Reading of Lisa Nakamura; Indigenous circuits: Navajo women and the racialization of early electronic manufacture

Key points of the text:

Lisa Nakamura (LN) focuses on a case history of Fairchild Industries in their manufacture of integrated circuits (IC) in the 1960’s-70’s. The need for accurate and highly reliable IC’s becomes apparent by the semiconductor industry and Fairchild opted for manufacture based in Navaho Indian reservations.

The emerging message from LN’s text that struck me most was the separation of the labourers and the users in the delivery of consumer tech products.

Nakamura gives the example of exploited workers not only being Women but women of colour. For example, Latino women working for RCA and for Fairchild electronics firms.

LN homes in on the case history of Fairchild industries who employed young Navajo (N) women to work in the manufacture of integrated circuits.

This type of work required not only accuracy but a high degree of manual dexterity. The publicity at the time given concerning the N workers was exploitative citing their work as a “labour of love”… rather than doing the work for wages.

The Shiprock plant where Fairchild installed the factory fails to be mentioned in documentary history is provided by Fairchild industries. The overall strategy given by Fairchild was just dark by the Employment of Women of colour in the domestic sector followed by off shoring to Asian countries and this was copied by other electronic manufacturers.

In the early days the outsourcing to Asian countries ran in parallel with factories in N. land in Mexico and the US.

The N. Reservation at Shiprock started with 55 workers and at the height of its history, over 1000 workers; it was the largest employer of Indians in the country. Fairchild industries also enjoyed tax incentives available to subsidise the project lack of unions and other employment in the area and donation of heavy equipment given by the US government gratis in order to incentivise “light industry” as an “occupational education” for Indians.

Reservations afforded a loophole in US law it’s a far that the workers could be put on minimum wage coupled with the fact that the N people we’re tied to their homes on the reservation and had few alternatives for employment. Not only that but they indeed were diligent and precise in their work showing a 5% failure rate. The work was carried out using microscopes and their expertise was exploited. The Fairchild literature highlighted their dexterity contrasting it with the traditional N manufacture of woven rugs. A striking photograph from the literature shows a white man admiring an N woman at work at the microscope. “it posits that indigenous design informed electronic circuit design-a Kind of colonialism in reverse-despite the lack of involvement of indigenous people in the company’s research and development arm”

LN emphasises this disconnect: ” members of the creative class our happy because they are creatively fulfilled, not just because they are well paid.”

LN also describes the fact that race and gender are of flexible capital; N workers being perceived as docile, flexible, and as natural electronics workers. Also, indigenous N workers and Asian workers having “nimble fingers and passive personalities”. LN points to many references by other academics such as Angela Haas in her essay “Wampum as Hypertext” and Haraway in her essay “a cyborg manifesto”. The metaphor of textiles being an analogue to software and all technology.

The N operated plant what’s time-limited and was disbanded in 1975 as offshore workers proved to be even less expensive than N workers. Speculation arose that’s another reason for this change was the unionisation and worker organisation that was taking place.

The production line in high-technology is obfuscated mainly due to the fact that is tedious and constraining carried out by workers in difficult conditions.

Jennifer Gabrys text describes in great detail the hidden costs of technology due to its poisonous toxic by-products, landfill, the brief lifespan of products and the uptake of raw materials. Portable phones, computers I’m not the only source of tech pollution; the advent of the Internet of things and countless consumer products all containing microprocessors. The production of ‘high-tech’ components and assemblies has a huge hidden cost; take four example the lethal cocktail of chemicals that are found in the substrata of Silicon Valley. This text is a useful adjunct to LN paper as its overlapping theme is the obfuscation of undesirable phenomena associated with the onslaught of our commodity-based high-tech first world.

Media archaeology: approaches, applications, and implications is available as a complete Book and I have only begun to read it. However, it illustrates the methodologies applicable to researching and understanding the history of our technology. In order to make any serious comments about this work I certainly need more time to read it. I was lucky to obtain a copy as there was only one spare copy after I visited the library.


Gabrys, Jennifer. Digital rubbish: A natural history of electronics. University of Michigan Press, 2011.

Huhtamo, E. and Parikka, J. eds., 2011. Media archaeology: Approaches, applications, and implications. Univ of California Press.

Ernst, Wolfgang. Digital memory and the archive. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Manifestly Haraway:  Author: Haraway, Donna Jeanne