A multimedia event, "Race in Digital Space," opened a three-day conversation among academics, artists, musicians and technology activists on the general topic of the uneven impact and infinite potential of digital technologies on issues of race, racial identity and race relations.
The conference held at MIT on April 27-29 was sponsored by the MIT Program in Comparative Media Studies (CMS) and the University of Southern California.
The innovative event was a "huge success," said Henry Jenkins, professor of literature and director of CMS. "Panelists envisioned a cyberspace transformed to insure the widest possible access, to open up job opportunities for their communities, and to insure that minority voices are taken seriously in the context of citizenly debates."
In opening remarks, Philip S. Khoury, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), emphasized the importance of diversity in any conversation about the use and direction of new technologies.
"We want to make sure that humanists, artists, social scientists and others are fully engaged in discussing these issues and helping to shape public thinking and policy. Similarly, we want to make certain that our society is also fully engaged with these issues: men and women, and of course all ethnic and racial communities," said Dean Khoury.
Dr. Walter E. Massey, president of Morehouse College, delivered the keynote address. His speech, "Bridging the Digital Divide," outlined the new social, political and educational challenges facing society in the digital age.
"Increasingly we find that the information intended for one's financial, physical, intellectual, spiritual and social well-being is available, sometimes exclusively, on line. Equal access -- and, specifically, equal quality of access -- that is, the available bandwidth, processing speed and display characteristics -- is clearly a serious public policy issue," he said.
Unequal access arises from the "disparities in income, education, social setting, and what I call the awareness of the community in which one is situated," Dr. Massey said.
"Aware communities" are those in which the benefits of computers and Internet access are apparent, understood and appreciated, he said.
"What might help in encouraging the development of aware communities is providing not just physical access but also a motivation for use -- that is, educating communities to the practical benefits of the Internet for their purposes," he said.
BEYOND ACCESS TO POLICY
Bridging the digital divide will not automatically produce a more educated society, Dr. Massey said. The creation of digital space fosters more, not fewer, challenges to educational practice and goals.
"Access to a digital world puts an extra burden on the educational system (and parents) to ensure that individuals are sophisticated enough, skeptical enough and have the analytical abilities to distinguish among and between information," he said.
Inequities in access to education and acheivement, in employment and income must be addressed before equal access to technology can be meaningful, he said.
"As we bridge the digital divide, then, our goal should be to use the new technology to make sure we close all the other divides that have plagued and continue to plague our society and prevent us from allowing all groups to benefit from the tremendous progress we are making as a nation and as a world," Dr. Massey concluded.
OUT IN THE DIGITAL STREET
The "Race in Digital Space" conference offered numerous smaller sessions, including "Art and Hactivism," "Digital Business: From Netrepreneurs to Corporations" and "Job Opportunities and Training."
Five young artists spoke on "Authenticating Digital Art, Expression and Cultural Hybridity." Discussing barriers andbreakthroughs in authentic self-expression were artist, musician and writer Paul D. Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky; Beth Coleman, a.k.a. DJ M Singe, co-director of SoundLab/Cultural Alchemy; digital media artist and filmmaker Alex Rivera; Vivek Bald, a.k.a. DJ Siraiki, co-founder of the New York club Mutiny; and Mimi Nguyen, a doctoral candidate in comparative ethnic studies at the University of California at Berkeley.
Mr. Miller related his work to the "social sculpture" developed by dadaist Marcel Duchamp and Fluxus movement ringleader Joseph Beuys. Mr. Beuys sought to erase the line separating art and life by living in a museum prowled by coyotes.
"We're at a new crossroads -- the old crossroads was the street, the new street is the web," he said. Using sound samples, he creates collages to represent the "detachment and upheaval" people feel in modern life.
Noting that the digital age makes separating humans from machines increasingly difficult, Ms. Coleman spoke about cyborgs, prosthetic culture and our growing attachment to technology.
Mr. Rivera played his humorous short film Dia De La Independencia, a collage film depicting flying sombreros that invade the United States and demolish the White House with the help of a chili pepper. Mr. Bald, a documentary film maker, described how local culture in India is "sucked up by Western corporate capital, packaged, marketed and sold back to the middle classes as 'their' culture."
The session also illustrated the line between conversation and conflict during creative events. After the conference, on her web site, Ms. Nguyen wrote, "I watched the sparks fly when Beth Coleman intoned, 'Boys play, girls clean up.' I thought Beth and Spooky were about to come to blows over that one, [Jerry] Springer-style."
MY DIGITAL BODY
"Race in Digital Space" also considered issues of race, sexuality, gender and the body through performance media.
On Saturday night, Thomas F. DeFrantz, assistant professor in music and theater arts, performed a 10-minute dance work, My Digital Body. In it, he said, "I both critique and investigate the idea of a 'digital body' that has no corporeal presence. I began by reviewing the literature on the idea of 'digital bodies' living in cyberspace, and the idea that people would be able to create digital personae, or avatars, not necessarily reflective of their real-life bodies and emotions."
My Digital Body included five sections -- Torpor, Escape to Cincinnati, As If, Theory and The Noize -- plus projections, spoken text, recorded text and a soundscape Professor DeFrantz assembled from selections downloaded from the Internet.
Escape to Cincinnati, a one-minute study in irony, featured spoken words and a costume change. "My digital body has no race, no gender, no caste, no class, no sexuality, no sex, no size, no matter. My digital body is on many e-mail lists. My digital body gets digital news from the digital matrix. On April 15, my digital sales agent from US Airways, my digital airline, sent me an offer to travel to beautiful downtown Cincinnati. Only $100 digital dollars, round trip. Digital space has no center," said Professor DeFrantz as he switched from long pants to shorts and an MIT T-shirt.
FROM ACCESS TO ACTION
"Race in Digital Space" offered far more than a chance to burst the box of usual discourse and enjoy lunch from Redbone's, the renowned Somerville rib joint. According to participants, the three-day conversation gave a view of the future and a sense of new possibilities.
Professor Jenkins described the conference as a "platform for an important national conversation. The artists and performers were taken seriously within the context of a national policy debate; they offered a vision of a future where digital space will be as diverse as American society itself."
He also noted the impact of inequality of access to the most basic technologies. "Most chilling to me were the stories told by the Native American speakers of people dying because they have to drive 50 miles to get a telephone to call a doctor," he said.
Randal D. Pinkett, a graduate student in the Program in Media Arts and Sciences, was a panelist in the "Boston's Best Practices" session, which he described as "a rare opportunity for many of the leaders working in the local community technology movement to share our stories and network amongst each other. I was particularly impressed by the diversity of attendees including artists, academics, practitioners, organizers and activists."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 9, 2001.