In my last post, I told you a little bit about Lisa Nakamura, her research, and the talk she gave at my university about Tumblr activism. I also promised to tell you about her second lecture the next time I wrote.
Both of Nakamura’s lectures were about digital media, but unlike her first talk, her second presentation focused on the physical material of digital technology.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, or recently time-travelled to 2015, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that most of your digital hardware came from Asia. You may even be familiar with the way Asian women have been racialized as innately predisposed to factory work because of their “supposed docility, nimble fingers and attention to mind-numbing detail”.
However, you might be surprised to learn that this stereotype has been applied to women of colour ever since the digital revolution. In her paper on “Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Electronics Manufacture” Nakamura examines the way digital factory work is both gendered and racialized. She refers to the work of Karen Hossfeld when she insists that
“…by the eighties in Silicon Valley, electronic assembly had become, not just women’s work but women of color’s work.” (290)
While other scholars have noted the way racialized attributes, like “nimble fingers,” have been attributed to female factory workers throughout the third world, Nakamura looks specifically at the way Navajo women were characterized the same way in the 60’s and 70’s. In her pice on “Indigenous Circuits”, Nakamura examiners the Fairchild Corporation’s Semiconductor plant, which operated on a Navajo reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico from 1965-1975. While the company was undoubtedly drawn to the reservation by “cheap, plentiful, skillful workers, and tax benefits” (924), Fairchild attributed the plant’s success to the Navajo women by framing them as predisposed towards this kind of work. Nakamura performs a close reading of a Fairchild brochure to demonstrate how the company used race and gender stereotypes to rationalize low pay and poor conditions .
Fairchild’s 1969 brochure, which celebrated the opening of the Shiprock, New Mexico plant, includes several colourful images. According to Nakamura, these images were chosen to convince readers that Navajo women are physically and culturally suited for building semiconductors. The chosen images feature Navajo women as they build a semiconductor, or weave a tradition rug. The brochure also includes a close up image of a semiconductor juxtaposed with an image of a Navajo rug. These images help readers associate building a semiconductor with the traditional craft of weaving a rug.
“building electronic devices, transistors and integrated circuits, also requires this same personal commitment to perfection [as weaving]. And so, it was very natural that when Fairchild Semiconductor needed to expand its operations, its managers looked at an area of highly skilled people living in and around Shiprock, New Mexico.” (928)
By comparing the traditional Navajo practice of weaving to the work being done in the semiconductor factory, Fairchild suggests that building semiconductors, like weaving traditional rugs, is a “labour of love” (921). This comparison goes beyond basic racialization to present factory labour as an expression of Navajo cultural heritage.
The Fairchild plant closed after a protest by the American Indian Movement in 1975. According to Nakamura,
“Fairchild cited the unstable labor environment as the reason, but many suspected that this had to do with a desire to move all operations offshore, where wages were even lower than they were in Navajo country, and workers less inclined to protest conditions (935-936).”
Nakamura’s research on “”Indigenous Circuits” reminds readers that race and gender stereotypes have consistently been used to rationalize company choices that were, in fact, motivated by economic convenience. Her work also warns against the contemporary stereotypes that rationalize off-shore labour; stereotypes that cast Asian women as the ideal workforce because of their “nimble fingers” and “docile” nature.
By identifying these racial and gender stereotypes, Nakamura reminds digital tech users that the people who assemble our computers and smart phones are no more predisposed to factory work than any one of us.
At the end of Nakamura’s talk, one audience member asked “What can we do?How can we make more ethical choices?” These were questions that Nakamura couldn’t really answer. We may know about the poor conditions in most Chinese factories, but digital technology is such a ubiquitous part of our lives that it is difficult to find employment, or even access post-secondary education, without owning a computer and a smartphone. Additionally, as our technology becomes ever more “black boxed”, we succumb to its planned obsolescence because we know it is far easier to replace our gadgets than fix them up.
So what can we do? There is no excuse to continue hiding behind the race and gender stereotypes that have allowed us to rationalize exploitative labour throughout history. We know it is time to make a change, but how do we change a system that has become so thoroughly embedded?
What do you think?
* I’ve gone back and made several changes to this article because the Computer History blog post that I originally cited has been taken down. You can see the original paper by Nakamura and the brochure images she discusses on her website.