We have to defend the Web as a democratic space
People can use tools of western culture to subvert them
All of our cultures are always evolving
Empowerment is the main issue
"If Indian cultures are incapable of incorporating new technologies, that might mean
that they have become stagnant and are dying",
an e-mail conversation with Marc Becker
zum Thema: Know-how, knowledge and information are said to become the most important economical resource of
the 21st Century, with the Internet playing the role of a filing cabinet for the "information-society":
a kind of huge database on a universally accessible hard disk, easy and cheap to use. Certainly, knowledge may
be the foundation for greater cultural understanding and co-operation, but one shouldn't forget to think about
the meaning of "knowledge" - one has to keep in mind that knowledge isn't as tangible as other commodities
and therefore might run a distant second in the priorities of various cultures. What then are the main advantages
the web offers to society, specifically indigenous peoples, and what sort of problems can it help solve?
Marc Becker: I see this as a political struggle--the Internet is a tool for political organization and education.
I think the struggle is to maintain it as such rather than to turn it into a commodity. I don't see the Internet
as a means of economic development, but rather as at tool to break dependencies that prevent development.
zum Thema: In the article "Latin America: The Internet and Indigenous Texts" you and Guillermo Delgado
discredited the fears of Anthropologists: Their fears being that electronic communication would inevitably have
a negative impact on indigenous peoples gaining access to Western culture's consumer commodities. Do you think
that a worldwide, global "western" culture has already been established, hand in hand with the values
of liberal markets and competition?
Marc Becker: Yes, in the sense of Antonio Gramsci's concept of cultural hegemony, I think western culture already
has spread across much of the world. Essentially what I am talking about is cultural imperialism--everyone ends
up wearing blue jeans, eating at McDonalds, and shopping at Wal-Mart. It's the homogenization of culture through
the spread of capitalism--everything ends up looking the same. This is bad for those of us who believe in the value
of diversity and local initiatives. We loose local autonomy, and a few capitalists become very wealthy.
zum Thema: In this concept of cultural imperialism, do you concur with the World Bank's idea that the web could
give underdeveloped regions, nations and societies the chance to make a "leapfrog" directly into the
"knowledge-society" - the one and only chance to catch up with economical development?
Marc Becker: No. Several years ago I believed that the Internet could serve as a great leveling agent in society
and create equal access for all--in essence, a true democracy. Now, however, corporations and other elements of
the elite have come to control much of the Internet. It becomes a commodity like any other, and within the context
of the global capitalist economy the Internet simply deepens the developing of the world's dependency on foreign
corporations and capital interests.
zum Thema: What made the Internet develop from an instrument of democratization and a "voice" for
some minorities into just another tool for the dominating system?
Marc Becker: I would say that the cause was a loss of local initiative and corporations gaining the upper hand
over this medium. In about 1994-95 many of us were fighting to defend the Internet as a popular, democratic space,
and for the most part I think we have lost. It used to be that there was no way that a person could be on the Internet
and be passive--to be on the Internet was to be interacting with other people. Now, the Internet has turned into
just another medium like the TV with corporate interests deciding what we are going to view and then shoving it
down our throats.
zum Thema: In effect, you're saying that the Internet is a new form of "virtual colonialism". In that
case, shouldn't we avoid supporting connectivity if connectivity paradoxically intensifies corporate influence?
Marc Becker: No, I don't think sticking our heads in the sand is an answer. Ignoring Hitler would not stop Nazism.
I think we have to continue to battle to defend this as a democratic space that serves the interests of people
rather than corporations. It is in ignoring the battle, not in engaging it, that the dependency happens.
zum Thema: In this "battle to defend" the web, what kind of strategies do you recommend and/or participate
Marc Becker: NativeWeb and related projects, like Abya Yala Net are the main things I'm doing these days. It's
an uphill struggle, but I'm trying to create spaces on the web for Indian organizations in Latin America to present
their own views with their own voice to counteract others. It's a way for them to directly communicate their concerns
to the rest of the world.
zum Thema: Aren't you afraid, that the spreading of the Web supports the spreading of western economical structures,
the "free market" with all its consequences like the concentration of capital, the substitution of manual
labor etc., while the living conditions of the majority of mankind are worsening according to the last UN-report?
Marc Becker: No--I don't think it will work to just stick your head in the sand and pretend that these problems
don't exist. It is better to acknowledge them, and confront them head-on.
zum Thema: To solve them how?
Marc Becker: By presenting alternative ways of doing and thinking about things, by creating alternative communities.
Essentially, I see it as a political struggle to conceptually shift the way we look at the world.
zum Thema: There is an idea put forward by representatives of the "Radical Constructivism", such as
Varela, Maturana, von Foerster, or even Wittgenstein, that the "way we look at the world" is predominantly
formed by our environment. If the web is flooded by commercials then surely different cultures with Internet access
all over the world are being indoctrinated into a "global westernized culture". All those ideas of "realizing
reality" refer to a specific environment - and if, as you've said, these things happen, even if it hurts,
it would lead us to the conclusion that the same dynamics are occurring in cyberspace, beyond our power to control
them. So, how do you want to manage to "shift the way we look at the world"?
Marc Becker: Again, this is an uphill struggle, but I think the shift comes about by presenting alternative, non-commercial
views and messages. If our views of the world are shaped by our environment, then we are trying to create an environment
in which we aren't told we have to wear Nikes to be happy.
zum Thema: It seems a contradiction to concede that the world changes, and that on one hand we can't do anything
against it, while on the other hand we should try to fight that tendency in the web...
Marc Becker: No, my point is that the world is changing and we CAN do something about it--we have to fight to shape
it so that it benefits us, and not just the multinational corporations.
zum Thema: With the threat of domination in the web by such powerful institutions, isn't there also the growing
danger of manipulation, for instance in the form of stereotypical ethnic images, as shown by Indian rights activists
on America Online, or in the form of misleading information given by politically dominating groups? One such site
advertised in mailing lists seems to be one of the WWW -'home-pages' of the Sudan (Africa) at "www.columbia.edu/~tm146".
At this site they've created the impression that the Sudan is the perfect country for a family vacation, as though
there were no civil war--accompanied by massive ethnic cleansing--going on in the Christian south of Sudan. We
learn nothing about the different groups living in the country, but get instead a lot of 'links' to Arabic- and
Islamic-oriented servers which mirror the situation of domination and power in the Sudan. The chances of self-determination
appear skewed to a certain extent, especially in 'third world' countries, where the electronic communication infrastructure
is rather underdeveloped. Would you agree?
Marc Becker: Yes, I would agree, but again - I think that is why we need to fight to defend that space as a place
for a variety of views, rather than only one view.
zum Thema: But, none-the-less, isn't what's coming through on the Web predominantly enforcing the western point
of view upon people?
Marc Becker: I think people can use tools of western culture to subvert the ends for which they were created. For
example, telephone workers can use the telephone to organize a strike against the telephone company.
zum Thema: This may be true for telephone workers in the heart of a high-tech-culture, enjoying access to western
technology. However, what about groups who have always been dependent on a subsistence type of economy, like nomads
in the Sahara or several native minorities in South America? If they want to be able to use the tools of western
technology, they are forced to change their economic system to a monetary one. That again deepens their economic
dependency on the western market, on western tools etc. Did I get the right impression, that there's no alternative
to this "one-way" into Western dependency for any culture and any kind of economy?
Marc Becker: No, not at all. I don't think that using technology means private property and capitalism. I think
there are other ways to assimilate technology into a culture than the way it is done in the west. This is part
of a larger debate--some people want to keep Indians as pure, unadulterated, museum pieces. But what right do outsiders
have to deprive Indians of the benefits of technological advances that the rest of the world enjoys? Isn't that
really ethnocentric and racist to say that whites can handle technology, but other ethnic populations can't? It
would be different, of course, if you wanted to argue a consistent Luddite line--that technology is inherently
damaging to human relations. I find a certain amount of truth in this argument, but I don't think it is any more
damaging to Indians than it is to whites.
zum Thema: Indeed, contrary to being damaging, the Internet could claim to support indigenous cultures. In your
article mentioned earlier you wrote "Archiving retrievable information on specific problems, tribes, treatises,
and cultural issues allowed for the emergence of a truly dynamic cyberspace. For the first time, indigenous peoples
accessed information that enhanced their knowledge about the complexity of indigenous life. They could read messages
and learn from one another through the system." Would you say then, that the web makes a kind of renaissance
of native culture possible?
Marc Becker: Definitely, and this isn't a new phenomena. Historians who have looked at the emergence of pan-Indian
organizations in the United States have observed that they emerged out of Indian boarding schools which were specifically
designed to destroy Indian culture. The web can destroy, but it can also create, and I think that is what we are
zum Thema: Glen Martin talked about the opposite phenomenon in "Internet Indian Wars" in: Wired, December
1995, Vol.3, pp. 108-117, when he wrote about the stonewalled protests of Indian rights activists against AOL because
of the manipulation in the form of stereotypical ethnic images. Glen came to the conclusion that the company didn't
want to disturb the fantasy. "It doesn't want real Indians - we're not Indian enough. It wants the buckskin
fringes and the feathers." Isn't there a tendency to promote a kind of folklorist or even hybrid type of culture?
Marc Becker: All traditions are created, and are continually in the process of being recreated. It's not like Indians
used buckskin and feathers 30K years ago. We are creating new customs and cultures on the Internet.
It is important to understand that no culture is static. All of our cultures are always evolving. To stop evolving
means death. If Indian cultures are incapable of incorporating new technologies, that might mean that they have
become stagnant and are dying. If the creation of the car, telephone, etc., didn't mean the end of western culture,
why should it mean the end of native cultures? If you want to look at it as a conspiracy theory, you could even
argue that elites attempt to propagate this idea in order to exclude Indians from bettering their lives.
Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista rebels in Mexico once said that our fight is not against the future, but
against who controls the future and who benefits from it. I think the same thing is very true here too.
zum Thema: What is the modern definition of "native" culture in the "cyber-age"?
Marc Becker: Traditionally anthropologists have defined native cultures in terms of geography, language, religion,
food, dress, etc. Increasingly, people are seeing "native" as simply a way of life. If this is the case,
being an Indian on the Internet is the same as being an Indian in "real" life--key, core values are at
work which define these issues.
zum Thema: In "The Second Media Age" Mark Poster wrote: "If modernity or the mode of production
signifies patterned practices that elect identities as autonomous and (instrumentally) rational, post modernity
or the mode of information indicated communication practices that constitute subjects as unstable, multiple and
diffuse." What's at stake here is whether identities are defined by the group itself, or by a third party,
thereby risking that their identity completely vanishes behind the medium.
Marc Becker: And if Indians withdraw, AOL will define "Indian" however it sees fit to benefit its corporate
culture. It is better to jump in and define it yourself.
zum Thema: Ethnicity, as one of these identities, therefore stands at the intersection of technology and the
information age. The important question doesn't seem to be whether ethnicity will vanish as a collective identity
and a sociopolitical resource in a globalized world, but how ethnicity is used, and will be used, by groups facing
the various challenges raised by the effects of globalization and new media technology?
Marc Becker: Ethnicities are continually changing. We see the emergence of new pan-Indian ethnic identities. We
see overlapping identities. I think, ironically, as global identities emerge local identities are also entrenched.
Remember--few people are entirely 100% virtual. People coexist on both virtual and real planes. Sure, the Internet
influences people's "real" ethnic identity, but real identities also deeply influence those "virtual"
identities. The struggle, as I see it, is against a uniform homogeneous culture with McDonalds and Wal-Mart defining
our realities. The only way this is going to happen is by joining and defining our own identities.
zum Thema: By forcing oneself to become a communicating cybercitizen rather than a homeless nobody for instance?
Marc Becker: Empowerment is a main issue--empowering people to take control of their lives and destinies--to make
the world the type of place in which we would want to live.
zum Thema: Thank you for the conversation via net.
Marc Becker is a Visiting Assistant
Professor of Latin American History at Illinois State University. He is author of Mari‡tegui and Latin American
Marxist Theory and has recently completed his dissertation entitled "Class and Ethnicity in the Canton of
Cayambe: The Roots of Ecuador's Modern Indian Movement." He has helped launch and develop a variety of Internet
sites, including Native Web
and Abya Yala Net.
"zum Thema:" Nr. 24, 30.12.1998