“…African Americans, in a very real sense, are the descendants of alien abductees; they inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what has been done; and technology is too often brought to bear on black bodies (branding, forced sterilization, the Tuskegee experiment, and tasers come readily to mind).”
— Mark Dery (Excerpt from Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose)
(I’m currently enrolled in a Coursera course called E-learning and Digital Cultures, and this week we were asked to think about utopias and dystopias.)
Notions of utopia/dystopia are inherently political, since they say something about the relation between the multitude and its material reality. Both utopias and dystopias raise the complex question of freedom and control.
Most authors of colour have conceptualized utopias and dystopias in starkly different ways than White authors. The real world presents for authors of colour already, as Maria Varsam noted “a “dystopian continuum” in which not only [do] extreme forms of oppression and alienation co-exist with lesser forms, but also one’s place on the continuum is subject to unpredictable change.” We already exist in an anti-utopian reality in which bodies of colour are regulated through technologies and “violence directed against bodies of colour becomes normalized as a necessary part of the civilizing process”—a reality, in which civil liberties are eroded under the guise of ‘security.’ Lord of the Flies, for instance, has already shown us how easily we can “regress” to dystopian states.
Authors of dystopias expose what might happen when utopian ideas are taken to the extreme. In This Perfect Day Ira Levin shows us the dangers of taking egalitarianism and altruism to excess. Ralph Raico writes that in This Perfect Day,
“Genetics has progressed to the point where skin color (tan), body shape (unisex), and facial features (brown slanted eyes) ran mostly be programmed. Scientists are busily at work rooting out the biological basis of aggressiveness and egotism and implanting docility and loving kindness in their stead. The aim is to have this compassionate race expand across the universe, and space exploration is another of the Family’s unifying collective goals.”
Race, it seems, has a way of creeping into technologies (from facial recognition software, to forensic technologies, to video games). Race matters in digital spaces, and information technologies are not intrinsically neutral. Tara McPherson argues in Why Are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation that “technological formations are deeply bound up with our racial formations.” McPherson further posits that there are “technoracial formations” where race is “a ghost in the digital machine.”
Some forms of technology are, thus, overdetermined as White. And in a world in which White is privileged it is important to ask ourselves whose voices are centred, and whose voices are marginalized. Whose stories get told, and retold? In Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black bell hooks argues that for the oppressed moving “from silence into speech” is a process of healing “that makes new life and new growth possible.” When bell hooks refers to “the liberated voice” she speaks of a utopian vision—a dialogic pedagogy. In Black (Afrofuturist) feminism, as Susana M. Morris notes, “liberation is cast in terms of coalition and power sharing, methodologies that would incite a future quite different from the hegemony of present structures.”
In thinking about utopias/dystopias, I turned to Afrofuturism. Like the early Afrofuturists I’m “concerned primarily with the question of whether or not there will be any future whatsoever for people of color.” Afrofuturism is, at its core, as Kodwo Eshun asserts, “concerned with the possibilities for intervention within the dimension of the predictive, the projected, the proleptic, the envisioned, the virtual, the anticipatory and the future conditional.” How can we re-imagine/remix ourselves? How can we undo the connections between race, gender, sexuality, and ability?
Some of my favourite utopian/dystopian works:
I made a word cloud (made with Wordle) of Daniel Chandler’s text Technological determinism to help me keep track of the most commonly used terms.