Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Sociology Of Race And Racism In The Digital Society

sagepub  |  An early reader of this article posed a provocative question: is there anything analytically distinct about the Internet? My answer revealed my priors. “Of course the Internet is distinct,” I wanted to say. But that is arguing from an embarrassingly basic logical fallacy. The question of what the Internet does analytically that, say, “capital” or “economy” or “culture” or “organizations” does not already do is important. My answer is debatable, but the debate is worthwhile. I do not know if the Internet adds something analytically distinct to our social inquiries, but it adds something analytical precision. Other constructs capture important dimensions of social life in a digital society. For instance, one can argue that Silicon Valley is a racial project (Noble and Roberts 2019; Watters 2015) or a sociohistorical construction of racial meanings, logics, and institutions (Omi and Winant 2014). White racial frames (Feagin 2020) or color-blind racism (Bonilla-Silva 2006) can elucidate how ironic humor about Black people, Muslims, and immigrants in online gaming platforms reproduces “offline” racism (Fairchild 2020; Gray 2012). These are just two examples of noteworthy approaches taken to studying Internet technologies and “mainstream” sociological interests (i.e., economic cultures and discourses, respectively). Still, sociological practice does not systematically engage with the social relations of Internet technologies as analytical equals to the object of study. If there is anything particular about Internet technologies for sociological inquiry, we should make it explicit. And once explicit, we should give it the same theoretical care as states, capital, and power. Daniels (2013) points us in the right direction when she argued that

the reality is that in the networked society . . . racism is now global . . ., as those with regressive political agendas rooted in white power connect across national boundaries via the Internet, a phenomenon that runs directly counter to Omi and Winant’s conceptualization of the State as a primary structural agent in racial formation.

Daniels named to the global nature of both racism and the networks of capital we gesture to when we say Internet or digital. It is an argument for bringing back the political economy of race and racism. Internet technologies are specific in how they have facilitated, legitimized, and transformed states and capital within a global racial hierarchy. An app with which underemployed skilled labor sells services to customers (e.g., TaskRabbit) might be a U.S. racial project. But the capital that finances the app is embedded in transnational capital flows. Global patterns of racialized labor that determine what is “skill” and what is “labor” mediate the value of labor and the rents the platform can extract for mediating the laborer-customer relationship. Even the way we move money on these platforms—“Cash App me!”—is networked to supranational firms such as PayPal and Alibaba (Swartz 2020). Internet technologies have atomized the political economy of globalization with all the ideas about race, capital, racism, and ethnicity embedded within. An understanding of the political economy of Internet technologies adds a precise formulation of how this transformation operates in everyday social worlds: privatization through opacity and exclusion via inclusion. Both characteristics are distinctly about the power of Internet technologies. And each characteristic is important for the study of race and racism. Understanding platform capitalism helps us understand how these two characteristics are important.

Internet technologies have networked forms of capital (Srnicek and De Sutter 2017; Zhang 2020), consolidated capital’s coercive power (Azar, Marinescu, and Steinbaum forthcoming; Dube et al. 2020), flattened hierarchical organizations (Treem and Leonardi 2013; Turco 2016), and produced new containers for culture (Brock 2020; Noble 2018; Patton et al. 2017; Ray et al. 2017). By that definition, the Internet has amplified and reworked existing social relations. Platform capitalism moves us toward the analytical importance of Internet technologies as sociopolitical regimes. Platforms produce new forms of currency (i.e., data) and new forms of exchange (e.g., cryptocurrencies), and they structure new organizational arrangements among owners, workers, and consumers (see “prosumers”). Even more important for the study of race and racism, platforms introduce new layers of opacity into every facet of social life.