The Internet is too new to be understood by projecting old hopes and fears. Hopes can be dazzled by possibilities of the new technologies, utopian fantasies replacing political analysis. Fears continue old political analyses into a future in which somehow the dominant will easily cope with whatever is new in these technologies and turn them into yet another instrument of domination. In this article we suggest a different tack. As we scan the rapidly emerging situation in one corner of cyberspace, the part located in Mexico, we see signs that maybe some fears are based on faulty analysis, and some hopes can stay on the agenda.
We use the myth of David and Goliath as an image of the potential of supposedly weaker players like Mexico in cyberspace. This image is often over-used, whenever a small, weak party takes on a giant. Smallness and weakness aren't of themselves advantages in most fights. Goliath killed many other Israelites who were smaller and weaker. David's difference was that he had an edge. His sling shot was simple technology, employed against the state-of-the-art armour that made Goliath seem invulnerable. Like the woomera or spear-thrower of Australian Aborigines, it made missiles travel further, faster, and more accurately. It collapsed distances, making Goliath closer to David than he realized, part of a two-way network in which David's stone was a message which hit Goliath between the eyes: his weak spot, bare so he could receive images from outside as well as impress others. The Net as slingshot is an image of possible strategies to resist hegemonic forces.
In this brief article we want to contest four dogmas that sustain the Myth of the Inevitable Triumph of the Dominant:
2. That the current unequal distribution of material resources guarantees that the dominant will increase their dominance, and the non-dominant will be further excluded. Against this we argue that the non-dominant are capable of extraordinary creativity in accessing and using the resources they have and can acquire, including the Net.
3. That the non-dominant are not able to exercise power from the margins. Against this we argue that power can act in unpredictable non-linear ways in cyberspace as in other cultural sites.
4. That the media and culture of the dominant retain an unshakeable connection with the dominant, so that it will be impossible for the non-dominant to use any part of them without damaging compromise and loss of identity. Against this we argue that the non-dominant can continue their own purposes, their own forms of identity, culture and community, while using a new medium such as the Internet, especially since that medium is so new that it is 'natural' to no-one.
The Internet consists of countless networks, connecting with an open set of texts in various media, verbal, visual and auditory, to create 'cyberspace'. The typical forms of cyberspace cannot be understood in terms of traditional textual analysis, which presupposes a set of texts to be analyzed, with definite authors, clear boundaries and contexts, beginnings and ends. Cyberspace has no centre nor end, and contains multimedia texts by multiple authors (Snyder 1996:18-19). The Internet has forced a major communications revolution called 'convergence' (Nielsen 1995), which has reached new levels through the intersection of the Internet with other cultural systems, themselves organized like a net, connected via numerous interfaces with the Internet as network of networks.
'Hypertext' usually refers to the new form of textuality of the Net; sets of texts, open or closed, connected through links. This principle applies at every level of cyberspace, from simple Home Pages to the vast interconnected set of texts co-extensive with the stored resources of the culture itself. Cyberspace is a Hypertext (e-Hypertext), nested into the even vaster Hypertext of the culture (c-Hypertext). Every society and its component cultures are an extended Hypertext, characterized by flows, gateways and connections, a heterogeneous home for countless local cultures creating innumerable identities. The e-Hypertext is part of this c-Hypertext, with boundaries impossible to fix. These two kinds of Hypertext are so interpenetrated that cultural, social and political issues of cyberspace cannot be studied only on the Net; and in an electronic era all social processes are profoundly affected by cyberspace.
This state of affairs makes us rethink the basic terms of political, social and cultural analysis. Classic analysis assumed unproblematically that Mexico exists and has a culture, which is either weakened or strengthened by forces from outside, especially from its powerful neighbor, the USA. Within Mexico, it took for granted distinct classes, with a dominant wealthy élite, and further divisions between urban and rural regions, Europeans and Indians, men and women. In this picture, power can flow only one way, downwards, and cultures and identities are homogeneous and can only be preserved or lost.
Inequalities and injustices exist, but we do not accept the fixed, static categories of this classic analysis. Instead we sketch a different scenario, using concepts from chaos theory (see Gleick 1987, Sardar 1998 for useful popularizations) and fuzzy logic (see Kosko 1984, Dimitrov and Hodge 2001): theories which incorporate multiple dimensions, reciprocal effects, indeterminate categories and ramifying contradictions into dynamic social analysis. In this scheme, effects of globalization and the Net have led to a condition between the USA and Mexico that is far from equilibrium (Prigogine and Stengers 1984). In this condition, there are extreme and rapid changes ('bifurcations'), contradictory tendencies coexist, boundaries become highly permeable, entities become unstable, and connections can happen very rapidly across great distances. The Internet has been a catalyst for this change, mediating and accelerating the processes of globalization in unpredictable ways. So inseparable are globalization and cyberculture in content and effects that it is impossible to study one without the other.
Boundaries at every level, in every sense (inner, symbolic, social and material) have become permeable and 'fuzzy' (Kosko 1994, Dimitrov, Hodge and Woog 2001), constantly dissolved in a Bakhtinian dialogic process in which each party absorbs and transforms elements of others, in different inflections of interconnected but never homogeneous transcultural forms (Coatsworth and Rico 1989). Mexican creativity in the new environment transforms previous stages of cultural forms, introducing, changing and appropriating meanings from other cultures without 'abandoning' or 'betraying' a 'Mexicanness' which only ever existed as an essentialized category. Mexicans are negotiating, creating and becoming aware of new 'fuzzy' identities, as they live and construct new forms of relationship, and new versions of nation and community.
The Internet can seem 'non-Mexican', imposed from outside. It is true that the Internet was originally developed in the USA, and it operates today in the context of US dominance of most of the economic and political transactions between the two countries. The dominance of US sources on the Internet seems to reproduce US dominance in the binational relationship, if we trust the statistics. By the latest estimates, only 5% of Mexican houses have computers, compared to 40% in the USA, and only one PC in 1,000 is linked to the Web (Lindquist 2000). But Mexico is the most significant user of the Internet in Latin America, with an enormous expansion in this sector. To take just one indicator, in January 1996 there were 13,787 hosts (zone host files) in Mexico, compared to 233,912 for the USA. By January 2000, the number of hosts in the USA was 1,875,663, an increase of 800%; in Mexico it was 404,873, 22% of the US figure, but an increase of 2,900% over the period (NIC 2000). These figures suggest an explosive, chaotic situation.
|The Vecindario effect, traditional networks and the new media|
Such figures tell much less than the full story. The dynamics unfolding in a society like Mexico are difficult to see from a macro level. The fuzziness of social life is obscured by traditional forms of measurement. Census-type data on educational levels, incomes, consumption patterns, etc., classify people into fixed, homogenous classes, which may not depict or predict current or future behaviours. It may be seriously misleading to rely on figures of computer ownership or connection to a server as indicators of access to the Net in countries like Mexico, as in the study cited above. If only 5% of the population in Mexico enjoy access to the web, they may seem a 'privileged' group, unlikely to join in any counter-hegemonic action. But if we step down from the macro level to the micro levels of the district, the community and the family, where Mexican social life is lived, this figure simplifies and distorts the amount of access to the new technologies, and their real and potential use by sectors that are defined as excluded. Dynamic social mobility in far-from-equilibrium contemporary Mexico allows usage of the new media to grow in 'invisible' ways. Paradoxically, the electronic media may be simultaneously elitist and not elitist.
To illustrate this dynamic situation at the local level, we give a brief ethnography of one case, a small 'community' we will call 'Vecindario', in one of the world's biggest cities, Mexico City. 'Vecindario' has a short history. It grew from a social movement, rural migration to urban areas around 30 years ago. A group 'invaded' vacant land and established itself on it. The group included different types of people, peasants, masons, factory workers, students, housewives, domestic workers, bringing their skills and perspectives to fulfil a common goal: to find a place to live. Initially the group would have been easy to define, mostly consisting of rural, lower class, poor, uneducated families of Indian origin. They did, however, have a strong political agenda which was shared by a few better educated individuals who had migrated to the city earlier. The group included children who are now the adult heads of extended families, some still living in the neighborhood.
The group took many years to succeed. After 'invading' the land, they put up small houses, constructed roads, resisted efforts by the army or police to remove them, built schools, playgrounds, a nursery, health clinic and church, negotiated with the government, and organized services (water, electricity, public transport). The neighborhood has now been completely transformed into a different spatial and social landscape. In the process, most major social categories have been renegotiated and made fuzzy. A rural community has been folded into an urban environment, without losing the rich network of links with the original communities. Class indicators like income and education have been drastically changed in two generations. The new community is now organized like a Hypertext. It is a 'virtual' community created 30 years ago without computers. This paradox shows some of the complex relations between e-culture and c-culture. Forms commonly associated with cyberculture pre-existed its coming in this case, and formed a strong locally controlled matrix into which computers and their possibilities were inserted. With so strong a lived culture, the people of 'Vecindario' were active agents who had no reason to fear the Net as a dangerous intrusion out of their control.
Two examples can illustrate. On one plot of 250 square metres lives an old woman, who came there from an Indian town to settle after her daughter, a student activist, had fought for a plot for her family to live on. Another daughter became an accountant, then came with her two little daughters, who attended the public school round the corner. The two girls went on to high school, and one is now at University. The process of increasing levels of education that began with the grandmother was supported by income from other members of the family. Three children studied medicine, law and sociology, respectively, while working to support their mother, who during that time worked as a cook in a small restaurant. In this family of five professionals, with children at different levels at school, computers are now an important part of their everyday lives. One computer connected to the Net is used by them and by relatives or friends, for education, work and entertainment.
Two houses along in the same block lives an extended family headed by a woman who used to sell food on a street corner. She came with her children and became a leader in the 'invasion movement'. Now her children are married and working, and the grandchildren study at different schools, allowing her time to be politically active on behalf of the neighborhood. The extended family includes her sister with children and grandchildren, who live on the next plot. This family now includes a systems engineer, a mason, a policeman, owners of a taxi and a bus driver, office workers and students. In this case the engineer, who works at a university, is the main connection with computers and the Internet. She has her own computer and knows how to use it for multiple purposes. However, the networking of a traditional extended family such as this one means that almost everyone can obtain knowledge and access to the new technology to enhance their job and education prospects.
Not all cases are so successful. Nevertheless, other families also show the multiplicity of social categories and levels which can interact in a simple common yard in the middle of the city, or in playgrounds, streets and shops. Human networks of traditional kinds create new, more intense and far-reaching forms of connectivity, which now also have effective links to the multiple meanings and cultures of the Internet.
'Vecindario' is still not fully connected to the electronic media. However, local networks normally include important links with cyberspace. Office work demands and also provides the use of computers, and in this way the Internet is available to these workers, and often to their children, to offer opportunities to access the meanings that flow through the global media. Some individuals are connected to the Net in their houses and permit relatives to access it for education or entertainment, or to interact with others who live in other places. Children access computers in schools, especially at higher levels but also increasingly in primary schools in urban areas. There are now many training courses in the use of computers and programs common in the work environment. The number of cybercafés is increasing, bringing the Internet to low-income neighborhoods, exactly the places that are regarded as excluded from this medium. 'Vecindario' now has three cybercafés, where school children log on to get information for their homework, as a substitute for the libraries that never arrived and the books that are not on their home shelves.
These practices show how meaningless the figure of '5%' is to indicate the uptake of cyberculture. In this situation social groups are fuzzy, with multiple interconnections that create a network with horizontal and vertical flows. Rural, poor, lower class and female are no longer a cumulative set of barriers to participation in cyberculture. The same processes that are silently empowering these Mexicans bring resources from what have been classified as different classes. It is difficult to predict how this process will develop. But it is clear that the Internet is being used and appropriated by a diversity of people. They are mostly young, but they are connected with the older generations. They have many different aims, but aren't bound to the economic agendas of hegemonic powers.
The case of 'Vecindario' shows that the excluded are not nearly as excluded as a superficial analysis suggests. They have effective access rather than lots of hardware, and the technology fits into and enhances purposes, values and forms of social organization that are emerging from the community, not imposed from above or creeping in through the Net. They do not see a stark, binary choice between cultural purity and betrayal. They are not plotting a bloody overthrow of capitalism and imperialism, and the radical commitments they began with: rather than being compromised, they have been enriched by the existence of the Net. Who knows? If the US giant can hear a faint, rumbling sound coming from across the border, it may be the rattle of small stones in the slings of an army of Davids, whose capabilities are not yet captured in the available statistics.
|The Zapatista effect|
Mexico has thrown up a modern version of the David myth, the Zapatistas. Chiapas, a rural area in southeast Mexico, is home to one of the poorest and most oppressed of the predominantly Indian peoples in Mexico. But in January 1994, within weeks of Mexico signing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the USA and Canada, the Zapatistas had declared war on the Mexican government on behalf of the indigenous peoples of Mexico, protesting against the devastating impact of globalization on these peoples.
In the past, other indigenous protest movements in Mexico had been routinely crushed by the government, using its army or local militia to kill and displace large numbers of people, and using its control over the main media to disguise or misrepresent what it had done. These time-honoured methods were high on the government agenda again. But this time the tactic did not work.
Cleaver (1998) called the Zapatistas' edge the 'Zapatista effect'. 'Subcomandante Marcos', their spokesperson, a non-Indian, assiduously communicated news about the rebellion to outsiders in Mexico and the rest of the world. Cleaver claims the Internet played a decisive role, bringing reliable news rapidly to the outside world from the depths of the jungle, mobilizing opposition with a speed and effectiveness that stunned the government, while human rights groups in Italy, France, Canada, the USA and elsewhere exerted pressure to shame the government from carrying out its usual tactics. The Zapatista uprising also took place in cyberspace, a difference that made the difference.
The Zapatista effect is an instance of a resonant term from Chaos theory, the 'butterfly effect' proposed by Edward Lorenz (Palmer 1992). This effect arises in complex dynamic systems such as the weather, when a factor that appears insignificant can multiply its effects to produce huge changes over enormous distances. The example that gives the effect its name is a hypothetical butterfly that flaps its wings in the Andes and precipitates a tornado in Montana. David's sling is a butterfly. So is the Zapatista uprising, as mediated by the Internet. Both images are inspirations for small, apparently insignificant groups opposed to large, seemingly invincible forces.
But Lorenz emphasized unpredictability, not the certain effects of well-aimed butterflies (to mix metaphors). And contradiction was at the heart of the Zapatista triumph. Marcos used the Internet, which to many is synonymous with globalization, as a weapon against globalization. Does this contradiction compromise his achievement?
Non-fuzzy logic would say 'yes'. But in turbulent, far-from-equilibrium conditions, the Aristotelian law of contradiction is systematically flouted, as it has been in the Zapatista story. Marcos and the Zapatistas used the national media assiduously, on behalf of people who were mostly barely literate, and for whom Spanish was a second language. From the outset they built a coalition of Indians and non-Indians in Mexican civil society, using every form of media. Because of the interconnections of the e-Hypertext and the c-Hypertext, the two types of network reinforced each other. Mexicans knew the Zapatistas mattered in influential international constituencies, and allies in cyberspace could track their progress. Together the two networks were powerful enough to shield the Zapatistas in their remote jungle from the armed might of the Mexican government.
The interaction of multiple networks, including and organized by the Net, could be seen at work in March 2001, when the Zapatistas made a long, dangerous journey to Mexico City to address Parliament and present their demands for indigenous autonomy. The Zapatistas, without weapons, exposed to constant acts of illegal aggression, travelled in convoy from their jungle base, protected by civil society and the constant hum of the national and international media fed through the Net. They passed through town after town where they were greeted by rapturous crowds of Indians and non-Indians. The information about exactly when they would arrive and what was happening was transmitted, mainly from the Zapatista web site, to other media. Most towns are located on the sites of former Indian towns and traditional rituals of greetings reactivated ancient networks and added new ones. The links created through the Net and other mass media are not necessarily different from cultural networks already known to indigenous peoples.
On reaching Mexico City and at the climactic moment in the chamber itself, everyone expected Subcomandante Marcos, the non-Indian spokesperson and supposed master of the Internet, to speak on behalf of the uneducated Indians of the movement. Instead, Marcos was absent. Comandante Esther, the first speaker, explained that Marcos was a subcomandante. Only the Zapatista leadership, its comandantes, all Indians, would speak at this supreme forum of the land, broadcast live on national TV. Then she spoke, in non-standard Spanish but so well-informed and eloquent that the whole chamber applauded the speech many times, even some who had initially been hostile. The first Opposition speaker, who had been preparing to attack Marcos, was seen to screw up his speech, and was reduced to brief, impromptu, ineffective words of dissent against this unexpected opponent.
Outside the chamber, Esther's words were transmitted directly via the Zapatista web site to an international audience which was not excluded from this private place of national power, but rather was able to read the exact words of an indigenous woman in full control of the mediations of her message. Esther was another David and, with the slingshot of the Net, her words hit her opponents between the eyes. From there they ricocheted around the world in a way beyond the technology available to David.
Nothing is inevitable in a far-from-equilibrium world, in Mexico as in the rest of the developing world. 'Vecindario' may be co-opted, the Zapatistas may ultimately fail. But as these two episodes show, the total triumph of the dominant is not predictable either, and the process needs to be viewed in terms which are sensitive to signs of turbulence at local levels. Otherwise, predictions of the inevitable victory of the dominant may prove to be merely the artifacts of inappropriate, rigid theory. Networks of power can be vulnerable in unexpected places, and analysis purely in terms of hardware and material resources may miss important dimensions of the situation. Goliath's size and armour made him a fixed target, easy to hit. We do not wish to promote the counter-fantasy that resistance is always easy, just to point out that it can be more possible than it appears. Others may also do what 'Vecindario' and the Zapatistas have done, creating new forms of community out of their own resources, finding their own uses of the Net, making their own confident paths through cyberspace without compromising their fundamental integrity.
Cleaver, H. "The Zapatista Effect: The Internet and the Rise of an Alternative Political Fabric" in Journal of International Affairs, March 1998.
Coatsworth, J. and Rico, C. (eds). Retos de las relaciones entre México y Estados Unidos. México: FCE, 1989.
Dimitrov, V., Hodge, B. and Woog, R. "Fuzziology and Social Complexity" in Advances in Fuzzy Logic. Ed. N. Mastorakis. Athens: WEES Press, 2001.
Gleick, J. Chaos. London: Cardinal, 1987.
Kosko, B. Fuzzy Thinking. New York: Flamingo, 1994.
Lindquist, D. "Mexico's High-Tech Hurdle" in San Diego Union-Tribune, 19 February 2000, at: https://www.uniontrib.com/.
NIC. "Network Information Centre", 2000, at: https://www.nic.mx/.
Nielsen, J. Multimedia and Hypertext: The Internet and Beyond. AP Professional, 1995.
Palmer, T. "A Weather Eye on Unpredictability" in The New Scientist Guide to Chaos. Ed. N. Hall. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992.
Prigogine, I. and Stengers, I. Order Out of Chaos. London: Flamingo, 1984.
Sardar, Z. Introducing Chaos. Cambridge: Icon Books, 1998.
Snyder, I. Hypertext: The Electronic Labyrinth. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1996.