O Blackbird! sing me something well: While all the neighbors shoot thee round, I keep smooth plats of fruitful ground, Where thou may’st warble, eat and dwell.
— Lord Alfred Tennyson
Continuing from the last post on the subject of Blackbird, a new Internet browser ostensibly designed to cater for African American interests, it seems that a heated set of debates has erupted around the launch of the browser, with various charges and counter-charges of racism.
The designers of Blackbird offer the following up front as their reason for designing and offering this browser:
Because we know the 20 million African Americans online need tools to build and foster community now more than ever.
Because we know that 85% of African Americans prefer online news and information from the Black perspective.*
Because we know that you are twice as likely to be among the first to discover new trends and use advanced technology compared to the general population.*
*Source: PEW Internet and American Life Project 2004
There is no claim here that any of the other browsers are inherently “white.” What seems obvious is the desire to create what is, in a sense, a pre-loaded portal that immediately directs users to African American content online, linking them with other users at the same time in some cases. It is part of an effort aimed at specialization. As one analyst quoted by InternetNews commented: “I think that the driving factor is people want more impactful user experiences. Marketers want to impact users, users want more responsive experiences and vendors want to get their technology out there, so you have three different self-interests that are pushing this forward.”
That is where the debate seems to begin, where ideas of racialized identity intersect with technological specialization:
- Whose idea of specialization?
- Specialization, but for what purposes?
- How specialized is it, really?
- Does specialization homogenize the intended users?
- Does specialization run counter to individual customization?
The author behind Seed of Life’s Blog has posted a detailed and very thoughtful assessment both about why white anger against the browser is telling and unwarranted, and about the limitations of the browser from a technical standpoint, ending with questioning why it is really needed (from what might be called a cosmopolitan perspective).
The Angry Black Woman, a blog that I like to visit with some frequency, also posted: “Blackbird browser — because the Internet isn’t black enough.” She criticizes the effort as one designed to make money off the African American community:
BlackBird is a sneaky application. Because while there is all this talk of building online communities and bringing Black People together, the real reason this browser exists is targeted marketing. There are ads in the browser – oh yes – and ads on the pages the browser helpfully points you to.
I also worry that the people behind it, about whom there is little information, will be more concerned with serving the advertiser’s needs than the users.
She is certainly correct that we know next to nothing, even from the Blackbird site itself, about who are its creators.
Tiffany B. Brown also left a comment at Racism Review that echoed some of the same sentiments, while raising the specter of homogenization: “I won’t say they ‘don’t give a shit,’ but this browser isn’t some straight-up altruistic black nationalist thing either. It’s a product aimed at black people as though we are some monolithic market niche because we are black. Um. No.”
Racism Review has itself become one of the central loci for the debates around racism and Blackbird, concerned especially with some of the high-pitched racist commentary launched against Blackbird precisely for even wanting to cater to African Americans.
Sharing a similar disgust with the racist commentary as Racism Review, Roney Smith’s Seed of Life also targets is an article about the browser, and comments, that were published by TechCrunch. He writes:
“Historic trends outside of the recent US presidential elections…consistently indicate that whenever there is anything geared toward benefiting and enabling the communication skills of African-Americans, the enabling technology whether human or machine must be savagely demonized from coast to coast and time zone to time zone nationwide for the entire world to see….TechCrunch is suffering from the same cultural blindness that is par for the course throughout the web2.0 world in that most tech reporters, editors, pundits, gurus, and experts alike already have the ability to make virtually all minorities invisible outside of entertainment and sports industries within the United States. One, I doubt that there are any minorities within these companies and then two, I doubt that they are given any attention beyond that given to the janitorial staff or a nuisance.”
The point made by some commenters is that the other browsers, by catering to a majoritarian mainstream, are in fact catering to white users. Some object to that, arguing that a browser is inert, like a television set, and this would be like arguing that a television set is racist, regardless of what is actually shown on that set. Moreover, some might argue, there is nothing that Firefox or Explorer do to actually block, filter out, or minimize African American content.
Perhaps the problem is that of invisibility generated by assumptions, that the very conception, selection, design and layout of elements on a browser come out of a North American, white, “geek” cultural stratum, and that therefore to many white, middle class, North American users the cultural assumptions remain invisible, the browser appears normal, intuitive, self-evidently rational, etc. I have some sympathy for this argument (not that I think that Blackbird was designed to address this argument even remotely).
To say that a browser is technology unmarked by the culture from which it sprang, would be to argue that a browser reflects the fact that all humans universally see the world in the exact same ways, or that the structure of Internet browsing is somehow akin to basic, universal human thought processes, that all humans would all invent the same browser if they were to be isolated from one another. That is the old cultural evolutionist “psychic unity of mankind” argument, and for many good reasons anthropologists since the early 1900s have largely defeated that argument on many grounds.
I look forward to any feedback on these issues, especially since writing about issues such as software design is very rare on this blog.