“GhettoTracker.com” : Technology, Race, and Place

Web developers created a site called “GhettoTracker.com” which PandoDaily yesterday called “the worst site on the Internet” for its thinly veiled racism.  The stockphoto of an uber-white family on the main page raised the question for at least one reporter if the site might not be satirical.

(Image originally at GhettoTracker.com – screenshot from PandoDaily)

When the site’s creator was asked whether the site was meant as satire, he gave the confusing answer:

“The only thing that’s satire is the name, and I’d classify it as more tongue-in-cheek. The functionality is very real and serious.”

The “very real and serious” function of the site can only be understood within the context of the (imagined) white family who would be threatened by a “ghetto.” Yet, the site’s supposed “ghettos” aren’t identified based on actual crime statistics, or any data, but rather they are determined by the site’s users and delineated by their prejudices. Yet, when people responded negatively to the site, the creator was reportedly “surprised.” 

In some ways, the developer shouldn’t have been surprised given the flop of the racist “Avoid Ghetto” app last year. Although, as Gawker points out, such a worldview would not be out-of-place in Silicon Valley, which has turned its disrupting gaze towards weeding out less fortunate members of society.

In the day or so since then, the URL has been redirected to “Good Part of Town,” and the stockphoto of the white family replaced with one of a black family.


(screenshot from Gawker)

The shift from “GhettoTracker” to “Good Part of Town,” along with the shifting iconography of white to black family, suggests a shift from race to class as the main signifier but is no less offensive for this shift.

As with the “Avoid Ghetto” app debacle of last year, this current eruption of racism disturbs the usual ‘colorblind’ discussions about technology. For a time, many leading scholars of technology assumed we were entering a colorblind techno-future.  That turned out not to be the case.

Rather than using Internet technology to “escape” racialized embodiment and spaces, human beings have continually invented new ways to reinscribe race on place and bodies.

Internet technologies like “GhettoTracker” are also revealing for what they tell us about the white fear of crime (part of the white racial frame) and the construction of so-called ‘bad’ neighborhoods. The reality is that “high risk” neighborhoods are most dangerous to those who are living in them, most often poor people, not the more affluent people who are driving through them. To the extent that race and class are mapped onto each other, technologies such as “GhettoTracker” will continue to appeal to their intended audience.

Race and Racism Online: What the Research Tells Us

The Internet is changing us.  It’s changing how we acquire knowledge, how we communicate, how we connect with one another.   Today, some 15 years into the scholarship of the Internet, researchers are just beginning to look at how race and racism are (and are not) changing by and through the way we use the Internet.  Over the next week or so, I’m going to be writing a series of posts about what the research tells us about race and racism online.   I’ll also point out spots along the way that, in my view, are understudied and need someone to turn a critical eye toward.

(Creative Commons License photo credit: Xelcise )

RACE & STRUCTURE OF THE INTERNET. While we may not think of the Internet as having been invented, but in fact it was, at a particular place and time.   The combination of technologies that has come to be known as the popular Internet was developed in a number of specific geographic places, institutional contexts and historical moments.  For more about this history, see  Berners-Lee, T. and M. Fischetti  Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor, 2nd ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).   This narrative is compelling, but to date, no one has offered a thorough examination of the ways that race was, and continues to be, implicated in the structure of the invention of the Internet.
INFRASTRUCTURE & DESIGN. Scholar Tyrone Taborn notes that the role of black and brown technology innovators has largely been obscured (Taborn, 2007). As Sinclair observes, “The history of race in America has been written as if technologies scarcely existed, and the history of technology as if it were utterly innocent of racial significance” (Sinclair, B. (ed.) (2004) Technology and the African-American Experience: Needs and Opportunities for Study. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p.1).

Yet, race is implicated in the very structure of the “graphic user interface” (GUI).  For example, Anna Everett observes that she is perpetually taken aback by DOS-commands designating a “Master Disk” and “Slave Disk,” a programming language predicated upon a digitally configured “master/slave” relationship with all the racial meanings coded into the hierarchy of command lines (Everett, 2002, ‘The Revolution Will Be Digitized: Afrocentricity and the Digital Public Sphere’, Social Text 20(2):125-146., p.125).

Nakamura writes that the drop-down menus and clickable boxes that are all too often used to categorically define `race’ online are traced back to the fact that race is a key marketing category (Nakamura, 2002). Beyond the selection and targeted-marketing via race, elements of the interface are racialized.  The nearly ubiquitous white hand-pointer acts as a kind of avatar that in turn becomes ‘attached’ to depictions of white people in advertisements, graphical communication settings, and web greeting cards (White, M., The body and the screen: theories of Internet spectatorship. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006). The images of racial or ethnic minorities and their relationship to IT infrastructure and design is either to the role of consumers or of operators of the technological wizardry created by whites.

Assumptions about the whiteness embedded in the infrastructure and design gets spoken when there are ruptures in that sameness, such as the introduction of an African-American-themed web browser, Blackbird which I wrote about here in 2008.   While Blackbird caused quite a stir among those who had operated on the assumption of a race-blind Internet,  the development of a racially-themed browser is not qualitatively different from, but rather an extension of, the racially targeted marketing facilitated by drop-down menus and clickable boxes.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back tomorrow to discuss some of what the research tells us about race and mobile technology.