Black Avatars, Analog and Digital

Black CB Analog Avatars

What does it mean to listen to the skies when conditions are favorable and tune in to fleeting but familiar chunks of Black personality, wit, and verbal stylings, all wrapped in the whines and staticky textures of the electromagnetic spectrum?


The 1970s saw a popular explosion of voice-to-voice connection via citizens band radio. It was unruly, chaotic, and eventually birthed the Super Bowl: an informal oral and aural competition created by African American CB operators who “shoot skip.” Shooting skip is the art and technique of exploiting the reflective capacity of the Earth’s ionosphere to achieve long distance communication.

African American CB operators are not the only ones to shoot skip but the Super Bowl is distinguished by its concentration of Black voices. Super Bowl competitors overcome the distortions and disruptions of radio interference and rival participants’ intentional efforts to “walk over” (interrupt) each other. Since CB allows only one voice at a time to be heard, traditionally such “channel hogging” is considered rude, but the Super Bowl makes doing so into an end in itself. In and through the static and noise one can hear voices bearing regional accents, cadences and diction, unified by standards of performance descended from a shared vernacular of preaching, rapping, “jive” or “soul” talking, and stand-up comedy.

These voices of the Super Bowl represent the Black bodies that project them, but they also stand on their own as live and recorded cultural artifacts that, like other Black music, film, and writing, can play an inspirational role during precarious times.

The Avatar

There are two uses of the term avatar: the religious and the secular. The former is associated with divinities, embodied souls, and teachers, the latter with users' representations in computing systems. Techno-utopian and Singularity-related rhetorics of technology and computing bring together both versions, with the “deity” as some kind of idealized manifestation of human intelligence: maybe the noosphere, maybe the sum total and grand finale of The Enlightenment, maybe the perfect creature of the market. In any case, all of the promises of Total Information Awareness, be they commercial, military or social, revolve around gaining access to a kind of perfected knowledge. If such an assembly is possible it will undoubtedly be exceedingly complex and developed through interpersonal systems (of which "social media" are probably the rudimentary beginnings.) It would most likely require the use of some kind of prosthetic to access it. It would also likely develop varied levels of expertise and proficiency, drawing on the role of "teacher" as it is used in the religious context.

Moving to the secular definition, we see that an avatar in the computing context is an “icon or figure” that “stands in” for a user, but this definition doesn’t reference the degree of identification that people sometimes invest in their own and each others' digital representations. The digital avatar, even in its simplest form, if it has been explicitly chosen by the user (versus assigned at random by a system) is a reflection of investment… it is a measure of how seriously the user takes the system, even if it’s only to put up a middle finger by selecting/creating an avatar that is diametrically opposed to their actual beliefs. 

This path looks at radio communications, Black CB's Super Bowl in particular, as a hypothetical medium for creating analog avatars in the secular/computing sense of the term. There are poetic connections between the energetic requirements for shooting skip–with its links between disembodied voices, the sun, and electricity–and the religious use of the term. But the specific political history of the Super Bowl also traces a kind of "sacred" path from the physical dangers of segregation and racial terror to a kind of escape into the ionosphere that has been so successful that it appears to operate independently from this history.

Now that these voices are becoming part of the charged particles of our atmosphere, bouncing from sky to ground and knitting together a loose congregation of users, might we look to their practices as a source of inspiration?

Contents of this path:

This page references:

  1. Audiomobility Screen Rip