New Media and Social Justice
How do you get a job in media or technology today? Cultural competency. New media and social justice need to be aligned in how we research, teach, and engage the digital and through it knowledge production and mobilization.
In order to succeed as a programmer, researcher, developer, UX designer, or scrum master, you must be prepared to grapple with power as it implicates your work as a media producer. You should be prepared to build and maintain digital systems, platforms, and development procedures that do not reproduce or reinforce harm. This is a goal that we are all, within the “big tent” of media production, broadly accountable to.
According to Safiya Nobel, “We need people designing technologies for society to have training and an education on the histories of marginalized people, at a minimum, and we need them working alongside people with rigorous training and preparation from the social sciences and humanities.”
Developers can no longer afford to uphold the appearance of neutrality. Mistaken or not, these appearances spell the beginning of the end if new media wants to stay on the cutting edge. Technological advancement can no longer be gauged solely by resolution, immersion, and interactivity. It will be determined by the stories we tell and who clears space to tell these stories.
In academia we require evidence that technology fields, particularly in the humanities, no longer project “friction-free,” neo-Cartesian engagements with the digital. The digital humanities, for instance, must provide evidence that we “are finally maturing from their critically naïve beginnings” (Losh and Wernimont). The infrastructure is political. What voices does your infrastructure amplify? What kind of storytelling does your grant enable? Who is telling those stories?
Now is the time to celebrate digital projects like Indigitization, The People and the Text, The Atikamekw Knowledge, Culture and Language in Wikimedia Project and Jordan Abel’s Injun. Now is the time to play games like Terra Nova, Sage Plains, and Thunderbird Strike. Now is the time to immerse yourself in Biidabaan: First Light, to binge watch Shadow of the Rogarou, to hack virtual systems.
Contending with legacies of power in the digital not only offers a potentially transformative cultural experience, it also represents an opportunity for us, as developers, programmers, designers, researchers and teachers, to collectively address problems endemic to our society. Doing so together–in the name of broad accountability–has material consequences. Marisa Duarte writes,
When we understand how colonization works, through technologies of reducing, mis-naming, particularizing, marginalizing, and ghettoizing, we can better appreciate practices that more accurately and precisely name, describe and colocate historically subjugated knowledge.“Imagining: Creating Spaces for Indigenous Ontologies”
When issues of power are taken up, carefully and responsibly, we give our audiences options. They can see the work of “disrupting” the digital not as an ideological imposition, but as a practical skill set necessary to meaningfully acknowledge and redress inherited legacies of violence. This is the work that is required of all of us now.
Social Justice and New Media Reading List
How does new media affect our daily lives? What are Indigenous artists doing to transform the web? Why does critical technology studies need critical race theory? If you’ve ever found yourself asking, what’s a story like you doing in a place like this? this list is a great place to start.
The following reading list represents a small space to for those who are looking to get started: a jumping off point. No more excuses. I’ve been inspired by all of these texts and go back to them often. If you want a job making video games, editing films, building apps, or programming AI, let technology be just one small piece of your training. Let the remainder be an ongoing relationship with power and the politics of storytelling.
If you are looking for new media assignments related to these texts, please visit this post or check out our world-building assignment based on Darcy Little Badger’s Elatsoe. If you are looking for swag associated with technology and social justice, visit the Leftist Lunchbox.
1) Marisa Duarte, Network Sovereignty: Building the Internet Across Indian Country
What does sovereignty look like beyond content and representation? Duarte’s work makes space to conceptualize new media materially by firmly anchoring technology in three key Indigenous studies tenets: land, decolonization, and self-determination. The result is a meticulous, practical, and theoretical grounding for digital scholarship. Network Sovereignty advances the conversation around Indigenous digital sovereignty by shifting the focus of her analysis to hardware and practical engineering. Information has the potential to galvanize and restore, to mobilize resistance and to facilitate cultural resurgence. However, if that information continues to move within and through colonial infrastructure, its potential impact is diluted. That’s not because the content is any less impactful within that container, although there are implications to be considered there, but because the continued use colonial/capitalist ICTs reinforces the need for the colonial/capitalist information infrastructure. It is how Duarte surfaces land in new media discourse that sets this book apart and makes it a must read for anyone looking to understand the material foundations of the digital as it pertains to colonialism.
2) Lisa Nakamura, Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet
There’s a lot of Lisa Nakamura on this list and for good reason. Nakamura might very well be the best and most influential writer of new media, race, and social justice. Her lucid prose and singular ability to parse new media content, from computer chips and virtual reality to Neutomancer and Snow Crash, changed the way so many readers (myself included) imagined what it means to study the digital. Cybertypes (2002) is, without hyperbole, the foundation for close reading in cyberspace. As none other than Donna Haraway puts it “Cybertypes shows how ‘doing virtuality’ is never unmarked. What we get from reading difference with Nakamura is a menu for change, not a recipe for more of the same.” If you want to start thinking about how race and social justice intersect with technology, Cybertypes should be the first book on your reading list because it illustrates how the lines between the virtual and the real have been blurred by the internet, with material consequence:
“Even as the Internet makes it increasingly difficult to police the line between the virtual and the ‘real,’ it is vitally important for cyberculture studies to ‘keep it real’–to remember that while race may be, in some sense, ‘virtual’ or at the very least culturally and discursively constructed as opposed to biologically grounded, racism both on- and offline are real.”
3) Ruha Benjamin, Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code
Benjamin’s book carefully unpacks the ways in which sociopolitical power, including racism and white supremacy, are folded into internet-based technologies. There are two ways to read this title of this book. The “race after technology” is, on the one hand, Moore’s Law in action: the omnipresent anxiety that we need to catch up to technology, or be left behind to suffer the consequences. The second way to read this title speaks to the ways in which technology creates and maintains identity: how it manufactures race. The two readings aren’t mutually exclusive. Benjamin illustrates how the pursuit of the new makes the second reading, which challenges the “neutrality” of the digital, more difficult to hear. Race After Technology is remarkable because, amidst the din of the new, Benjamin makes issues surrounding race, as it is informed and manufactured by technology, deeply resonant. That said, this book does not revel in the dystopia. Benjamin is not interested in a deficit model. Rather, her analysis highlights the potential of technology and the power it has in the contexts of segregation and colonialism. A must read and a great pair with Network Sovereignty.
4) Tahu Kukutai and John Taylor (eds), Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Towards an Agenda
One of the most significant differences DH scholars encounter when they foray into community-based research lies in data use and storage. Community data is, as Elizabeth Earhart, argues, deeply embodied and inextricably entertained with bodies and experiences. Within these contexts, extraction has a long-standing and damaging legacy, which are often antithetical to the open access models we work in. Since at least the onset of colonization, settler researchers have used data on Indigenous peoples to the benefit of their own careers, their field of research, or the “public good.” Highlighting the depth of the Indigenous data dilemma, as identified by UNDRIP, the essays in Indigenous Data Sovereignty provide theory and case studies demonstrating how the “data revolution” can be mobilized toward the self-determined collection of disaggregated data that reinforces Indigenous sovereignty and self determination.
5) Steven Loft & Kerry Swanson (eds), Coded Territories: Tracing Indigenous Pathways in New Media Art
Published in 2014, Coded Territories was one of the first collection of essays to focus exclusively on Indigenous new media and Indigenous digital practices. Building from the work that Loft began with Dana Claxon and Melanie Townsend in Transference, Tradition, Technology, this collection continues to demonstrate the breadth of perspective and innovation that Indigenous artists and technologists bring to the field of new media. Bearing witness to Âhasiw Maskêgon-Iskwêw’s work as a starting place, this book throws into relief the long histories of Indigenous media and “the creative drive that is at the heart of Indigenous survival.” Loft himself brings new insight to the the field via a reading of McLuhan’s media ecology. By moving away from mainstream conceptions of media ecology, he argues, “we posit a unique new media landscape not predicated on Western foundational thought but rooted in our own world views. These theories do not supersede or repudiate those of Western thought but can
be seen as distinct and in many ways complementary to other discourses.” Authors such as Jason Lewis, Candace Hopkins, and Archer Pechawis (amongst others) also share details of specific projects and the ideas, processes, and territories behind their research and creative practices and highlight key artistic works. Coded Territories is the perfect place to start if you want a broad scope introduction to the field of Indigenous new media and it’s key thinkers/developers.
6) Elizabeth Losh & Jacqueline Wernimont (eds), Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and the Digital Humanities
Teaching the Digital Humanities means first coming to terms with what DH is and how it fits within the larger scope of technology studies. What’s the difference between DH and new media, for instance? What counts as work in DH and whose labour is credited/creditable? Even further, in a humanities framework where the complexities of existence resist the reductions of quantification. what is data what is our responsibility to it? Bodies of Information is a great place to activate those questions and conversations. Foregrounding intersectional feminism as a window through which to complicate DH’s empowerment narrative, the essays in this collection offer deep and nuanced ways to think about the digital humanities that are grounded in the material and lived experiences of developers, collaborators, and end users. When we foreground the humanities in the digital and put people, bodies, and places at the centre of our engagement with technology, we expand DH in the directions most meaningful to its sustainability. Bodies of Knowledge opens the black box to illustrate nuanced and sophisticated critiques of tech that will elicit engagement from even the most code-adverse reader.
7) Julie Nagam, Carly Lane and Megan Tamati-Quennell (eds), Becoming Our Future: Global Indigenous Curatorial Practice
While I’m not trained in the fine arts, my own work in new media has been, increasingly, informed by curatorial practices. Leveraging the resources and opportunities available to me in the university has meant establishing best practices for collaborating with Indigenous new media artists and showcasing/amplifying their work while building capacity for the next generation. Platforms such as Deanna Reder’s The People and the Text, illustrate how careful and considered curation can amplify Indigenous voices and galvanize research communities. Becoming our Future is itself a beautifully curated collection of essays, by contributors from three countries, that illustrate how sovereignty and self-determination shape the gathering, mobilization, and interrelational contexts of Indigenous art. The sections of the book are organized around themes, rather than geographical regions, which articulate, challenge, and weave Indigenous curatorial practice in what Jolene Rickard identifies as webs of interralational Indigenous knowledge. Whether you are putting together a collection of work to study in class, building an Omeka site, or hosting a digital exhibit at your local gallery, this collection is a great way to think about how and why Indigenous art and culture is gathered, installed, and displayed. What a recording of the book launch here!
8) Safiya Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism
Safyia Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression is one of two data titles on this list (the other being Indigenous Data Sovereignty), but while data is core to both texts, they are also both about so much more. What both books illustrate is that control of data is inextricably intertwined with control of representation, stories, relationships. While many (including Google itself) would be quick to dismiss the idea that Google produces content, Noble’s book demonstrates how the search engine reproduces stereotypes and reinforces the power structures that dictate how certain stories, namely about black women, are read and received. Google is not in the information business, Nobel reminds us, they are in the advertising business. That means hemming in identity in ways that can be sold to marketers. Drawing library cataloguing systems into the conversation, while simultaneously highlighting the ways in which Google’s “information monopoly” alienates users from their own identities, Algorithms traces a clear path between data, technology, and social justice. Her case for the humanities, as a core technical skill and deliverable make this book a potent contribution to this list.
9) Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle
Granted, Society of the Spectacle might seem a little too mainstream for this list, especially compared to the other texts here. Do we really need a book from the canon in reading list about social justice and new media? Yes, if only because of the insight Debord provides into media as capitalism—not as a symptom of it, mind you, but as the disease itself. Debord’s deep dive into representation traces out a trajectory from the real to the screen and back and cogently illustrates the ways in which the screen has usurped the real. For Debord, the spectacle represents the “historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life.” Where I find Debord particularly useful is in his conceptualization of media not as object, but as a social relation mediated by images. This is an impoverished state of being for him, but the aim of his critique is not the content itself, but its reception. Debord argues that the real harm arises when we see the spectacle as an inevitable part of our reality, rather than a product of our particular historical moment, which provides some much need distance when attempting to read our post-pandemic, screen-centered reality.
10) Michelle Raheja, Reservation Reelism: Redfacing, Visual Sovereignty, and Representations of Native Americans in Film
Raheja’s Reservation Reelism is a tragically underutilized text in new media studies. Raheja is one of the foremost scholars of Indigenous film and this book is broadly referenced in film and Indigenous studies. But Raheja’s work resonates deeply with new media as well, demonstrating the sophisticated and layered ways in which what she calls the “virtual reservation” complicates Debordian media critiques that cast representation as the enemy of the real. Raheja’s work throws into relief the ways in which colonialism itself functions as simulacra and holds up the ways in which Indigenous virtual space negotiates dialectic relationships between knowledge systems and “the topography of real and imagined landscapes” (153). Unlike Debord, Raheja finds hope, imagination, and resurgence in screen culture, which can serve as productive third space to build capacity and resistance. We would be better served if more new media theorists and practitioners took up Raheja’s invitation to expand reservation reelism into video games, virtual and augmented realty, digital art, and the many other virtual spaces that Indigenous, Black, Queer, and other communities are populating and re-configuring for their own communities.
11) Lisa Nakamura, Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet
One more from Nakamura. Digitizing Race takes up where Cybertypes left off, by delving deeper into the production of race online by taking up the considerable GPU advancement in place since her first book was published. I love Digitizing Race because it so clearly paints out the stakes of digital representation. Through analysis of joke sites, online quizzes, Jennifer Lopez videos, and so much more, Nakamura cogently demonstrates how women and people of colour are constituting identity online and building virtual activation points that galvanize community. Nakamaura develops and deploys a methodology she coins “visual cultural studies”, which provides a lucid platform from which to comprehend how race and gender are collaboratively produced online. A great book to get students thinking critically about the digital spaces they populate and the material relation theses spaces have to bodies and communities.
12) Elizabeth Ellcessor, Restricted Access: Media, Disability, and the Politics of Participation
Admittedly, this is a field that I need to do more reading in. Like many instructors, the pandemic, and the rapid shift to online education that came with it, made me keenly aware of the contributions disability scholars have made to digital infrastructure. As we all scuttled awkwardly online, we quickly realized that technology is only as effective as a teaching tool when it is usable. Suddenly UX was the skill set that every teacher needed as we built platforms and modified tools for our new digital classroom. Through that lens, Restricted Access illustrated to me how technology and cyberspace is built to produce and maintain certain kinds of privilege, which is here defined around access. In fact, while technology is often identified as a solution to disability (or as prosthetic), Ellcessor illustrates how tech and the digital also reify and even create disability. Re-configuring how we conceive access and building tools that start from the assumption of broad, dynamic accessibility will provide for the base conditions necessary for a more revolutionary internet. Ellecessor identifies a number of pathways to accessibility through the development of an “access kit,” consisting of five tools: regulation, use, form, content, and experience. Through this kit, the book unfurls access as a process, rather that an end unto itself, and identifies design as a space to activate conversation about participation.
13) Jentery Sayers (ed), Making Things and Building Boundaries
This is a great book for a number of reasons, but I chose it for this list because it foregrounds maker spaces: that is places where we not only talk about technology, we also work with it, Sayers’ operating thesis in Making Things, at least as I read it, is that in our desire to mobilize technology, DH is prone to forgetting its greatest strengths, which are critical thinking, close reading, and human-centered knowledge production. Many of the tools we use in DH are delivered in a black box. When we assign a project to students with Google maps, we are handing them, not only a proprietary algorithm, but human bias programmed into code. Yet , because it promises speed and efficiency, it’s often easier, amidst the ongoing pressure to produce and publish, to just put the box to work, rather than unpacking, studying, and learning the circuity that defines it. Not knowing the circuity, however, not caring to, or claiming not have the time, is, as Sayers points out, a matter of privilege. Authors like Simone Browne and Ruha Benjamin demonstrate that inside the black box is the engine of “prototypical whiteness,” which operates based on the exclusion of particular bodies. Leveraging resources to understand and reconfigure the circuitry as sociopolitical software is a big part of Sayers’ approach to maker spaces. The essays in this book all provide tools and skills to open the black box and to build collaboration and capacity across and between new media and DH communities in spaces where we make and deconstruct together.
14) Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness
I considered putting Surveillance Capitalism on this list because it throws into relief how Google and Facebook have rendered their users into products—making all the more evident what Karl Marx once called the “vampire-like” nature of capitalism. In the end, however, I left it out because A) Zuboff doesn’t need any more press and B) when it comes to social justice, she’s not particularly intersectional. Simone Browne’s Dark Matters, on the other hand, illustrates the spaces where surveillance, capitalism, and colonialism intersect, and thus provide for Google’s lifeblood. Whereas Zuboff frames surveillance as inaugurated by technology, Browne illustrates it as a product of racism and antiblackness. In this sense, Dark Matters is more than a rigorous interrogation of new media (and, to be clear, it very much is this). It is also a stunning example of new media analysis taken up deep within the frameworks of social justice, to the very framing of surveillance as a technology of slavery. Browne’s work illustrates that technology is not just caught up in, but often constituted out of, intersections of power and our relationships to one another.
15) Kristen Dowell, Sovereign Screens: Aboriginal Media on the Canadian West Coast
Sovereign Screens illustrates the deep, relational networks that make up the Indigenous new media community in British Columbia. The argument is far from being land locked, however. The insight Dowell provides, foregrounding production and process over media the artifacts themselves, extends beyond BC’s arbitrary colonial borders into Indigenous film work as a galvanizing, political activation site. Dowell’s research practices, which emphasize community-engaged relationships (sometimes putting her in the editing bay) are a welcome example of what it means to study Indigenous media with and for community. Her emphasis on film as a social practice (not merely a product) brings new media out of the editing suite and onto the land. If sovereignty is defined on the screen by Indigenous-led creation, it is defined by mobilization toward a shared goal. Dowell shows us what media means as an act of making—and how politics are honed through aesthetic processes, community building, and shared resources. There is so much in the introduction alone that can be used for building lectures and assignments using maker sensibilities and Dowell’s articulation of media sovereignty through process.
16) Chris Patterson, Open World Empire: Race, Erotics, and the Global Rise of Video Games
More and more, my own research and teaching has centered on video games. Open source platforms like Twine and Bitsy provide accessible points of entry and challenge with Jentery Sayers identifies as the “toxic masculinity” associated with the genre. There are plenty of texts available that demonstrate critical engagement with video games, but none interrogate race, power, and masculinity like Open World Empire. Reading both corporate and indie games through overlayed prisms of asiatics and erotics, Patterson deftly illustrates the ways in which video games are caught up in global capitalism, imperial violence, and the information networks that fuel those engines. However, Open World’s biggest contribution is in the ways in which it articulates desire: namely the erotics of play and misbehavior (e.g. playing a game against or to the side of its intended use). Of course desire is directly correlated with power. It is in how video games manufacture cultures of alterity and marginalization, Patterson argues, “where even the rich, powerful… are made to either feel like victims, or to re-think how their roles in the world have led them to do what they do.” While video games are its activation point, I recommend this book as foundational reading for investigation of any new media platform that seeks to grapple with power and social justice.
17) Jennifer Wemigwans, Digital Bundles: Protecting and Promoting Indigenous Knowledge Online
A Digital Bundle continues a long conversation on Indigenous online presence, building from authors like Steven Loft, Marisa Duarte, Kim Christen, and Kate Hennessy, amongst others. However, what makes Wemigwans work stand out are the careful ways she thinks through intersections of the traditional and the technological, disrupting a colonial gaze that seeks to relegate Indigenous peoples and ideas to the past. Via engagement with FourDirectionsTeachings.com, which Weimigwans built and maintains, A Digital Bundle makes a clear case for the possibility of sovereign Indigenous digital content, grounded in theoretical engagement with Indigenous scholars such as Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, and Jeff Corntassle. At the centre of Wemigwans book is the argument that “it is possible to apply cultural protocols to the internet.” Designed and validated through nation-specific ways of knowing, the digital holds radical potential to support regeneration and resistance as well as Indigenous knowledge mobilization.
18) Joshua Whitehead, Full-Metal Indigiqueer
I had to put one piece of fiction on this list. I chose Full-Metal Indigiqueer because of the ways in which it locates Indigenous peoples within the digital infrastructure. Joshua Whitehead’s inaugural book, is a series of poems told through Zoa, a trickster figure rendered through the lens of technology. Whitehead combines the figures of the singularity, virus, and hacker into a narrator that inhabits and deconstructs media culture by infiltrating the digital and re-writing Western literary tropes. In doing so, Zoa re-centers queer Indigenous peoples within new media and makes space for voices that are typically relegated to the margins of pop culture. “H3R314M” (“here I am”), the text that opens the book, is the phrase through which Zoa locates themselves within the labyrinth of literary references and VR applications that make up Full-Metal. Whitehead’s approach, what I might even go so far as to name a paper prototype, unsettles the techno-utopia of settler society and with it the reconciliation narrative that we’ve attempted to wedge into the digital humanities. new media and makes space for voices that are typically relegated to the margins of pop culture. H3R314M is a call to recognize Indigenous peoples within the digital as innovators, designers, remixers, and disrupters.
19) Dylan Robinson, Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies
If you are from the Lev Manovich school of new media, sound studies is probably on the the far reaches of your new media inventory. Hungry Listening is not about the digital production of sound, or even recording sound for that matter, but I argue it is a key text for any new media or DH scholar working with or in community contexts because of how it articulates the relationship to cultural heritage objects. Robinson’s work identifies “hunger” as a relationship to art based on power and the desire to make things fit: “the felt confirmations of square pegs in square holes.” While he is writing to the ways in which national structures attempt to absorb Indigenous music here, the metaphor is deeply resonant in the digital as well. In DH, our work is so often to fit content into existing digital infrastructure, be that a CMS, a game engine, a tweet, etc. When the project becomes about achieving fit, Robinson argues, it mutes or deletes the the ways in which the content asserts cultural sovereignty and operates in relation to the observer/curator/listener. Opposed to achieving fit, Hungry Listening proposes a relational engagement that not only asks us to consider the relationship between researcher and content, but also the layers of positionality that make up both the content and the proposed container. As far as media go, sound may be one of the oldest, but Robinson’s approach to content, recording, and reception as a meeting of subjectivities makes it necessary reading for social-justice oriented new media scholarship.
If you prefer your new media theory in audio form, visit here.
20) Dorothy Kim and Jesse Stommel, (eds), Disrupting the Digital Humanities
“Difference is our operating system.” That’s the rallying cry that Cathy N. Davidson begins Disrupting the Digital Humanities with. It’s the perfect place to start. Davidson’s notion of “difference,” as taken up by Kim and Stommel, is central to the possibility of “disruption” inasmuch as DH can be seen as an engine of social justice. The essays in this collection amplifying marginalized voices, foreground educational reform, and draw attention to the ways in which new media cultivates unique networks and modes of communication. Difference and disruption are necessary because DH is never neutral. Technology is never neutral. Disrupting the Digital Humanities is therefore a call to action: a call “to resist, to hope, to protest, to play slant, to create communities, to demand change” by imagining the digital humanities as a political intervention. There are plenty of broad stroke DH collections out there, but Dorothy Kim and Jesse Stommel have produced the most socially relevant and impactful with this gathering of essays on race, gender, sexuality, disability, and social justice. There is so much productive content covered in this text, by so many key authors in the field of DH. And it’s affordable!