I just finished Lisa Nakamura’s 2002 book Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. Among other things, I was struck by the amount of change that happened unnoticed over the past 8 years. When this book came out, I was graduating college, and yet when I read through this book, some of the things Nakamura talks about seem so incredibly dated to me. There aren’t ‘portals’ to the internet anymore, opening multiple windows in a web browser is no big deal, and the space between Internet and Web has closed to the point of being nonexistent.
This is not to say the book was bad or unhelpful; just that it surprised me how much the world has changed, and me with it, without even really noticing.
But let’s get back to the book.I knew this was the right book for me while still in the Introduction, when Nakamura says “the Internet is above all a discursive and rhetorical space, a place where ‘race’ is created as an effect of the net’s distinctive use of language” (xiii). Rhetoric and the Internet; that’s just what I wanted to read about. Now the question was how much of an update 7 years has allowed since Turkle’s book.
Nakamura begins the book at large with a bit of defining; certainly nothing wrong with that. She tells us that “cybertyping is the process by which computer/human interfaces, the dynamics and economics of access, and 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” (3). Nakamura was interested primarily in race, but I’m interested more in identity generally; for me, race is a part of the identity, but certainly not the whole of it.
Much of what she says can be ported over to my project, though. When she writes “When natives stop acting like natives – that is to say, when they deviate from the stereotypes that have been set up to signify their identities – their ‘aura’ is last: they are no longer ‘authentic’” (6). Authenticity is an important thing online, and it’s interesting that Nakamura here says that as soon as members of a group deviate from stereotypes, they lose their authenticity, because towards the end of the book she write that “many users masquerading as racial minorities in chat spaces tend to depict themselves in ways that simply repeat and reenact old racial stereotypes” (107), which may be seen as paradoxical or even contradictory. But I think she’s right on here. Maybe there are some stereotypes that do need to be followed, and others that detract from authenticity. Nakamura is nearly obsessed with the idea of people taking on the image of the samurai or the geisha, frequently citing that as an example of ‘old racial stereotypes’ that people reinforce online; primarily those who are masquerading as being Asian generally (rather than Japanese or Chinese specifically). This kind of stereotype eliminates authenticity. But other stereotypes, such as language use, add to authenticity. It’s a strange situation.
This strange situation makes the utopian image of the internet as a place without race difficult to see. As Nakamura writes, “Rather than being left behind, bracketed, or ‘radically questioned’ the body – the raced, gendered, classed body – gets ‘outed’ in cyberspace just as soon as commerce and discourse come into play” (11); she also tells us that “Though it is true that users’ physical bodies are hidden from other users, race has a way of asserting its presence in the language users employ, in the kinds of identities they construct, and in the ways they depict themselves online, both through language and through graphic images” (31). So no matter what we try to do, race comes to the forefront and announces itself. Or, if it doesn’t, that announces race as well. “in the absence of racial description, all players are assumed to be white” (38).
I’m not sure I agree with this entirely. I’m not convinced that race cannot be hidden; that seems like too strong of a claim. But I think Nakamura does a good job defending a weaker claim (which in all fairness is probably what she is trying to show): that race comes to the forefront unless it is hidden, and even when hidden, the disguise must be continuously performative, or the aura of authenticity will fall away, and race (or gender, or sexuality, etc) will assert itself. There’s nothing wrong with masquerading, or being a tourist as Nakamura calls it; what matters is how difficult a thing it is to do without ‘tipping your hand’ so to speak.
The desire to be a tourist is natural; one of the attractions to the Internet in the first place was to MOOs, in which playing roles, taking on different identities, was a feature, not a bug (49). We come to the Internet partially to explore our identities, to construct them either from pieces that are already there, pieces we want to have there, or just pieces we are trying on for the experience. Nakamura tells us that this desire “gestures toward a sense that we are more than we appear, or wish to be read differently than we are, and can use cyberspace to create versions of ourselves that look and in some sense are different from ourselves” (79). This seems to point to an important desire for those of us who want to fly off into cyberspace (as William Gibson presented it): we want to explore who we are, who we could be, and sometimes, who we are NOT. It’s the modern version of walking around in someone else’s shoes: surfing the net in someone else’s identity.