The Race for Cyberspace: Information Technology in the Black Diaspora
Barbara Christian's seminal essay, "The race for theory," analyzed the ways in which the academic competition to create a theory of black women's writing had overshadowed the potent theoretical content of the writing itself. Similarly, this essay examines how the hype over application of new information technologies to racialized social problems has overshadowed the potent technological content of the communities themselves. Focusing on the black diaspora, we broaden the category of "information technology" to show how traditions of coding and computation from indigenous African practices and black appropriations of Euro-american technologies have supported, resisted, and fused with the cybernetic histories of the west, and provide a strong source for changes in reconstructing identity, social postition and access to power in communities of the black diaspora.
1) Cyberspace as Savior
In the early 1990s the internet was flooded with various versions of the "cyberspace manifesto," most of which contained something like this passage from John Perry Barlow:
Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not
where bodies live. We are creating a world that all may enter without
privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military
force, or station of birth.
It might be easy to write off such declarations as uninformed optimism, were it not continually echoed by computer experts such as the MIT Media Lab's Nicholas Negroponte: "While the politicians struggle with the baggage of history, a new generation is emerging from the digital landscape free of many of the old prejudices" (Negroponte 1995:230). To those gasping for breath in the ozone-rich atmosphere of superlative cyberspace promises, the crucial question is not necessarily why outrageous promises are offered, but rather precisely how do such promises sustain themselves against their own speculative appearance? How do the utterances of scientists, engineers, hucksters and marketeers literally move and shape worlds, channel flows of institutional funding, and exert enormous influence in shaping the meaning of life. How is it that such claims are offered and sustained?
Technoscience is considered in the science studies idiom to be that body of knowledge and practices that links representation to intervention, maps strategies for taking action, and encapsulates the skill and technique that evacuates the social and political from itself. As such, contesting its claims to truth as socially contingent proves quite difficult, although hardly impossible One cannot merely say that the knowledge it produces is “not so.” So well entrenched is its status as the purveyor of truth that finding the loopholes, the regions of possible contestation, is an arduous process, requiring sustained investigation and intimate knowledge of the practices of technoscience.
One can take solace in the possibility that the worlds technoscience makes are not the only possible ones. We need not go far for proof of this important axiom. Popular film, particularly of the science-fiction genre, is one arena wherein such possibility may be found. Film is particularly useful in considering what technoscience is insofar as film makes plain the linkages between representation and action, between image and metaphor and their effects: this is homologous to technoscience to the extent that the representation of artifacts is what makes possible their role as actors that can change the world.
Trucage is Christian Metz’s expression for cinematic techniques that trick the spectator’s eye. The correspondence between trucage and technoscience is that they are both crafted and “made” artifactually, cobbled together with extraordinary ingenuity, skill, and savvy in an effort to produce the appearance of “reality.” On the side of the trucage, it is the cinematic apparatus at the level of film production and related technical considerations that must not impinge upon the spectator’s enjoyment of the filmic narrative. The expression of this cloaking is revealed when “the wires are removed.” This is a reference to a concrete practice in trick cinematography whereby a system designed to support, for instance, a motorcycle making a jump from a height that exceeds margins of safety uses metal wires of such gauge that they appear on film.
Curiously though, film buffs and film makers alike delight in just such exposures, such as the The Making of Jurassic Park. Here we are shown in extraordinary detail the secret procedures, cloistered and cubicled artists, and the high-tech machines used to sustain the imperceptible special effects. Industrial Light and Magic, the normally clandestine, top-secret agency responsible for block-buster special effects production, is cracked open, revealing the wires and pulleys that conjure the Jurassic Park magic. Given the back stage look of how Jurassic Park is done, to what extent is the film’s drama un-done? Does revealing the artifice of Jurassic Park destroy the credibility of the film’s drama? Of course not. It is as if film production is aware of its own artifice, of the craftwork that goes into producing appearances of the “really real,” so that the film sustains such appearances during its viewing and, afterwards, one may derive enjoyment in finding out how it was all done. But this is not just a strategy to awe the ardent film buff and further reap the financial rewards attendant to a major motion picture; it must also be seen in this context as a mode of self-criticality, a kind of self-reflexive and ironic attachment to one’s work that is nigh absent from the work of technoscience.
It might seem as though a heavy dose of pessimistic social analysis
would be just the thing needed to expose the wires of cyberspace hyperbole.
But doing so would merely produce the optimists' mirror image, a demonology
of technoscience filled with passive victims and a nostalgia for romantically
organic peasants and savages. While the trucage of cyberspace liberation
depends on its claim that technological advances eliminate the need for
social movements, it is equally dependant on the claim that social movements
make no contribution to technological advances. It is this second illusion
that we seek to expose in this essay, focusing on what Paul Gilroy calls
"The Black Atlantic" -- that is, the histories of people of African descent,
here referred to as the black diaspora. While a technoscience trucage might
show these black communities waiting in misery while information technology
comes to the rescue, we invite the reader to come backstage, as it were,
and examine the unacknowledged traditions of coding and computation from
indigenous African practices and black appropriations of Euro-american
technologies, their fusion with cybernetic histories of the west, and their
role in constructing identity and access to power in communities of the
2) Information technologies in the black diaspora: master's tools or indigenous invention?
The appropriation of technology by marginalized groups has always been
an important component of resistance, and its significance in the black
diaspora all the more so because of the extremes in brutality, subjugation
and geographic scope. As Michael Adas notes in Machines as the Measure
of Man, technological superiority provided justification for the mythology
of genetic differences in intelligence, the means of domination, and the
colonial relation which restricted Africans to the position of laborers.
But it would be misleading to write a history of technological appropriation
in the African diaspora as a simple path of resistance and revolt. We are
reminded here of Audre Lourd's admonition that "the master's tools will
never tear down the master's house." Lourd's warning not to take up the
tools of our opponents -- for example to counter racism against black people
with racism against white people -- was in the context of cultural politics.
While it can be taken too far (for example one black university professor
has claimed that writing is a European invention unsuitable to black cultural
expression), it is quite descriptive of the disasterous technology mis-matches
in socio-ecological disasters such as high-yield variety rice (which required
renting motorized harvesting equipment and special fertilizers), or the
post-colonial castrophes in which African governments poured bank loans
into gigantic prestige projects, such as Nkruma's steel mills, which then
became useless due to the lack of infrastructure. Second, it does nothing
against primitivism; in fact it supports the myth that Africans had
to "borrow" all science and technology from Europeans.
This myth is particularly ironic in the case of information technologies, given that the binary code appears to have a distinct African origin (Eglash 1997a). The modern binary code, essential to every digital circuit from alarm clocks to super-computers, was first introduced by Leibnitz around 1670. Leibniz had been inspired by the binary-based "logic machine" of Raymond Lull, which was in turn inspired by the alchemists’ divination practice of geomancy (Skinner 1980). But geomancy is clearly not of European origin. It was first introduced there by Hugo of Santalla in twelfth century Spain, and Islamic scholars had been using it in North Africa since at least the 9th century, where it was first documented in written records by the Jewish writer Aran ben Joseph. The nearly identical system of divination in West Africa associated with Fa and Ifa was first noted by Trautmann (1939), but he assumed that geomancy originated in Arabic society, where it is known as ilm al-raml ("the science of sand").
The mathematical basis of geomancy is, however, strikingly out of place in non-African systems. Unlike Europe, India, and Arabic cultures, base 2 calculation is ubiquitous in Africa, even for multiplication and division. Doubling is a frequent theme in many other African knowledge systems, particularly divination. The African origin of geomancy -- and thus, via Lull and Leibnitz, the binary code -- is well supported.
Other indigenous African information technologies include computational aspects of Owari, geometic algorithms, and the codes of drums and whistle languages (Ansu-Kyeremeh 1998, Eglash 1999). Thus it is important, when examing the appropriation of technology, to consider not only the down side of appropriation -- the possible disadvantages of attempting to "use the master's tools" -- but also the fact that Africans already had many technologies to begin with, and thus some of the supposed appropriations may have had African influences in their own histories of invention.
3) Analog representation in indigenous African knowledge systems
While binary coding is widely used in African divination
systems, there is also an extraordinary pre-colonial utilization of analog
representation. Unlike digital representation, which is based on physically
arbitrary signals, analog representation is created when variation in the
physical structure of the signal is proportionate to variation in the information
structure it represents. In a digital medium, like a CD-ROM, music is encoded
as a series of binary digits, strings of ones and zeros represented by
long bumps and short bumps in the aluminum layer of the plastic disk. But
in an analog medium, like a record player (phonograph), the waveforms we
see in the vinyl grooves are proportionate to (that is, tiny models of)
the waveforms we hear in the air. Analog systems are not necessaily "old-fashioned"
however, since contemporary cybernetics includes neural net computation,
nonlinear phase space analysis, and other sophisticated, cutting-edge technologies
that are forms of analog representation.
|Indigenous African analog representation forms are closely related to two pervasive cultural traditions: music and animism. Animism is a religion in which the life force that sustains living beings can be transferred to other systems (organic, inorganic, or mixtures of the two), often by sacrifice. Bamana divination priests have diagrammed this force as a spiral waveform, marked by their binary code and eminating from the sacrificed life (figure 1).|
|A vodun priest in Benin provided a similar interpretation for the helix in figure 2, the royal memorial staff of King Ghezo (1818-1858). He told a story in which Ghezo defeated a buffalo by grabbing his horns with his hands, and explained that the royal staff showed this puissance (power or energy) flowing between his hands. Blier (1995) notes that such representations are closely related to images of the umbilical cord, as a symbol of the life force. As in the case of the Bamana waveform, this energy in vodun is closely associated with communication (cf. Ellipsis 1997 p. 23). The power of the ancestors to solve particular problems, for example, can be released if they are dancing the appropriate dance, so the use of particular drum patterns in vodun rituals is actually a communication system with the dead.|
|Visualization of these waveforms can be quite sophisticated, as shown in figure 3, a textile from the Ijebu Yoruba which they describe as the pattern of movement made by the drummembrane when it is struck (Aronson 1992:56). In European mathematical physics these are know as Chladni patterns, and they have been an important source for the development of theories of waves and vibrations (Waller 1961).|
|Concepts of phase relations are also evident in African textiles, such as that of figure 4. Robert Farris-Thompson (1983:207) describes such patterns as a visualization of "the famed off-beat phrasing of melodic accents in African music," noting that indigenous terminology used to describe these strip cloth weavings makes explicit use of musical analogies. Jola musicians in the Casamance region of Senegal also report striking indigenous terminology, distinguishing between oscillation ("owowogene," which applies to both instrument strings and the way that plam trees sway in the wind), resonance ("ebissa," in which a plucked string can cause a nearby string tuned in harmony to vibrate), and pitch.|
|The pitch terms are inversely linked to owowogene, such that high frequency ("chob") is said to have short owowogene, and low frequency ("xi") has long owowogene; an indigneous counterpart of the western equation w = 1/l (frequency is the inverse of wavelength). Figure 5 shows a possible visualization of this understanding from indigenous musicians in Cameroon, a double flute in which a short wave is etched into the high pitch pipe (top) and a long wave is etched into the low pitch pipe (bottom).|
|Movement is also closely linked to the indigenous understanding of these analog waveforms, as most vividly portrayed in dance, where resonance, hysterisis, feedback, and phase relations are used to provide visual analogs for social dynamics (Chernoff 1979, Kozel 1997). Such traditions are quite old in Africa; even ancient Egyptian images often show movement as an oscillatory waveform in time (figure 6).|
4) Mathematics across the middle passage: Africanisms in American information technology
In the 1940s a debate raged between Melville Herskovits,
who had documented the cultural retention of African traditions in the
Americas, and E. Franklin Frazier, who argued that slavery had caused American
blacks to be "stripped of their social heritage." Phillips (1990), reviewing
this debate and its contemporary legacy, suggests a synthesis, noting that
in addition to Africanisms among blacks, there are African cultural influences
among white Americans, non-African cultural legacies of slavery among black
Americans, and various syncretic mixtures of all three. Phillips' interest
in de-racializing cultural heritage is particularly appropriate to the
history of information technology, where such mixtures can thrive, recombine,
and mutate in ways unpredicted by static social codes.
|Figure 7 shows an iron drill bit created around 1821 by Old Solomon, a "Negro blacksmith" in Natchitoches Parish, Lousianna. Christian (1972:23) notes that this double helix is "reminiscent of a piece of sculpture out of African ancestor worship," and indeed the geographic areas that Christian notes as origins for most slaves brought for iron work -- from present day Benin to Angola -- do have helical sculptures; usually in reference to the umbilical cord as a symbol of life (e.g. Swiderski 1970 fig 12).|
5) Information technologies and African American identity in the modern era
Just's work did not remain isolated; G. Ross Henderson brought his framework to the scientific community that would later become General Systems Theory. This is part of a longer history in which more subtle influences from black culture were also at work, informing, contesting, and appropriating mainstream technologies. Historian Rayvon Fouché, for example, has described the ways in which black inventors used both social and technical strategies to get around Jim Crow restrictions from patent rights. Fouché notes that Granville Woods (1856-1910), inventor of the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph, developed expertise in patent interference claims to counter corporate attempts to use his race to cheat on contracts. Technology often served as a sign of white priviledge, and it is no surprise that black fiction often played with new visions of technology. In 1938 African American journalist George Schuyler published Black Empire, a science fiction in which a black revolt of "intellectuals, scientists, and engineers" includes a black biologist named "Ransom Just." Even black literature not typically considered science fiction, such as Ellison's Invisible Man or Bambara's Salt Eaters, often have strong technological themes.
Science fiction is also credited by some black scientists as playing a pivotal role in their dedication to technological careers. Derek Harris, the president of the first black-owned computer company, recalled that the Mission Impossible character "Barney Collier," an African American electronics wizard, was a major influence in his childhood fascination with technology. There is, of course, a big difference between black science fiction, and black characters in science fiction written by white authors. Samuel Delany makes this point in an interview where he rejects the figures of the "Rastas" in Gibson's Neuromancer as providing an oppositional political stance (Dery 1994:194-197). And it is worth keeping in mind how those ficitional roles are filled. During the 1960s, for example, we saw black technological characters restricted to the roles of "communications officer" (read secretary?) -- as in the case of Greg Morris' Barney Collier, Ivan Dixon's "Sgt. Ivan Kinchloe" in Hogan's Heros, and Nichelle Nichols' "Lieutenant Uhura" in Star Trek. But when Nichols announced that she was planning to leave the show at the end of the first season, she was confronted by none other than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who told her "you cannot leave… you have opened a door that must not be allowed to close." Decades later, the first African-American woman in space, Dr. Mae Jemison, credited Nichols with her early aspirations towards space.
While the intertwinings between black popular culture,
science, and science fiction are an important part of this story (and typically
disregarded by the "minorities in science education" efforts), the success
of African Americans in information technology is hardly a matter of easy
dreaming. Best known is probably John P. Moon, a silicon valley engineer
who dedicated years of work to studying memory storage systems, culminating
in what is still the most popular transportable storage medium in existance
today, the 3.5" floppy disk. At the other end of the high-tech/lowtech
spectrum, black appropriations of information technology by members of
economically disadvantaged communities have often utilized a bricollage
of cast-off hardware, as described in this 1995 message from a DJ at KPOO
radio in San Francisco to the listserv for the National Urban League:
The folks working with the Save Mumia Committee utilized CDs, ISDN lines, the internet, laser printers and faxes to quickly spread information about Mumia's case that would have cost tens of thousands of dollars if done using traditional means of organizing (printers, newspaper ads, phone trees). …[W]e have found that the biggest thing keeping technology from marginalized communities are the myths that the technology is expensive and hard to use. It's not in the best interest of the computer industry, trying to make a buck off of everyone having the biggest and fastest computer, 600x600 dpi laser printer and …T-3 links. [We need] to let people know that they can successfully get on line free with an XT, 2400 baud modem and a inexpensive dot matrix printer. This is what I'm using right now and my whole setup cost less than $75, and it's not hard to find people willing to give away XTs or 286s. The San Francisco Public library offers free, text only internet dial-in access and the San Francisco Bay Guardian has free e-mail service. However you won't hear about this in the computer press.… The key is getting the word out and making low cost on-line communications as accessible in the hood as Old English and St. Ides.6) Postmodernity and the Afrofuturists
If television in the late modern era turned technologically adept African Americans into the black secretary, the postmodern equivalent would have to be the black cyborg. This includes LeVar Burton's "Lt. Geordi LaForge" from Star Trek: the next generation, Philip Akin's "Norton Drak" from War of the Worlds, and Carl Lumbly's "Dr. Miles Hawkins" from M.A.N.T.I.S. Like the double edged status of "communications officer," there are both advantages and disadvantages to this position. On the negative side, one might cynically read this as a diversity two-fer-one (you get both a disabled character and a black character in one blow). More ominously, one wonders if the figure of a technologically empowered African American man (there are apparently no female black cyborgs) was considered too threatening for an American audience, and thus the disability was required to keep him in check. Certainly such muted disguises or balances for non-white race abound in postmodern simulations (cf. Bleecker 1995).
On the other hand, one could not ask for a position more imbricated with technology than that of the cyborg. M.A.N.T.I.S. (Mechanically Augmented Neuro Transmitter Interception System), for example, is loosely based on a black comic book hero, Hardware, which was written and drawn by African American artists at Milestone Media (Dery 1994). Here a disabled black scientist seeks revenge on the corporate forces which cheated him (and eventually left him a paraplegic) by creating an alter-ego powered by a cybernetic exo-skeleton. Although gutted of much of its original political message, the television version did manage to occasionally convey themes connecting racial identity, disability, and resistance through technological metaphors.
Music critic and writer Mark Dery (1994) coined the term "Afrofuturist" to describe the self-conscious appropriation of technological themes in black popular culture, particularly that of rap and other hip-hop representations. The term has been used as an organizing principle by Alondra Nelson and Paul Miller in creating a listserv dedicated to "explor[ing] futurist themes in black cultural production and the ways in which technological innovation is changing the face of black art and culture." Nelson is a graduate student at NYU, and manager for a cybercafe in a mixed working class/middle class neighborhood in Brooklyn. Paul Miller is a senior editor at Artbyte magazine, and performs as D.J. Spooky, master of "illambiant" digital sound collage (most recently featured in the soundtrack for the film "Slam"). These dual roles in Nelson and Miller's own lives reflects the potent mixture of cultural analysis and cultural production promised by the Afrofuturist perspective.
Members of Nelson and Miller's listserv have suggested a wide spectrum of afrofuturist fore-runners and fellow travellers: analog musicians Lee "Scratch" Perry (Ska), George Clinton (funk) and Sun Ra (jazz), science fiction writers Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Charles Sanders, and Nalo Hopkinson, cultural critics Greg Tate, Mark Sinker, Kodwo Eshun, and Mark Dery, digital musicians Singe, Tricky, and Dr Octagon, visual artists Fatima Truggard, Keith Piper, and Hype Williams, and performance artists Rammelzee and Carlinhos Brown. Conspiciously absent from this mix are the engineers and scientists. For example, Philip Emeagwali, a Nigerian-American who received the 1989 Gordon Bell Prize (based on an application of the CM-2 massively-parallel computer for oil-reservoir modeling) takes a strongly historical approach, drawing on sources as diverse as the African origin of the Fibonacci sequence and the 1938 Risenkampf partial differential equations. If there is a downside to the Afrofuturist movement, it is the tendency to dwell too much in the imaginary spaces created by fiction and music, rather than work at fusing these domains with functional science and technology.
Miller points to Bob Powell, "African american physicist, philosopher, and architect who studied in west africa and who worked with NASA and [at 80 years] still has really interesting ideas on physics, music, and African and African American art" as one of the exceptions to this elision. Writing in Black Noise, Tricia Rose suggests a promising area for historical study in positing that many of the early innovations in computer graphics, such as morphing, were based on early hip-hop visual arts such as graffiti and breakdancing. Also promising are the small clusters of black scientists engineers in particular domains. In opto-electronics, for example, we find Earl D. Shaw (physicist, co-inventor of spin-flip laser), William R. Northover (chemical innovations for laser fiber optics), Thomas C. Cannon (mechanical innovations for fiber optic cables). One wonders if this is due to the "founder effect" (similar to immigrant neighborhoods in cultural geography); if so it speaks well for the Afrofuturist thesis that culture and technology can have collaborative results. More recently black computer engineers have become leading entrepreneurs; these include Clarity CEO Howard Smith, Vice Presidents Kenneth Coleman and Marc Hannah of Silicon Graphics, Myra Peterson, President of Omniverse Digital Solutions, and Dr. Glen Toney of Applied Materials.
7) The politics of information technology: black web networks
The celebration of the "cyborg" identity in recent pop culture representations, such as "Robocop," is an important warning to those who would see the Afrofuturists' contribution as purely one of "transgressing boundaries" or "bricollage." We now live in an era in which cyborg bricollage is no longer a shocking transgression, but rather a technique for computer programming and postindustrial labor management. Nor should we rely on the mimetic theory that "role models" of black acheivement will counter problems in "self-esteem." What is significant for the Afrofuturist movement -- artists and inventors alike -- is the ability to reveal the relations of social power in the construction of technoscience. It is the ways in which this syncretism can politicize information technology that make Afrofuturism a powerful technocultural syncretism.
Perhaps the best case for such collaboration between African American cultural politics and information technology is the emergence of black web networks. The oldest of these is The Drum; launched in 1988 as an informal group of computer users it was a pioneer of Afrocentric on-line services. Another pioneer is Melanet, started 1989 by William and Rodney Jordan. Averaging 40,000 hits per month, it maintains a focus on black culture and spirituality. Net Noir, the largest commercial success, was started in 1995 by David Ellington and Malcom CasSelle. Averaging 120,000 hits per month, it includes web channels under the cetegories of Culture, Entertainment, News, Business and Politics, and Shopping. The separation of culture and entertainment categories is unusual for web organization, and reflects Net Noir's responsibility to black cultural issues; meanwhile the fusion of Business and Politics in to a single category reflects their emphasis on entrepreneurship as a means to black liberation. The City of New Elam network was started 1994 by Rey Harris and Stafford Battle. Averaging 2,000 hits per month, they have focused on introducing black-owned small business to the web. Perhaps the strongest commerical potential can be found in SOHH ("Support On-line Hip-Hop"): started in 1995 with Felicia Palmer and Steve Samuel as "cybermics," they are currently negotiating with Intel, CNET and Mediadome for on-line sales of music that could mount into the millions.
We began Barbara Christian's framework, which shifted the focus of literary analysis from theories of black womens' writing to black women writers' theories. Our technological translation of this calls for a change of strategy would shift the focus of political analysis from the attempts to devise a cybernetics of black communities, to searching instead for the communities of black cybernetics. Such histories of black contribution and collaboration to information technologies are, we maintain, masked by the narrative of cyberliberation, the trucage of a culture-free technoscience. In examining this history of black cybernetics we find that the invention of technology and cultural identity are deeply intertwined.
Bleecker (1995) described the ways in which the absense of race in the
virtual game SimCity allows for "raceless" urban riots; one can see that
the simulation parameters of heat, crime and unemployment are all related
to the propsenity for urban riots, but race itself does not exist as a
simulation variable. But writing race back into SimCity -- putting race
back into our social accounts of information technology in general -- means
not just adding a pessimistic realism. We can seek sources of more positive
confluence between the cultural capital of personal identity and the political
economy of information technology in ways that offer reconfiguration and
1) Ron Eglash
2) IFAN, Dakar
3) Lisa Aronson
4) Robert Farris-Thompson
5) Alexandre Badaway
6) Ron Eglash
7) National Geographic Magazine
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