Last week both Luke and I were in Fredericton, New Brunswick for the 2011 Congress of the Social Sciences and the Humanities. In the maelstrom of the meeting of around seven thousand professors and graduate students we both presented papers for the Canadian Communications Association on our research. While there were a number of great panels presenting some amazing work, I was most inspired by Lisa Nakamura's keynote talk,“Race, Labor and Indigeneity: The Birth of New Media in the American West”, where she outlined the stark relationships contemporary information technology have with race, space and systemic economic inequality.
Her talk began with showing Banksy's critical opening credits to The Simpson's, that was aired last year:
For her Banksy's confrontational message about the outsourcing of productive labour to countries with weak labour laws and poor human rights records (in this cast, animation studios in North in South Korea) reflects recent scholarship in communication studies the “return to the material.” For her books like Nick Monfort and Ian Bogost's Racing The Beam, which traces the interplay between hardware, software, business organization and economic constraints on the Atari VCS, mark an approach that will open up new ways of thinking about our technology.
Nakamura's own area of speciality is in race and racism, so she has a deep concern with contemporary labour practices in Asia, where most of our hardware is now manufactured. As she said in the talk “If you own a digital device, chances are an Asian woman touched it.” Yet this comes as nothing new to most of us who pay attention to our technology. Everybody looks at the back of their iPod and sees the infamous “Designed by Apple in California / Assembled in China” text.
What Nakamura's talk did brilliantly was showcase how this industry's Asian hardware manufacturing labour process had a direct link to hardware manufacturing in the American West in the 1970s. Various factories built in New Mexico on Native American reserves specialized in manufacturing the intricate components of American electronics companies. The companies that set them up used racialized discourse complementing the female labour force for their attention to detail, which they assumed transferred easily from intricate sewing to the assembly of circuit boards. Most importantly, the managers praised the patience of these women, and their ability to navigate independently the individual choices one needed to make during the manufacturing process without direct oversight.
For me what was fascinating is how locating the factories on these reserves allowed the electronics corporations to take advantage of various incentive programs set up by the US Federal government, providing tax benefits and low wages. In practice the reserves were equivalent to a developing nation across the ocean, with the added benefit of being located right in the middle of the United States. Nakamura noted that these incentives for corporations were in place as part of a larger program of “deterritorializing” the Native population. In skilling the workforce (and moving them to industrial centres) the government hoped to remove the Native population from the valuable land they currently used for sheep herding.
Yet it was not to last. As the 1970s increasingly became a time of radical action against the status quo in the US. All it took was for various unionization pushes and radical action on the part of American Indian Movement to cause the manufacturers to pick up and leave for greener pastures, more amenable to managerialism and low wages: Asia.
In discussing this relatively unknown history of information technologies, Nakamura said that we can reveal the labour that is hidden so well in our day to day technology. She said we should ask whose “un-free” labour (those forced into labour in the Congo to mine coltan, those in China who smelt down the gold from discarded computer parts) is hidden so we can take part in participatory culture?
Returning to the material and political economy can unlock these secrets and hopefully open up new doors of resistance to business practice that attempts to dehumanize its labourers into nothing but exchange value.