Glitch Art as a Critical Analysis of Race, Class, and Gender Online

I utilized glitch art to present my critical analysis because I am advocating for a disruption from the normal narrative. Glitch art creates something meaningful, different, odd, and unique by disrupting the formulaic and calculated use of code. The original picture was carefully crafted because the data was patterned in a specific way to present a particular narrative or capture a certain perspective. I am using glitch art to build off of that narrative and transform it into something different and better, something that the original piece never could have captured. In a similar way, I would like to see the Internet transformed into a space that actually fulfills the ideals it touts rather than perpetuating the same one-sided story that we’ve heard for years. The Internet needs to be more representative of the increasingly diverse and multifaceted reality that we inhabit.

More diverse representation needs to manifest itself on multiple levels. The faces of programming need to evolve because the creators of the technology control the narrative and tell us what to care about. If white males are singularly dominating the programming industry, then their interests and perspectives are the only ones represented. Similarly, the online culture needs to evolve in ways that are more inclusive and less hostile towards dissenting or differing opinions.

I wrote the word ‘corrupt’ into the code of each glitched image contained in this series. For the most part I glitched each piece differently, but I wanted this word to be the common thread that tied this body of work together. I want there to be a corruption in society’s code, which is reflected and amplified on the Internet. In another one of my courses, the focus is on social justice and I have come to understand how important this concept is to the very framework of democracy. The Internet has the potential to be the world’s most socially just forum, but at the moment it is not fulfilling that potential. The incorporation of multiple perspectives is a key aspect of social justice. One group’s interests and ideas cannot be prioritized above everyone else’s if there is to be any sense of fairness or progress. My use of the word ‘corrupt’ serves not only as a solution, but also as an identification. We need to be able to point out which systems and institutions are corrupt in order to balance the scales. The monopolization of resources surrounding technology is something that ought to be scrutinized and monitored more closely. Access to information and resources shouldn’t be so reliant on an individual’s socioeconomic standing.

As defined by the Glitch Art pool on “Flickr,” “Glitch is a short-lived fault or malfunction in the system.” I would argue that these inequalities themselves could be analyzed and corrected until they are nothing more than a glitch. It is my hope that this unbalanced treatment of those who are “other,” will eventually be nothing more than an unpleasant glitch in human history. The pessimist in me doesn’t think I’ll live to see that time, but it’s certainly an angle to consider and ideal to work towards.

The body of work that I created juxtaposes fairly simple original images against their bolder, glitched counterparts. I made very calculated decisions about how I was going to glitch the code of each image. The words and symbols that I typed into the code represented some facet of race, class, or gender in the context of that particular image. The overarching themes of the collection were interwoven into the code corruption patterns as well.

I titled the first set of images in my series, “Silicon Valley.” The original photograph depicts a deep, golden sun setting over a terrace in Silicon Valley. Most people associate Silicon Valley with lucrative Internet start up companies and the computer programming industry. The area is cast as the information and technology headquarters of the United States. I wanted to alter the serene and romantic depiction of this affluent area in order to communicate the rampant inequalities in the tech industry. As mentioned earlier, I typed the word ‘corrupt’ into the pristine coding of the original image. I scattered money symbols throughout the code to highlight the hugely unequal salaries of men and women in Silicon Valley. According to Mother Jones, “Women make 49 cents for every dollar men make in Silicon Valley,” (Kroll). That ratio is substantially lower than the gender pay gap in the rest of the country. To add insult to injury, there are a shockingly low numbers of both female and minority employees in this booming sector of the economy.

The resulting image was more of a green hue and looked more ominous and foreboding than the initial picture. The idyllic scene was fractured and spliced in the second image, which is indicative of what I think should happen in Silicon Valley. I find the exclusion of almost entire demographics to be troubling and suspicious. In order to critique the current makeup of the region, I cut entire chunks of the existing code and repasted them into completely different lines. This code alteration reflects my belief that Silicon Valley needs to shift its demographics and income distribution. In her article, “Cybertyping and the work of Race in the Age of Digtal Reproduction,” Lisa Nakamura discusses the concept of, “cosmetic multiculturalism,” (Nakamura 327) in Silicon Valley. Essentially Nakamura notes that there are very few American minorities, most notably African Americans, working in the technology industry but immigrants and foreign workers create the cosmetic illusion of diversity. Black people essentially disappear online since they don’t have an active role in creating the programs and elements of the Internet. The only perspectives creating the shape and feel of the Internet are white and male.

The second pair of images in my compilation showcases the Statue of Liberty in two very different conditions. This pairing is called “Meritocracy,” in order to draw attention to the terminology used to perpetuate certain myths about the Internet. The Internet is always associated with these notions of freedom and collaboration, but discriminatory and misogynistic behaviors are often heightened online. The title is derived from the notion that any individual or group of individuals in a position of power or wealth arrived there solely based off of their own merits and hard work. Operating off of this assumption, women and minorities don’t succeed to the same degree as white men because they don’t work as hard.

I wanted the two images of the statue of liberty to address some of the hypocrisies of online behavior and culture. “The ideas of freedom and openness can be used to dismiss concerns and rationalize the gender gap as a matter of preference and choice,” (Reagle). In this glitching scenario I was much more focused on the outcome than the process. In “Silicon Valley,” my critical process revolved around which characters to utilize when disrupting the code. In contrast, the symbolism of the statue of liberty being manipulated and skewed was my main focus. I wanted the ultimate symbol of American meritocracy and democracy to be warped in order to debunk some of the overly idealized representations of the Internet. It is painted as this utopian, egalitarian ideal that fully embodies the American spirit, but I wanted to point out that it also has dismissive and exclusionary tendencies. Typically, any criticism of the blatant sexism and racism online incites a frenzy of combative and defensive online commenters who reaffirm the initial criticisms through these vicious contributions. The Internet isn’t necessarily as fair and democratic as it presents itself.

“Mirror,” is one of the less jarring image comparisons in my series, and I was disappointed by that outcome initially. Yet as I critically analyzed the images I realized that it was almost better that the glitching effect hadn’t been so dramatic. The symbolism in this piece was to hold up a literal mirror to our Internet culture to illustrate how similar it is to our day to our societal values and prejudices. The very subtle differences between the original mirror and the glitched mirror speak to that point. I think that our behaviors and language may be amplified and intensified on the Internet but they are certainly reflected back at us. In a manner of speaking, the Internet is a painfully honest reflection of culture. I segmented out a huge section in the code and wrote, “The Internet is not a vacuum!” The damage and harassment that people suffer online isn’t isolated and confined to the Internet; it seeps into other aspects of a victim’s life.I think that the image I chose was too big to glitch in any significantly noticeable way. My inability to glitch the image to my satisfaction brings to mind the attempts to monitor the Internet and hold users accountable for the things they say online. In my opinion, these attempts are largely ineffective because the Internet is so vast and it allows people the safety of anonymity.

Online inequalities are a reflection of real world inequalities. They are simply more veiled because the Internet hides behind the aforementioned rhetoric of democracy and meritocracy. The Internet does not exist in a separate reality or in a vacuum; it is infused with the prejudices and values of its users and creators. Nakamura mentions the translation of stereotypes into cyberspace as “cybertypes.” “Cybertypes are the images of race that arise when the fears, anxieties, and desires of privileged Western users (the majority of Internet users and content producers are still from the Western nations) are scripted into a textual/graphic environment that is in constant flux and revision,” (Nakamura 319). The cybertypes reflect the more subconscious images of race that manifest themselves in western culture and Internet use. Internet culture recasts a combination of historical and contemporary ideas, values and disparities into a new media forum.

The next pair of images almost doesn’t even appear to match at first glance. Before I destroyed the code, the image was a satirical cartoon of a woman holding a hammer accompanied by text that said, “Smash the Patriarchy!” I chose this image because it seemed like such a stereotypical portrayal of a “feminist.” This is the type of woman that gets demonized and verbally torn apart by misogynistic comments in online forums. By altering the code, I was symbolically challenging the norms and stereotypes that online antagonists cast upon all women who engage online. I want to challenge these obstacles that drive women to engage less online than men. To build upon that point, I incorporated the number twenty-five into the code in order to represent the startling correlation between female usernames and online harassment. A study by the University of Maryland reported that, “chat room participants with female usernames received 25 times more threatening and/or sexually explicit private messages than those with male or ambiguous usernames.” Although females are avid technology users, they are actively discouraged from participating in online culture. Females feel driven to hide their identities online in order to protect themselves. Effectively, it is safer and easier to stay silent than to be unnecessarily harassed for simply identifying as female

Additionally, there is a tendency in Internet culture to seek out an authentic or native identity in order to understand someone different or other. Nakamura points out this misguided attempt at understanding an individual’s essence can result assigning identities to individuals that they don’t personally identify with. “Attributing essential qualities to women and people of color can reproduce a kind of totalizing identity which reproduces the old sexist and racist ideologies,”(Nakamura 320). I think that this is relevant in the discussion of women and Internet culture because often times we are grouped along with certain traits or behaviors whether or not we actually identify with them. In glitching this stereotypical image of a feminist, I was trying to contest these assigned cybertypes and stereotypes.

I think that female voices and perspectives should be more prevalent both online and in the production of technology and technological platforms. An article in The Nation recounted an instance in which Twitter’s blocking feature changed in a way that left female users more vulnerable. Twitter changed the blocking policy so that if a user with a public profile blocked someone, the blocked account could still view his or her tweets. To most male users this wouldn’t seem like a major change, but female users who are more apt to be stalked or harassed online took issue with these new guidelines. Twitter promptly apologized and fixed the situation but the author of this article suggested a way that the social networking site could have skipped the entire conflict. If there were high ranking females working at Twitter, they probably could have anticipated this concern. In the interest of satisfied customers and a more smoothly function business, Twitter could have benefited from female perspectives on its staff.

One of my favorite glitches to create was the image labeled, “Digital Divide.” I used a picture of the globe to represent this perception of universal connectedness that people tend to attach to the Internet. I glitched the perfect globe in order to illustrate the more distorted reality of the situation. The digital divide is a societal division that allows some people easy access to technology, while others with fewer resources are effectively marginalized. Access to technology and information resources is partially reliant on wealth. Those who can access the most cutting edge digital technology tend to be white and western. As a symptom of that privilege white Internet users tend to assume that all other users are white as well. The digital divide addresses the issue of socioeconomic class as it relates to the Internet. A lower socioeconomic class places individuals on the other side of the Digital Divide and puts them at a disadvantage in an increasingly digital and technology-driven world.

Aside from the commonly accepted definition, I think that the digital divide can represent the perceived difference between conduct online and conduct in real life. People often view their online life as separate from their real life. Personally, I think that the two are inextricably connected but many Internet users identify with the former notion. This definition of the digital divide doesn’t necessarily concern issues of disproportionate access or wealth but my alteration of the definition is a different form of critical analysis drawn from a glitch.

I glitched the icon for the social media website Tumblr in order to critically analyze “trolls” in Internet culture. A lot of the toxic and discriminatory Internet behaviors occur on social networking sites such as Tumblr and Twitter, where strangers interact and engage with one another. When I corrupted the code of the Tumblr icon, I deleted entire portions of html to represent the voices that “trolls,” silence online. These Internet trolls think that the Internet is their domain and that they shouldn’t have to censor themselves or consider the feelings of others. I find this ironic because their unchecked behavior effectively silences and censors other Internet users.

Internet trolls often engage in the public shaming or intimidation of web users who disagree with their perspectives or differ from them in a way that they perceive to be threatening. In a way, these online trolls suppress our First Amendment rights online. The criticism and death threats have a chilling effect on speech. The misogynistic and racist bullying often drowns out the perspectives that would democratize and diversify the Internet. It’s ironic that any movement towards actualizing the widely circulating narrative of the web as an accepting space for collaboration and democracy in its truest, most unregulated form are met with such harsh and vehement criticism.

In her article, “Cyber Civil Rights,” Danielle Keats Citron recognizes that there is a criminal aspect to how these online mobs and trolls conduct themselves and interact with other Internet users. The harassment inflicted by online mobs is generally directed towards members of subjugated groups. Online mobs pose a threat to the very fabric of society because they prevent groups such as women and minorities in contributing to dialogues and run the risk of physically endangering individual’s security. Internet “trolls,” should be held more accountable for the havoc they wreak on Internet culture and societal dynamics overall.

I also corrupted the code with question marks to indicate my confusion about “trolling,” as a practice. I don’t really understand why people engage in this type of toxic behavior as a past time or a sport. I think that trolls often hide behind the anonymity of the Internet to combat an increasingly diverse world that is hard for them to conceptualize and understand. This relates back to Nakamura’s earlier point that cybertyping is the result of fears and misconceptions translated into cyberspace. The final image was about half the size of the original icon, which I thought was fitting considering the subject matter. Again, I think that the substantial shrinking of the image reflects the drowning of voices and perspectives that results from “troll” behavior online.

I used Apple’s icon to create the “Apple Monopoly,” piece of Glitch Art. I wanted to make a critical commentary about Apple’s monopolization of the tech industry. I pasted chunks of the same text in different parts of the code to illustrate the uniformity that could preside if we continue to let these monopolies dictate the power structure of the Internet. I wrote the word conformity into the code to challenge the complacency with which we accept these companies monopolization of major industries.

Chris Anderson and Michael Wolfe’s article, “The Web is Dead Long Live the Internet,” makes some grim forecasts about the future of global technology. More and more people are accessing the Internet off of mobile devices and other portable platforms other than computers. This is shifting the technology power structure into the hands of the few and creating monopolies. Most people have Apple or Android phones, there is little other smartphone competition, which allows almost complete control of the prices and points of access. The economically disadvantaged don’t have the resources to pay for these expensive phones and data plans, and consequently run the risk of being locked out of the information industry.

Those controlling and shaping the public discourse have a vested interest in keeping certain inequalities alive and well. It’s in Apple’s best interest to monopolize computer programming in technology because their monopoly allows them to control the flow of information and manage prices in a way that maximizes their profits.

The glitch entitled, “Micro-Aggression,” deals specifically with the unique and often negative experiences of minority Internet users. As I was disrupting the code, I wrote that, “race exists online.” I think that this was an important analysis to make because there is this idealized notion that you can be whoever you want to be online and it is so liberating. In actuality whoever you want to be almost always ends up being white because, even on the Internet white people enjoy a higher degree of privilege and respect. Once I glitched the image, it was splashed with the color purple and some of the micro-aggressions written on the signs were disrupted and pixelated. I wasn’t sure how my distortion of the code would look as a final product, but I think that the image lined up perfectly with the criticism that I was trying to communicate.

Jamie Nesbitt Golden, an established journalist and a woman of color, was treated substantially different on twitter when she changed her thumbnail from her own picture to a picture of a white male. Immediately after she changed her picture, she noticed a difference in the expletives and racial slurs that people directed at her twitter handle. Once she returned to her true identity, people began treating her with a lesser degree of respect and addressing her with more inflammatory language. The differences in treatment that Golden experienced illustrates the privileges and freedoms and privileges that white men experience, even online. I think that Golden’s experience is the perfect illustration of online micro-aggressions in action. It’s so much easier to perpetuate and normalize these micro-aggressions online.

The Internet brings up this tension between embracing diversity and being “colorblind.” It’s a paradox to do both but that is what we proclaim to be doing both online and in this globalizing, blending world. This tension is representative of the persistent and pervasive struggle that characterizes global life in the modern age.

In a Flickr discussion about approaches to creating Glitch art, one artist, Detemkin, commented, “It’s the hands-on approach that appeals to me about databending, so usually experimentation comes first, and concepts develop from the work,”(Detemkin). I definitely identify with Detemkin, regarding my approach to producing glitch art. It’s interesting to just play around with the code, manipulate it, and see what happens. Although, I intentionally input particular words or symbols, I never had a specific resulting image in mind when I began the glitching process. I am trying to convey a particular message, which is why I choose a specific image to glitch, but the trial and error process reveals concepts and aesthetics that I couldn’t possibly have imagined on my own.

As a woman of color, issues of race, class, and gender are constantly on my mind. It was refreshing to explore these issues through a completely different platform. The process of glitching and interpreting the resulting images pushed me to think critically and analyze in a way that I am not accustomed to. I don’t generally consider myself to be a creative person, but I enjoyed transforming plain and simple images into a comples social and political commentary.

Works Cited

Anderson, Chris and Wolfe Michael. “The Web is Dead Long Live the Internet.”Web. http://www.wired.com/2010/08/ff_webrip/

Citron, Danielle Keats. “Cyber Civil Rights.” http://www.bu.edu/law/central/jd/organizations/journals/bulr/volume89n1/documents/CITRON.pdf

Reagle, Joseph. “Free as in Sexist? Free Culture and the Gender Gap.” http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4291/3381

Golden, Jamie Nesbitt. “Why I’m Masquerading as a White Bearded Hipster Guy on Twitter.”http://www.xojane.com/issues/why-im-masquerading-as-a-bearded-white-hipster-guy-on-twitter

The Nation. “Twitter’s Blocking Flub Might Have Been Prevented if the Company Weren’t Dominated by Men.” http://www.thenation.com/blog/177588/twitters-blocking-flub-might-have-been-prevented-if-company-werent-dominated-men

University of Maryland. http://www.ece.umd.edu/News/news_story.php?id=1788

Detemkin. http://vagueterrain.net/content/2010/06/flickr-glitch-artists

Nakamura, Lisa. “Cybertyping and the work of Race in the Age of Digital Reproduction.”http://www.archivefilter.net/luc/nakamura.pdf

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