post-modern blackness in cyberspace

From: (Mike Bowen)
Newsgroups: soc.culture.african.american
Subject: Re: African American Online Service??
Date: 31 Mar 1994 21:09:12 -0500

Reggae Mon (---) wrote:

May I pose a question to all you intelligent sisters and brothers hanging out on the information highway? What do think the viability would be for an African American oriented online service similar to AOL or Compuserve? I have been online for about 2 years now an find it to be a wonderful experience. I have recently discovered the Internet and I am slowly learning how to navigate through this vast maze of information. I know many people (and children) who would benefit from being introduced to this information distribution channel. The only drawback with the internet is the complexity. I envision a system similar to AOL with a GUI that would be easy to use. There would be forums and file areas for a variety of topics and issues. Sound off with your comments and ideas Please!!

to which the mellow replied

as we speak the masterminds of the AAAA (read Derrick Bell) are devising the ultimate brotherhood network!

or perhaps i read too many comic books. but in all seriousness, there are folks actively involved, myself included, on many independent fronts creating network resources of interest.

i expect that within the next few years the african-american presence in computer mediated communications will make itself known in various ways. right now there are many dozens of internet sources with information of interest to african-americans but those are pretty much guesses. i mean nobody can truly divine the variety of interests that we will have. so putting the entire thing together, i gather will be more a matter of who do you like to gather your information?

for example, in my grand theoretical thinking of things, the existence of virtual communicative spaces offers one the opportunity to make one's identity completely opaque or even false. i could very well be a very clever new zealander pregnant with twins despite all the things i say here. the opportunity exists to navigate in virtual worlds and take on multiple personalities, identities etc. the question which strikes me is, why? i believe people will experiment and communicate here in ways they wouldn't (in reality). but to what extent does the virtual experience change you (in reality)? so if you do it here, and become confident enough than you may ultimately do it there. you are exposed to the ideas and people's generally honest opinions (or genuine fantasies) and so that experience becomes real.

still with me?

but despite all the opportunity for identity swapping (and believe me there are people in cyberspace right now pretending that they are x-rated green eyed squirrels) most people stay with their own identities. so the folks who want to be adventurers are adventuring already. (i often take on the identity of a overly generous cheeto eating sumo wrestler but that's another story). since this is a communicative medium i believe people assume the identity which provides them with the kinds of interactions and experiences they think that identity will get them. this is very fluid and very interesting when it comes to black folk (who always seem to fascinate me).

as an aside what i have not seen so much in this forum as i have in private black forums is what i call the 'black persistent object'. that is someone who self-identifies as the 'nigger' who mucks up the works no matter what they are. i am not saying this is good or bad but if you would reflect on that idea for a moment. because this is something i desperately want to see. (in samuel r. delany's third of the neveryon series he writes of a black 13 year old hanging out in ny's port authority bus terminal saying 'hey white man, are you afraid of me? i'm not going to hurt you. hey where are you going? do you think i'm going to rob you? i'm not going to rob you..' - this is a variation on what i am saying. the existence of the 'black persistent object' calls into question and disturbs 'progress' or 'disinterest'. for cyberspace the question is how do you 'be black' in a way that is different? should one even *try* to change. there are only one or two people in scaa who have ever seen me. i have never said if i am a light skinned brother or dark. what does skin color mean when i write about it in text? what does black identity mean in computer mediated communications? howard rheingold has no clue, but still read his books - he's the man. now that i look back, why did i call the 'black persistent object' a nigger? it could very well be any other african-american archetype, but i think you catch my drift. i guess that's the catchy one.

which brings us back to the question of african-americans in cyberspace. (although the term 'cyberspace' always reminds me of bruce sterling and the game 'doom' - neither of whom make me feel particularly comfortable) and even though the comfortable and adult places in cyberspace are presumably the well and echo and aol, one has to ask about what the idea of a 'black persistent object' does to the mythology of cyberspace which as we know, to the layman, is rather jetsonesque. no doubt the 'nigger' thread still active (and persistent) in this forum echoes. (for those of you not hip to that thread, and so this can stand more alone without hypertext the gist of the 'joke' is why are there no niggers in the jetsons? we killed them all.) now that's a particularly brutal angle on this which is not necessarily what i mean when talking about 'black persistence' in cyberspace. more subtly i consider the value and availability of resources which are *de facto* in demand by african-americans all over this country and the hype surrounding data on the 'information superhighway'. how much of those two things are in synch?

that african-americans ask for black history materials and afrocentric discussion in real life comes as no surprise. that they want it in computer mediated communications comes as no surprise. but what of the hype and promise of cyberspace is evocative of hooking up parties x with resources y over networks z? ya know what im sayin? of course we hype it here, to a certain extent. but just for kicks i am going to do a word search on 'african' in the wired online gopher. i know that's not fair, nor is it fair to expect ron howard to show at least one scene in his latest film 'the paper' showing that somebody's mother is a bit concerned that her son is being framed for murder. but i guess the 'black critic' persists too. and since that's the only and fundamental gripe i had against the film, i might as well kill two birds with one stone.

so we are back to identity, with the twist of responsibility for access. now i, just as much as anybody, hate being fenced in. so i want the most possible freedom with the least possible expense, at least as far as internet access goes. i think i get that from panix. since i am open to the whole internet, with the exception of clarinet but i never missed it (am i really missing something big?), i feel that the deal is cool. if there is something of interest out there, i will don the appropriate identity gloves and see if i can grab it. there is something of a black capitalist argument in internet access provision by and for african americans which may or may not be misplaced. the jury is open on that right now, says me. but if all the resources for my interest are available on an equal basis, then my access provider has no special responsibility.

as for the creation of informational artifacts and communicative spaces of interest, there is the real question of capital and definition of black interest. i expect there will be much scuffling over this, especially as regards public monies, in infrastructure initiatives which are funded by the government. but (and i could go on about this) since we have 'white persistent objects' in public black oriented forums, it will be damn hard for anyone to define what that black public interest might be. i don't want to start down that road which will be littered with political landmines for years to come, but i will say that i believe what we say and do here matters much.

my verbal jazz, and i do mean that with much seriousness, lower case, hip hop aesthetic, work in progress, improvisational, self-referential, provocative and personal, is i believe an authentic artifact of black culture in computer mediated communications. and i can only write this way in scaa, quite honestly. knowing who is out there ready to lurk, flame, rejoin, call and respond is a big part of my thought process as i rack up enormous phone bills. i feel comfortable here creating blackness as i do in real time with the identity of mbowen who says every day harambee! and i believe the same is true of everybody else here who seem not to have a life, burlinda, charles, art johnson, darkstarr, maristella, david j, duane b, marius j, sugar cane, jesus the sea monster, rambo mcgee, and others. i know i am going to get in trouble for saying that some of these folks create blackness, and forgetting to mention my homeboy from helsinki, ms. scales, and a host of others without which scaa dialog would dry up and blow away. but that's part of the mix too. (oh and a special shout out to wilson riles, if you are the man from cali i think you are). oh any my girl eno, where you been you 60 unit a semester fiend?

i like that malcolm x as shown by spike, spent much time out on the sidewalk talkin shit. and much of what we do here is like that. some threads die of malnutrition, some like 'fear of blacks' mutate into wild statistical perversions of moral sense on and on. this is a fertile environment for that, and no doubt we will see more wherever folks feel welcome to put on their identity gloves and grab (or box or massage or windmill as the case may be). scaa itself is the 'black persistent object' within which we are subsumed and through which we are amplified. i believe that there is a real kinetic orality, to borrow a term from cornel, essential to black culture which defines a large part of how we be. the identity game in cyberspace will be dealt an interesting dose as this orality jumps fences.

but what of integration in general? what i kinda left hanging in the furrymuck allusion is that not only does everyone not want to be x-rated green eyed squirrels, and not only do african-americans desire particular things but given all things people are going to tend to accept and expect them one particular way. just as i get sick and tired of doing a crlf after each 72 columns inf emacs (don't send me a fix im used to it) and already wish i could use microsoft word to write out html pages though i have yet to write one, we all tend to read only tv guide instead of the listings in the paper or listen to leonard maltin rather than judith christ, or subsrcibe to barrons instead of forbes, or watch nbc rather than cbs. they all point us to the same overwhelming variety of data, but we like our familiar faces. a new favorite psychobabble of mine is that 'nobody has weaknesses, we just overuse our strengths'. and perhaps that is why (damn i know that is why) delany's 13 year old talks about robbery with no intent to rob. and perhaps that is why certain folk here continue to make relative fools out of themselves provoking in the manner they do. it's what is expected, and frustrated at failure we go back to what we know works. which gets us back to the true opportunities of the internet and cmc in general.

are residents of poor neighborhood x going to begin to read government service database publications now that they are now shrowded in the glow of cyberspace? are families y going to send their children to school z now that it has been demonstrated with stunning accuracy by debaters in a high tech forum that their fears are statistically irrelevant and logically inconsistent? doubtful in either case. are the possibilities of identity swapping going to change the way people deal with each other? i guess we are still talking about power and motivation, and at this point we are all just spitting bits not really dropping bombs. however, to the extent that our own interests manifest themselves directly inside and outside of cmc we will find this tool endlessly curious and yet another weapon of our own ends.

i am wanting to create bSpace as i term it. a place for my culture and perspective to thrive within cmc because it's damn hard to get to all those readings, lectures, rallies, rap sessions, corner store discussions, bball court bag sessions, revival meetings, critical seminars, and basement poetry readings with my lack of frequent flier miles. but i live in that and i've got to have it. did i say barbecue arguments and kitchen fights? did i say back of the bus snap fests? did i say study hall signifyin? did i say jazz club shade? did i say poor righteous preachin and siddity head shaking throwdowns? well... you *know* what im sayin.

still with me?

can i get a amen?

so where is it going to be? well, the same place it is now. everywhere. how you gonna get hooked up? that's in the mix but e-mail mcgee. or better yet finger but don't forget what john a. williams told me. i told him that the world's greatest jazz drummer tony williams was in town. he said if you hadn't told me, i never would have known. i only knew to look because i love the music and i assumed he did too. he did. i knew what i was looking for, i found it and i spoke up. but he had to visit with family and i didn't manage to get him to hang out on what i thought would be a jammin evening. (at least for me being in their company) but that's how it works.

i gotta go home and eat. and i know i done kilt this thread mouthing off like i do. but i had to speak up. because that's the kind of question that gets me started. i feel the need for folks to hook up, and i know the know-how is right around the way. so look out for the home page from the folks you trust to ask. i hope your identity gloves have grabbed something useful.