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Neda Soltani, Race, and Digital Labor

This Fall, I will be presenting at the Institute for Distributed Creativity’s conference “The Internet as Playground and Factory” from November 12-14 at the New School for Social Research.  This looks to be a really interesting conference.  As its website states, “This conference confronts the urgent need to interrogate what constitutes labor and value in the digital economy and it seeks to inspire proposals for action. Currently, there are few adequate definitions of labor that fit the complex, hybrid realities of the digital economy.”  I figure that my job is to represent for the person/woman of color perspective in this.  This writing is some work towards that end.  So, how are bodies of color engaging with the digital economy as both labor and value, or to paraphrase Lisa Lowe through my friend race and gender scholar Grace Hong, how are bodies of color both labor and capital?  What do the Mechanical Turk worker, the Twitter user, the citizen journalist, the gold farmer, and the game level author or modder have in common?  And how are their interests (part of what makes this conference exciting is that it views digital laborers are both more numerous and a broader category than we thought, and also as even having interests, rather than simply demographics) similar to or different from those of people of color?

As Trebor Scholz writes on June 24 in the Institute for Digital Culture listserv, “Why do so many people care more about digital rights management on iTunes, intellectual property, and privacy on Facebook than about the suffering of people in Rwanda or indeed Neda Soltani (or the other Iranian students whose death was not recorded)?”  Yet rather than seeing these two struggles—the struggle for racial justice and the struggle for the digital commons—as being two separate and opposed causes, it makes sense to me to see them as structurally linked.  Both are social justice struggles that identify and challenge the mis-allocation of resources.  As Andrea Volpe writes, “So the problem for the study of internet cultures, not unlike the pre-digital study of media and popular culture, is that any attempts at appropriation are complicated by top-down control of the means of expression.”

Critical race feminist theory and digital labor theory can benefit from each other—watching the Neda Soltani images on CNN I was struck by the ways that her phenotypic whiteness, beauty, youth, and gender gave her a claim to the “white woman in trouble” status that largely determines the style and extent of news coverage dedicated to violence against women in our news media.  Her light skin, blue jeans, white tennis shoes, and unveiled but headscarved face permitted her to be “seen” as white, and thus as legible as a female subject to American viewers.  The veil or hijab, which as Mimi Nguyen notes in “You Say You Want A Revolution (In a Loose Headscarf)” is “made to stand as a visual shorthand for Islamic oppression in the West.”  Soltani’s dying body is a racialized digital image that was captured by a citizen journalist’s cell phone, and circulated via social networks like Twitter and Facebook and other pages on the web before ending up on the evening news.   This is surely an epochal moment in digital media history; those of us teaching courses on new media will have to change our syllabi this year.  Yet rather than viewing this as a triumph of born-digital media and the power of disenfranchised people to “get the truth out” faster and better than for-profit or commercial mass media, it is important to remember that its standing as a media event depends upon of the veil’s absence—a sign of the secular state’s power over women’s bodies– and because of the victim’s approximate whiteness.  As Nguyen notes, the veil is always a sign of power over women: “both forced veiling and forced unveiling operated as disciplinary state edicts –often enacted violently on female bodies by male soldiers or police– at discrete political times to instrumentally shape a feminine civic body.”  Suffering bodies are not telegenic when they belong to black or brown women in different contexts.  Images of dead or dying Rwandan, Somali, or Chinese women and their children victimized by civil war, ethnic violence, famine, or the depredations of the modern slave trade fail to engage the sympathies and the air time of either legacy or “new” media: CNN and Twitter alike both earn a fail in this regard.   There is, however, an immense appetite for mediation regarding black performing bodies, as the recent almost-crashing of the Internet by Michael Jackson’s recent demise attests.

As Scholz writes, DRM, privacy, and IP struggles may seem like luxuries of the moneyed class, one of the many minor irritants of the privileged digital consumer, yet they are linked to people of color issues quite intimately.  In my recent work on worker-players in Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games like World of Warcraft, I describe how laborers or “gold farmers” create and sell virtual money, goods, and characters for real money.  These workers are creating new racialized forms of labor.  The term “Chinese gold farmer” has come to stand for all worker-players in MMO’s, just as the term “Mexican gardener” comes to stand in for all dark skinned men cutting lawns and trimming bushes in other people’s yards, be they Guatemalan, Salvadoran, or Brazilian.   (The racialization of labor is a persistent effect of race classification itself—in my grandfather’s days “Japanese gardener” was a term that described him and many other Asian men in the Bay Area before the war, whether they were Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese.  Today, the term “Indian computer programmer” can come to stand for Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, and all other brown people from South or West Asia.)  The work that these digital migrants do is affective and embodied work within virtual worlds, yet forbidden by Blizzard’s terms of service.  Blizzard’s ownership of World of Warcraft, a virtual world that is successfully marketed as and that is viewed by many of its users as a digital playground drives these forms of labor underground, where they come to resemble virtual factories.  Just as in other leisure spaces, the work that maintains it must be hidden, just as is its racialization.  The struggle against this type of value-extractive ownership of virtual worlds and of all digital communication forms is a racialized one, if only because it effectively criminalizes forms of transnational trade like gold farming that less fortunate people need to survive.

Neda Soltani’s death is a tragedy. I hope that nobody reading this thinks that I’m diminishing that.   I mean to point out instead that beauty, gender, youth, race, and modernity came together in that piece of video that we saw to engage our sympathies in ways unavailable to other female suffering bodies.  As sociologist Bonilla Silva writes in Racism Without Racists “phenotype will be a central factor determining where groups and members of racial and ethnic groups will fit—lighter people at the top, medium in the middle, dark at the bottom.”  The digital labor that went into creating and distributing that piece of galvanizing media was multiply borne by thousands of people who formed an informal network, one that looked for a moment to have displaced commercial networks like CNN. It is important to track the ways that the event was quickly recuperated by the mass media industry—within hours of the story breaking CNN had altered its broadcasting to “promise” that it had “more news” about the story than any other source, presumably including the Internet.  It is equally important to look at why and how this could become the particular spectacle that it did in the first place.  War will always trump famine, slavery, and domestic violence as a visual event, even in “real time,” and the image of a “white woman in trouble” still represents the sine qua non of media palatability.  The war became individualized and personalized—“real”–through the intimate images of Soltani’s face presumably at the moment of her demise. 

The paradox of race in America is that race is both hyper-visible and commodified in both politics and media, yet simultaneously made invisible and unspeakable by individuals in social interaction as well as within the public sphere.  Bonilla-Silva documents the halting and tortuous rhetoric that characterizes racial discourse, and is utterly constitutive of neoliberal racism.  It is literally hard for people to talk about race.  The Neda Soltani case makes this abundantly clear; pundits initially read and continue to read this as a story about the triumph of social networks and citizen journalism as an allegory for the power of the people.  Race has not yet entered into this discussion at all, for some racialized bodies are not either on or in social networks.  They cannot be, for reasons having to do with phenotype, access, gender, class.

This is the same paradox of the Internet itself.  Value is extracted from race as it is from the Internet, but unfortunately, the proceeds are not often directed towards people of color, nor the “users” who make “user generated content.”  Serious racial and class divides continue to exist and to worsen, as the furor over ownership of digital music, intellectual digital property, and virtual world currencies continues apace at academic conferences and corporate boardrooms alike.