Cybertypes and Cyberbots


Lisa Nakamura is credited as being one of the first critics to engage in discussions of race online. She talks about “cybertypes,” which are online “stereotypes” defined as “new formulations of machine-linked idenity” (4). This is her term for (non-voluntarist) racial formation on the internet: in other words, the ways in which race is formed, managed, produced for subjects as a part of their interactions online. In her terms, it is a process very different from the utopic fantasy of being whoever you’d like to be in the virtual space.

In what ways are all humanoid chatbots, cybertypes, all abstractions of race and ethnicity that through subjecting themselves to Turing Tests, play to our notions ) of racial categories (and reify them) in order to seem accurate and believable. This relates to our conversation on racebots.

Here are some reviews and commentaries. My favorite is Graham Murphy’s because he takes issue with her use of “Quantum Leap,” a point to which she concedes. This just goes to prove somethine I have always believed: Scott Bakula has a lot to teach us. (Nonetheless, the “leaping” analogy is rich within the study of racial identity on the internet).

Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2002.

1 Response to “Cybertypes and Cyberbots”

  1. 1 Jeremy Douglass

    Mark, thanks for recalling Nakamura’s book - I can see how it fits in with the line of your thinking about “exotic” bots and bot gender recently.

    In the spirit of our communal conversation, I pulled the book out and took another look. For our main topics here, I think that her two most important chapters of her six chapter book are definitely chapters 2 and 3.

    Chapter 2: Head-Hunting on the Internet: Identity Tourism, Avatars, and Racial Passing in Textual and Graphic Chat Spaces

    Chapter 3: Race in the Construct and the Construction of Race: The “Consensual Hallucination” of Multiculturalism in the Fictions of Cyberspace

    “Head-Hunting” talks about textual chat spaces, specifically spending quite a bit of time on MUDs and MOOs, specifically LambdaMOO. Good stuff. That said, special attention is paid to profile descriptions and the politics and social expectations around what people do and don’t choose to include in their profiles - that is, the logic of analysis is somewhat similar to what one mind find in a careful consideration of how people submit ads to newspaper personals sections (strategies of managing expectation), rather than focusing on online dialog as it evolves in the moment of negotiated chat (strategies of investigation and revelation). The second half of the chapter deals with graphic environments, here Nakamura testifies to more immediate experiences interacting with others.

    “Race in the Construct” reviews representations of race in some of the big names in cyber-fiction: Blade Runner, Neuromancer, Snow Crash, and The Matrix. Blade Runner gets a black mark for wrapping Philip K. Dick’s Do Andriods Dream of Electric Sheep in orientalist trappings, as does Neuromancer for placing disconsolate whites at the center of multicultural pageantry. Snow Crash and Diamond Age garner kudos for complex interracial identity and for representing future forms of highly commodified racism, while the Matrix gets the longest treatment, considering casting, costume, and narrative.

    Nakamura seems to be most compelled by the web as virtual reality imagines it might someday be, an immersive place of visual identity play rather than an active text interface where letters circulate as tokens of identity. Thus, the two quotes I most expected to see (ones that related to the tension between text and imagined physical presence) weren’t even touched on, nor were any of the “command line” moments from any of these stories.

    Neo: The Trinity?… Jesus, I thought you were a man. / Trinity: Most men do.

    Cypher: I don’t even see the code. All I see is Blonde, Brunette, Redhead….

    If this sounds like I’m disappointed in the book, I wasn’t - I loved it. I just think the Writer Response Theory version of this discussion hasn’t been written yet. That would probably look a bit more like “A Rape in Cyberspace” as re-examined by Kate Hayles….

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