In an age of global communication and computer technology, indigenous peoples have slowly gained access to electronic communication. With all of the hype surrounding cyberspace and hyperspaces as we enter a new millennium, we need to examine how indigenous peoples use and are impacted by this technology. Is there still a possibility that marginalized indigenous territories within Latin America are successfully and effectively utilizing this technology to make their voices heard?
Anthropologists’ fears that electronic communication would inevitably have a negative impact on indigenous peoples, who gained access to Western culture’s consumer commodities, have been discredited. Our images of Western culture contaminating untouched and pristine indigenous cultures have been irremediably crushed. Globalization has caused the demise of whatever pristine elements or environments remained, as well as these naïve images of indigenous peoples.
Native activists and scholars have observed that patterns of economic inequality which exist elsewhere have been reproduced in access to electronic media. A noticeable crevice based on the accumulation (or lack) of wealth reproduces Latin America’s historical discrepancies found in the interaction between non-indigenous peoples and `peoples without histories,’ as indigenous societies have often been considered. Rather than creating a space for the democratization of society, electronic communication systems reinforce traditional hierarchical social structures. This dynamic reproduces a socioeconomic interpretative approach that helps explain the manner in which wealth has been accumulated and distributed over the last five centuries, reproducing a hierarchy between `core’ or developed nations, and `peripheral’ or undeveloped nations. This paradigm also highlights how economic relations in Latin America isolate and discriminate against indigenous communities by placing them, geographically speaking, on the periphery.
Following this core-periphery paradigm, indigenous peoples who live in proximity to the core have been touched by its magic and consciously participate in world politics through their access to the web or the never-ending Internet information lists. Alternatively, those societies separated from the core suffer the consequences of being `delinked’ despite their wish to enter into the dynamics of information exchanges in cyberspace. Unfortunately, a lack of money and computer technology stifles such desires.
Although personal computers (PCs) have reached indigenous peoples, the use and distribution of this technology reproduces a picture similar to what happened after Alexander Bell invented the telephone. In Latin America, during the Alliance for Progress program in the 1960s, a sociologist considered the phone to be an indicator of a person’s class and social status in society. The assumption was that those individuals or family units connected to a phone line belonged to the middle class!
So far, indigenous peoples’ experience with electronic communication has followed a similar dynamic. Despite early developments which indicated that computer networks might prove to be a democratizing influence, it now threatens to become another tool in which the elite use to dominate society and exclude indigenous peoples from political discourse. Today, those with access to telephone lines and PCs are indeed experiencing certain privileges, and those without access are becoming increasingly marginalized. Unless there are broad structural changes, these networks may fail in their attempt to induce positive changes within society.
In this short article, we restrict our analysis to the use of interactive electronic conferencing via PCs, primarily as a means of enabling indigenous peoples, who live in remote areas and share common concerns, to exchange information regarding their similar problems of relating to nation-states. We will illustrate the relationship between computer ownership and economic disenfranchisement. Such comparisons allow us to analyze the use of PCs which have been implemented to educate the general public on human rights for indigenous peoples. Electronic bulletins presumably allow for a more democratic participation in society since it is the indigenous peoples who become subjects of their own electronic transmissions. These bulletins allow a degree of equal access to the public unparalleled by any other medium. Although not all indigenous peoples are active participants on the Internet, leaders and their representatives (or non-indigenous coworkers acting in solidarity and in direct consultation with indigenous peoples), are at the center of this endeavor.
The rest of this article can be read on the Cultural Survival website.