Racial Equality in 2042: how the internet can help

I wrote this short essay for a collection on race that the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity is putting together. Their premise is as follows: by 2042 we’ve made a lot of progress on racial justice and equity in the United States. (Congratulations!) Q #1 – what does it look like? #2 — suppose we know that some of the seeds of transformation are in place right now, in 2010; what are some of those? #3 — how do we get from here to there?

I have never been asked to produce a utopian vision about what the Internet might do for racial equality.  I’ve spent most of my academic career as a buzzkill, a position that we’re much more comfortable with, and one that we are often compelled to occupy given the crazy-ass industrial narratives of Internet=democracy.  So here goes!

Gaming Our Way Towards Racial Equality: the Transformative Potential of Fun Times Online
Lisa Nakamura
University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign

Craig Watkins writes that “the social ties and personal relationships that matter most to young people are managed through digital-media technologies.” (Watkins 2009)  This amount is only bound to increase as media such as music, television, and film migrate onto our digital devices.  The struggle for racial equality will only succeed if to the extent that it can involve digital media, since as Watkins writes, the Internet is increasingly where social interaction takes place.  In 2010, internet users spend more time playing digital games than they do on email. («Games overtake email as second top online time killer», Nielsen) What follows is a vision of how Internet-mediated networks and virtual world games might help us progress towards racial justice and equality in the United States.
nielsengamessndata It is 2040, and President Brittany Molina-Nguyen has passed the Digital Civil Rights Bill.  She is supported in this decision by the American public because by 2042 it has been recognized by most governments and individuals that unequal access to the Internet is a form of class, racial, and gender discrimination, and that this has stood in the way of racial harmony.   Because Americans have finally accepted that they are not currently nor will ever again be citizens of the world’s superpower, there is renewed interest in looking at alternative ways of socializing, taking care of citizens, and educating them.  In a radical move, the U.S. government, displaced by China as the world’s largest economy and the seeming inevitability of Brazil and India as contenders for the number 2 and 3 positions, pours funding into Internet access for all. The three priorities shaping the Digital Civil Rights Bill are 1) the promotion of multiracial social environments online, spearheaded by online games 2) digital media content production for a transnational audience 3) environmental transparency and accountability.

Years ago, in 2010, researchers found that most Americans were using the Internet to either form homogeneous social networks with people who were the same race and class as themselves, or were playing online games like Xbox 360 Live’s popular Modern Warfare 2 and using racist and sexist language within them. (Hargittai 2007), (Nakamura 2009).  In 2010, people of color and older were predominantly to be found in the “undesirable neighborhoods” of the Internet, within social networks and spaces like MySpace and AOL that were increasingly segregated along racial, class, and generational lines.  For example, as Internet researcher danah boyd discovered, MySpace suffered from “white flight” as white users deserted it in favor of Facebook, claiming that MySpace is “ghetto,” “ignorant” and “low class.”(boyd)  In a bold move to re-shape these practices, President Molina-Nguyen agrees to a proposal by Internet scholars who had recommended for many years that Internet access be free or state-subsidized for users who permit Facebook’s algorithms to identify users with common interests who are of a different race and class from themselves.  Because Internet access is quite expensive, as it has replaced all telephony, cable television, and other communication networks, there is plenty of incentive to participate in this program.  Those who choose not to participate in the program pay full market price, are taxed much more heavily, have slower connection speeds, and are not given access to all of its features.  In exchange for grouping with these users, Americans receive free access to any of the dozen virtual world games run by Zynga/Blizzard/Activision, the dominant maker of online role playing games such as World of Warcraft (now in its 20th expansion, and boasting a user base containing half of the world population).  Because Zynga/Blizzard/Activision was acquired by Facebook several years ago, users find themselves enjoyably playing thrilling computer games in real time with their friends as well as with users from different races.

The best and most exciting online games can only be unlocked by hours of gameplay within a multiracial and multilingual/multinational “clan” or “guild.”  The close bonds that develop from having fun times together online creates new social networks that are much more diverse in terms of age, race, nation, and gender, and sexuality than ever before.  After a middle-aged Ivy educated white attorney has been saved from certain death in World of Warcraft 30 by the same African American teenage girl from rural Detroit, a member of his algorithmically-selected and multiracial guild, he feels a rush of relief and happiness every time she logs on.  As automatic Facebook friends and members of the same WoW guild they learn a great deal about each others’ lives by viewing each others’ pictures, updates, and sharing game strategies.  The benefits of the “old boys network” start to flow in different ways as these two and others in their multinational guild learn each others’ languages and help each other both off and online.

The penalty for the use of racist or homophobic hate speech or behavior online is a temporary loss of the Internet government subsidy.  Players who continue to engage in hate speech will eventually pay the full market price for these services, which now averages as much as a family’s mortgage.  Subsidies can be earned back by engaging in volunteer work online to improve impoverished communities here and abroad.  Formerly out of work journalists are now fully employed as fact-checkers in these online civility disputes, as paper newspapers have long disappeared and the news continues to be written by bloggers.

As a result of the Digital Civil Rights Bill, most Americans count at least five or six non-Americans as “close friends” whom they communicate with several times a week within their recreational gaming networks.  Rather than producing a nation of mouse-potatoes, the Digital Civil Rights Bill works beautifully to encourage the nation’s least wired to come online as multiple language speakers and savvy content producers.  Because the games produced by companies like Zynga/Blizzard/Activision are already popular by users around the world, it is an easy step to get users to join other groups of players in exchange for free access.  In 2042, the majority of the content on the Internet has been in Chinese almost 50 years, making Chinese one of the easiest languages to learn for non-Chinese speakers.  Phonetic charactersets have replaced ideograms, and language-learning has been accelerated tremendously by the Internet’s translation programs.  Doing business in Asia is only possible through participation in the networks produced by these social games, providing poorer Americans excellent jobs as translators, project managers, and businesspeople.

The third and last piece of the Digital Civil Rights bill requires bar-coding and RFID-chipping of all consumer goods, including fruits and vegetables.  Shoppers can use their cellphones to scan these goods and learn when they were picked or produced, by whom, under what conditions, and where.  Like calorie labeling efforts from the 2010’s, this has a strong effect upon consumer behavior.   Agricultural workers are much better protected, and the job becomes attractive to people from all racial groups.  Food starts to taste much better, people eat less of it, and obesity and diabetes rates decrease, and are evenly distributed throughout the population.  Americans are healthier, more digitally empowered, less xenophobic, and have more fun times.


danah boyd, Technology review: Blogs: Guest blog: Did whites flee the ‘digital ghetto’ of MySpace? b [cited 8/4/2010 2010]. Available from http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/guest/25474/ (accessed 8/4/2010).

Games overtake email as second top online time killer- US study — today’s top stories a [cited 8/4/2010 2010]. Available from http://www.netimperative.com/news/2010/august/games-overtake-email-as-second-top-online-time/ (accessed 8/4/2010).

Hargittai, Eszter. 2007. Whose space? differences among users and non-users of social network sites. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication 13 (1).

Nakamura, Lisa. 2010. «Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game: Internet Games, Social Inequality, and Racist Talk as Griefing.» podcast available from http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/mediaberkman/2010/06/16/lisa-nakamura-dont-hate-the-player-hate-the-game/ (accessed 8/3/2010).

Watkins, S. Craig. 2009. The young and the digital: What the migration to social network sites, games, and anytime, anywhere media means for our future Beacon Press.

Category: Uncategorized
You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
2 Responses
  1. lisa nakamura says:

    I have fallen off of WoW and onto Plants Vs. zombies, but if you’re still playing, hit me up with server info and your toons’ names and I’ll get in touch. been meaning to get back into it.

    What you describe as the variegation (indeed efflorescence!) of hate speech online had indeed already happened–I’ve written about this lately elsewhere. 4chan raids consisting of the word “nigger nigger nigger” spammed into twitter channels at events like academic and fan conferences have found a new way to morph the worst word anyone can think of (see Mel Gibson’s and Dr. laura’s recent travails as evidence of this) into a form of subcultural humor. This is an example of hate speech becoming both so crushingly direct and yet so subtly oblique because used so ironically that it’s a real challenge to parse. It’s the lack of context, or rather the entirely new context–mobile, anonymous, framed as a “raid”–that makes it a puzzle. But so much discourse is now like this.

    I’m reading Gibson’s latest, “Zero History,” in which a Faraday pouch plays a major role. Indeed, agency means invisibility from digitized surveillance, and there’s been an important backlash against locative media. I think that just as people pay for free email by permitting the content of their messages to be datamined for advertisers, so too will they pay for locative media services (like Foursquare and Facebook). Being off the grid will mean paying. But there are always people who will pay.

  2. zelda says:

    I’ve certainly been guilty of episodes of cyber-utopianism, but I think this post well captures why it is worthwhile and not just something to be deplored as a form of cultural naivete or narcissism: it’s a kind of projective storytelling, an imagining of the future that figures the possible alongside the unwanted, the likely with the impossible before we know which will be which.

    One buzzkillish thought: I was struck by the idea of penalties for racist, homophobic, and sexist speech online. It certainly harmonizes with my desire to end the flood of such commentary in WOW, which I still play despite the often-poisonous atmosphere of the chat. But what I think would happen is that hate speech would simply morph faster and become more greatly variegated. Each subculture would develop its own codes to continue the hate speech, and as soon as those became culturally audible above a certain threshold, they would be abandoned for a new set. Really, it would be the same process already in place for subcultural jargons and slangs (like leetspeak, for example), but greatly speeded up by necessity. Interestingly, hate speech might become subtler and more oblique as a result.

    Another, more general thought: I see the expansion of RFID-type micro-tagging as something that’s going to generate a backlash among the technologically savvy. I expect to see a rising desirability (and cost) of objects that are not electronically trackable, either because they come from an earlier period or because they have been hacked.