Huan He holds one of the greatest Twitter handles despite not being all that active on Twitter. He also has a PhD in American Studies & Ethnicity from the University of Southern California where he wrote the dissertation, “The Racial Interface: Informatics and Asian/America.” [Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.]

Q: Tell me a little about your scholarly background and research.

A: My scholarly background is primarily in cultural studies and literary studies but with a training in ethnic studies; I primarily identify as an Asian Americanist. The questions I ask are at the intersection of race and technology, specifically thinking about racial narratives of assimilation, foreignness, migration, and labor that shape how we talk about information technology. But I also think about the counter: how technologies shape ideas of race. My current book project is titled “The Racial Interface: Asian Racialization and the Dreams of the Digital.” Its central claim is an interpretation of the history of digital and information technology as an assimilation narrative bolstered by racial discourse. The narrative of tech development (computers as wartime era machines to user-friendly devices) is an assimilation narrative that you can track in the racialization of Asians in the US (from Yellow Peril foreigners to model citizens). I’m interested in how these narratives converge and what that reveals about the intersections between race and tech formation.

Q: What sorts of texts do you examine in your work?

A: One of my chapters puts Isamu Noguchi’s work in conversation with Norbert Wiener’s classified document, “Yellow Peril.” Noguchi was a modernist sculptor who designed a garden for IBM called “Garden of the Future,” which is basically a monument to the future of computers. This project traces back to Noguchi’s self-interment in a Japanese internment camp in the 1940s, where he tried to sculpt and organize the camp such that Japanese internees felt more human through access to crafts and gardening. Though I have ambivalent feelings about this project, I’m interested in it because it’s a project about crafting an idealized American citizen-subject for Japanese-Americans who at the time were racialized as unpredictable foreigners despite being American citizens. “Yellow Peril,” which outlines Wiener’s wartime theories of cybernetics, has nothing to do with race—it is called that because the document was entirely yellow and contains really difficult mathematical theorizations. By putting Noguchi and Wiener together, I explore how predictive science emerged alongside sentiments about Japanese unpredictability. In this way, we can think about how the internment camp itself models a type of data capturing project.

Q: You have a background in poetry. How does this fit into or influence your scholarly work?

A: I’ve been trying to make sense of that myself. The main reason I began to write poetry more seriously was that my academic voice felt stale on the page even when I had good ideas and analysis; poetry helped enliven my relationship to the page. With most of my poetry, I was insistent on keeping it separate from my academic work because I was working through some personal themes (about queerness; about racial identity; about Nebraska, where I had a lot of formative moments). I used to see my poetry as very separate from my academic work, but I realized there is one particular connection: trains. My poetry collection evokes histories of the homosocial labor and communities Chinese railway workers brought to the US, and in my dissertation, I have a chapter on how railway development was important to early imaginaries of Silicon Valley.

Q: You also have a background in the tech industry as a project manager. How has this influenced your research?

A: Yes, absolutely—especially regarding the ways in which I think about race and tech spaces. Tech spaces are not only incredibly white and male, but also incredibly Asian and male. Asian American studies has one answer to the relationship between Asians and tech, which is often about how Asian Americans have been dehumanized as expendable, robotic workers. But startup culture is different—there is a way in which Asians have been celebrated and really welcomed into the high tech industry because of the Hart-Celler Act in 1965 which shifted the focus of immigration recruitment to STEM fields. This legislation is why, on a sociological level, there are a lot of Asian Americans in tech. I’m interested in how the hypervisibility of Asians in the era of high-tech capitalism might be different from, or perhaps actually a continuation of, the dehumanized and invisible labor of Chinese railroad workers in the era of industrial capitalism.

Q: What attracted you to DSI at U-M?

A: I’ve been in spaces that are primarily organized and focused on ethnic studies, and I wanted to go to a place where people are coming from other backgrounds and disciplines. Everyone here is still interested in questions of social difference, but they’re interested in ways that aren’t necessarily from an ethnic studies perspective. Also, there are a lot of people at the DSI who care about studying gaming. There’s a great computer and video game archive here, so as someone venturing into critical game studies with a project on cheating, hacking, and scams in global competitive gaming, that’s an amazing resource.

Q: Tell me a little about the DIGITAL 357: “Race and the Technological Imagination” course you’re currently teaching. What can students expect from a class with you?

A: The class gives humanistic frameworks for thinking about tech that you won’t get in computer science or engineering classes. We have a unit on games, on digital labor, on algorithms, on robots, on AI… I’m excited. I like to be promiscuous with my objects: my syllabus introduces students to lots of different types of media, ranging from video games to poetry. Students can also expect to play with modes of expression and argumentation besides the essay in a critical-creative project. There is a real skill and challenge to combining the analytic and the creative—it’s kind of an act of translation. I also want students to showcase their particular skills. Over half of my students are from computer science or information science, so I want them to have the opportunity to show their coding and UX skills.

Q: What’s your favorite text on your 357 syllabus?

A: I’m going with my gut, which was today’s class [January 18]. We read Anne Balsamo’s Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work alongside Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark. Both these thinkers are arguing for the role of culture and how we locate culture: Morrison from the perspective of the national literary canon, and Balsamo from the perspective of contemporary technoculture.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish as a postdoc at DISCO?

A: My main goal is to connect with people from different disciplines, that’s what’s exciting about a research institute rather than a department. I’m usually not interacting with historians of computing! It’s a great benefit to see my work through all of these different perspectives. My other goal is actually figuring out the next steps to transitioning my dissertation into a book. Oh, and develop some game studies research.

Q: And, our final question—what’s a typical day online for you?

A: I have a bad habit of looking at my phone first thing in the morning. I guess I scroll through Twitter and Instagram… boring! But during lunch I watch Twitch streams. It’s really relaxing to me, and it’s the online activity that I feel most present in, even though it’s still very passive. I also spend lots of time on Zoom—I have two writing groups that meet on Zoom.