The Racial Interface: The Computational Origins of Minority Modeling

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Huan He


This article compares two so-called “success stories”: Asian/Americans and computers. In the late 1960s and 1970s, as computers transformed from threatening, wartime machines to user-friendly personal devices, so too did Asian/Americans shift from “yellow peril” to “model minority” citizens. Engaging histories of Asian/America, media art, and information technologies, this article explores the interpenetration of racial and computational forms, logics, and operations within the structures of US liberal capitalism. It examines the discourse surrounding computer scientist Jeffrey Chuan Chu, Japanese American model minorities, and Douglas Engelbart’s Graphic User Interface (GUI) alongside a central case study of Nam June Paik’s drawing Untitled (TV Face) (1980) and digital artwork Confused Rain (1967). By tracking the emergence of two visual abstractions—the model minority and the computer interface—I theorize “minority modeling” as a racial interface, a representational myth that promotes the dual operations of individualist empowerment and structural obfuscation. While liberal histories of race and computation prop up narratives of social progress and assimilation, Paik’s art offers an aesthetics of indeterminacy that emphasizes the irresolvable contradictions linking Asian/American racialization and computational technologies.

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