in turn, is expected to “leapfrog” past other regions, because it is not hampered by clunky infrastructure associated with older technologies. In “The Revolution Will Be Digitized: Afrocentricity and the Digital Public Sphere,” Anna Everett critiques “the overwhelming characterizations of the brave new world of cyberspace as primarily a racialized sphere of Whiteness” that consigns Black people to the low-tech sphere – when they are present at all.89 Other works effectively challenge the “digital divide” framing by analyzing the racialized boundary constructed between “low” and “high tech.”90 Likewise, Lisa Nakamura challenges the model minority framing of Asian Americans as the “solution” to the problem of race in a digital culture. She explains:
Different minorities have different functions in the cultural landscape of digital technologies. They are good for different kinds of ideological work … seeing Asians as the solution and blacks as the problem [i.e. cybertyping] is and has always been a drastic and damaging formulation which pits minorities against each other …