February 27, 2012

BlackBerry article shows primitive Indian

BlackBerry Season

By James SurowieckiFive years ago, Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry, was one of the most acclaimed technology companies in the world. The BlackBerry dominated the smartphone market, was a staple of the business world, and had helped make texting a mainstream practice. Terrifically profitable, the phone became a cultural touchstone—in 2006, a Webster’s dictionary made “CrackBerry” its word of the year.

These days, it seems more like the SlackBerry. Thanks to the iPhone and Android devices, R.I.M.’s smartphone market share has plummeted; in the U.S., according to one estimate, it fell from forty-four per cent in 2009 to just ten per cent last year. The BlackBerry’s reputed addictiveness now looks like a myth; a recent study found that only a third of users planned to stick with it the next time they upgraded. R.I.M.’s stock price is down seventy-five per cent in the past year, and two weeks ago the company was forced to bring in a new C.E.O. The Times wondered recently whether the BlackBerry will go the way of technological dodoes like the pager.
Nothing wrong with this article except the illustration:

A letter written in response:

Re: BlackBerry SeasonAs a Cherokee citizen and avid social-media user, I was disappointed by the illustration accompanying James Surowiecki’s recent article on the BlackBerry’s failure to adjust to consumer demands (The Financial Page, February 13th & 20th). Illustrating that message with a cartoon image of an Indian sending smoke signals perpetuates the stereotype that Native Americans are stuck in a time warp, when in fact many tribes are technologically savvy. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma has its own immersion school where students communicate entirely in Cherokee and often use their iPads or iPhones to do so. Cherokee is one of only fifty or so languages that Apple includes in its O.S. Not surprisingly, Apple doesn’t include smoke signals. May I suggest using Polybius with his torches to illustrate an article about outdated technology?

Talia E. Myres
Tulsa, Okla.
Comment:  The problems here are obvious. Using a racial stereotype to illustrate primitiveness. Within the primitive context, showing the Indian as less knowledgeable than someone else. So this Indian is primitive-squared: primitive compared to 21st-century tech users and primitive compared to his own contemporaries.

It would've been easy to reverse this image. Say a cowboy is struggling with smoke signals on one side of a mountain. "I can't figure out this durn technology," he says as he sends up misshapen blobs of smoke. Meanwhile, an Indian on the other side of the mountain sends the advanced smoke signals as shown. Message: Indian smart, white man stupid.

That didn't happen because it didn't fit with the editors' preconceived mindset. To them, Indians are primitive savages ignorant of technology. Never mind that (some) Indians knew more about astronomy, agriculture, and medicine than their European contemporaries. Or that today's Indians are just as tech-savvy as anyone else.

For more on the subject, see The Last Acceptable Racism and Indians Shoot Arrows in New Yorker Cartoon.

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