Alondra Nelson. ‘Future Texts’, pp.1-15 in:
Forecasts of a utopian (to some) race-free future and pronouncements of the dystopian digital divide are the predominant discourses of blackness and technology in the public sphere.
What matters is less a choice between these two narratives, which fall into conventional libertarian and conservative frameworks, and more what they have in common: namely, the assumption that race is a liability in the twenty-first century—is either negligible or evidence of negligence.
In each scenario, racial identity, and blackness in particular, is the anti-avatar of digital life. Blackness gets constructed as always oppositional to technologically driven chronicles of progress.
That race (and gender) distinctions would be eliminated with technology was perhaps the founding fiction of the digital age.
Seemingly working in tandem with corporate advertisers, neocritics argued that the information age ushered in a new era of subjectivity and insisted that in the future the body wouldn’t bother us any longer.
As rapturous proclamations of the Internet’s ability to connect everyone, everywhere echoed the predictions that greeted the age of the telephone, so did neo-criticism’s imperative to embrace the new and transform the body fall neatly in line with older narratives of technology and forgetting—most notably, the futurism movement of the turn of the twentieth century.
Marinetti glorified the creative destruction of war, exalted the beauty of “eternal, omnipresent speed,” and promised to sing of the revolutionary potential of factories, shipyards, locomotives, and airplanes. He called for the end of the old, proclaiming, “But we want no part of it, the past, we the young and strong Futurists!” In constructing his vision of the future, Marinetti implicitly evoked a subjectivity that was decidedly male, young, and carved out in relation to the past and the “feminine.”
Technoevangelist Timothy Leary proclaimed that advances in technology augured the end of burdensome social identities.
Technology offered a future of wholly new human beings—unfettered not only from the physical body but from past human experience as well.
Bodies carry different social weights that unevenly mediate access to the freely constructed identity that Leary advocated.
In the influential work The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, Allucquère Rosanne Stone marshaled theory, observation, and fictionalized anecdote to describe the nature of contemporary identity.
In this model, manifold selves are understood as a tactic for negotiating forms of oppression.
But in her rush to celebrate the possibilities opened up by computer technology, Stone overlooked the fact that, as Kalí Tal has suggested, over a century’s worth of “sophisticated tools for the analysis of cyberculture” already existed in African American thought.
DuBois’s double consciousness was not simply an uncritical assertion of multiple personalities but rather a dogged analysis of both the origins and stakes of this multiplicity.
What falls by the wayside in Stone’s analysis—and neocriticism more generally—is an appraisal of identity that does not simply look to what is seemingly new about the self in the “virtual age” but looks backward and forward in seeking to provide insights about identity, one that asks what was and what if.
While Stone gives poignant witness to the ontology of multiplicity, she is less able to show how the dialectic between defining oneself in light of ties to one’s history and experience and being defined from without (be it in virtual or physical space, by stereotypes or the state) determines the shape of computer-mediated aggregate identities as much or more than the leisurely flux of personality.
While Stone is careful to maintain that there is indeed a link between virtual and physical selves, she nevertheless deploys an identity politics that privileges personality performance.
Yet understanding the changing terrain of identity in the virtual age requires not only attention to the technical construction of selves over a distributed network but a sense of how multiplicity works to both deflect and buttress structures of power and an understanding of how selves are differently situated both within and outside of this network.
In a study of late-1990s ads for computer companies, Nakamura explored how the promise of a liberated world of tomorrow, free of the cumbersome weight of racial identity, is proliferated by corporations in television commercials and print advertising—most memorably in a 1997 commercial for MCI entitled “Anthem,” which pronounced that there was no age, gender, or race on the Internet.
One such method of “othering” was the ads’ use of imagery of exotic people and places, emancipated from past histories and contemporary sociopolitical context.
As Nakamura observed, “ethnic difference in the world of Internet advertising is visually ‘cleansed’ of its divisive, problematic, tragic connotations. The ads function as corrective texts for readers deluged with images of racial conflicts and bloodshed both at home and abroad. These advertisements put the world right.”
Public discourse about race and technology, led by advertisers (and aided and abetted by cybertheorists), was preoccupied with the imagined new social arrangements that might be made possible by technological advance.
Nakamura’s study elucidated how centrally race figures in contemporary narratives of technology, even in its (putative) absence. Representations of race and ethnicity created a cognitive dissonance in tech advertising; dissimilitude was slyly neutralized but never fully erased, for this alterity was necessary to the ideology of the technology being sold.
If a sport-utility vehicle leaves people of African descent literally blowing in the wind, then the information age surely comes on like a tornado.
Though meant to draw attention to true disparities, the well-meant concept of the digital divide is Janus-faced: there are indeed critical gaps in technological access and computer literacy that are comprehensible through the prisms of race, gender, socioeconomics, region, and age.
Nonetheless, this paradigm is frequently reduced to race alone and thus falls all too easily in stride with preconceived ideas of black technical handicaps and “Western” technological superiority.
The racialized digital divide narrative that circulates in the public sphere and the bodiless, color-blind mythotopias of cybertheory and commercial advertising have become the unacknowledged frames of reference for understanding race in the digital age.
In these frameworks, the technologically enabled future is by its very nature unmoored from the past and from people of color.
As Kalí Tal maintains, African diasporic history contains a wealth of theoretical paradigms that turn the reified binary between blackness and technology on its head, readily lending themselves to the task of constructing adequate frames of reference for contemporary theories of technoculture.
Reed has used the word necromancy to describe his project as a writer, defining it as “us[ing] the past to explain the present and to prophesize about the future.” Reed’s understanding of a usable past runs counter to the futurism of the early twentieth century.
“Necromancers used to lie in the guts of the dead or in the tombs to receive visions of the future. That is prophecy. The black writer lies in the guts of old America, making readings about the future,” he explained. With this definition of necromancy, Reed presented a temporal orientation that seem to contradict discourses of the future predicated on either ignoring the past or rendering it as staid and stagnant.
In the novel, “jes grew” refers to African diasporic cultures that live and evolve in the forms of gesture, music, dance, visual culture, epistemology, and language, crossing geography and generations by moving from carrier to carrier and thus threatening the knowledge monopoly of the “West”[…]
Rather than a “Western” image of the future that is increasingly detached from the past or, equally problematic, a future-primitive perspective that fantasizes an uncomplicated return to ancient culture, LaBas foresees the distillation of African diasporic experience, rooted in the past but not weighed down by it, contiguous yet continually transformed.
Reed’s synchronous model defies the progressive linearity of much recent technocultural criticism. As Sämi Ludwig has observed, technologies exist independently of time in the novel; though it is set in the 1920s, the story contains references to technologies that will not be readily available until years later.
The AfroFuturism list emerged at a time when it was difficult to find discussions of technology and African diasporic communities that went beyond the notion of the digital divide. From the beginning, it was clear that there was much theoretical territory to be explored. Early discussions included the concept of digital double consciousness; African diasporic cultural retentions in modern technoculture; digital activism and issues of access; dreams of designing technology based on African math- ematical principles; the futuristic visions of black film, video, and music; the implications of the then-burgeoning MP3 revolution; and the rela- tionship between feminism and Afrofuturism.