Interview by Patricia G. Lange
Patricia G. Lange: According to your book, the people of the remote community of Talea in Oaxaca, Mexico have a saying that “a bad compromise is better than a good fight.” How does this maxim emblematically illuminate what it took to secure their right to be connected to mobile networks and the internet?
Roberto J. González: For almost a decade, villagers dreamed of being the first in northern Oaxaca to have cellular service. They repeatedly petitioned the big telecom firms Telcel and Movistar, and when these companies turned them down, they petitioned state and federal regulators, who weren’t any help either. Eventually, in 2012, villagers decided to work with Rhizomatica, an NGO dedicated to helping indigenous communities get connected, and together they were able to create their own non-commercial DIY cellular network. Like most fledgling technologies, it had glitches and limitations—but it worked.
Now, I suppose when Big Telecom denied them service and government regulators ignored them, Taleans could have occupied the state capital, or kidnapped government officials, or had a protest march or hunger strike. But instead of a fight, they decided to find a compromise, a nonconfrontational kind of direct action—building the community cellular network—which worked well for several years.
By 2014, some people began accusing those operating the network of mismanagement. In this case, in order to avoid a “good fight” that might have politically divided the pueblo, village authorities came up with a bad compromise: to give Movistar another chance to provide cellular service. The company accepted.
Patricia G. Lange: A key cultural characteristic that you focus on is Talean openness to outside ideas. The Taleans’ willingness to experiment with innovation seems to have ironically both spurred support for their community-based, autonomous network—and hastened its “downfall.” Given that Taleans ultimately abandoned their community cell network in favor of a major telecom company, what does it mean to say that they are “ecumenical when it comes to technology”? How was your perspective and analysis influenced by teaching in Silicon Valley?
Roberto J. González: Talea has indeed been open to outside ideas and technologies, and many people have observed this over the years, not just anthropologists. The historical reasons are complicated, and have to do mainly with the fact that the pueblo is a “new” town—only about 490 years old or so—and founded by Spanish friars. It has a relatively small amount of land compared to neighboring villages, so subsistence maize farming couldn’t sustain everyone as the community grew. Over the years, villagers worked as miners, merchants, artisans, and small-scale coffee farmers and welcomed talented outsiders.
Hundreds of townspeople eventually withdrew from the community-based network that they worked so hard to create. A combination of things came into play: harsh criticism from a few local and state officials; the prestige of Movistar-Telefónica, which after all is a globally recognized telecom brand; and probably most importantly, Movistar’s promise to deliver smartphone internet access, not just phone calls and texts. Most villagers tend to be extraordinarily pragmatic, and I don’t think too many people care about whether their service comes from a community-based system (which they created out of necessity) or from a multinational corporation. That’s what I mean when I say they are ecumenical about technology—the attitude is usually: whatever works best. This was a central theme in my first book, Zapotec Science (2001), though in that case I was focused on the pragmatic way that campesinos approached their work.
Teaching in Silicon Valley has greatly influenced my perspectives. I began working at San José State in 2001, just as the first dot-com bubble was bursting. What was remarkable to me during that time was how the fallout didn’t seem to change the techno-optimism of industry executives and government officials. It’s odd to be an anthropologist at an institution that identifies so closely with Big Tech. My university advertises itself with a corporate-style slogan that sounds like it might belong to a software company or electric car manufacturer: “Powering Silicon Valley.” There’s lots of demand right now for corporate ethnographers here, which is fine—but I wrote Connected to highlight a different kind of high-tech innovation, a bottom-up project from a part of the world that Americans don’t often associate with intense creativity and technological sophistication. In other words, I wanted to write a book to get people thinking about innovation and problem-solving outside the tech industry, outside the Valley, outside the cities. Anthropology can open up radically different possibilities.
Patricia G. Lange: Anthropologists tend to view the world through a populist-inspired “David and Goliath lens.” How did your data dovetail or depart from this rubric? How might anthropologists approach their work in ways that keep their analysis open-ended and maintain fidelity to what they are observing?
Roberto J. González: When I started this project, I thought it might be the Mexican version of a familiar plot line that has driven many Hollywood films: small-town men and women fearlessly take on big, bad company and big, bad government. Townspeople undergo trials, tribulations, and then. . .triumph! And they all lived happily ever after. That’s the way most journalists covered the story.
To avoid this, I think it’s crucial for anthropologists to be honest about what we’re trying to accomplish—and to recognize the humanity of the people from whom we learn, their strengths, but also their frailties. Early on, I decided that this story was too important to become a feel-good ethnography about a pueblo sticking it to the man. And you can’t exactly say that the man stuck it to the pueblo, either. It’s tempting to slip into either David-and-Goliath tales, or doom-and-gloom narratives about poor exploited Indians. Instead, I tried to do justice to the pueblo’s astonishing accomplishments, while acknowledging and analyzing the crushing internal and external pressures that they’ve had to face. After all, anyone pursuing alternative human possibilities—different ways of organizing work, or making collective decisions, or distributing goods, or building locally-based telecoms, for example—should be interested not only in experiments that succeed, but in those that fall short or even fail.
Patricia G. Lange: You observe that Taleans who migrated to other places used social media such as YouTube to experience culturally important events, through mediated portraits that prompted deep-seated nostalgia. How are YouTube videos shaping what is interpreted as the “real” Talea? What might be some potential concerns about proliferating videos that heavily focus on sacred, unusual, and sensorially vibrant events such as fiestas?
After realizing how important social media is for many Taleans, I immersed myself in what I call the “virtual village” to better understand its significance. The vast majority of users are indeed migrants in Oaxaca City, Mexico City, and Los Angeles, and their posts and videos (often taken during annual fiestas) generally provoke nostalgic comments. On the one hand, I think it’s great that villagers are proudly documenting these events, which have been cherished in Mexico’s indigenous communities for many years. But such images and videos can sometimes create a distorted, unrealistic view of village life—as if every day is a fiesta.
That said, there are also many posts that give glimpses into ordinary life. For example, last month, a villager forwarded me a link to a half-hour Facebook video, filmed in the same sugarcane fields where 20 years ago, a campesino patiently taught me how to make panela, or unrefined brown sugar, using machetes, tumplines, a cast iron mill, oxen, and lots of fire. The video, which features my campesino mentor and his two sons, is a finely detailed account documenting each step of the process, from cutting the cane to wrapping panela cakes. It’s brutally hard work, and it comes across that way in the video. I never dreamed I’d see this family on social media talking about farming, but there they were. And Taleans love it, judging from the comments—viewers commend the campesinos for their dedication and vast knowledge. Embedded in their comments is a respect for quotidian campesino life, even from villagers who are removed from it.
Patricia G. Lange: Your book concludes that Talea’s mobile network and social integration of cell phones are “works in progress.” The technologies introduced paradoxical elements of connectivity and disconnection from cherished values and warm feelings of comunalidad, principles and practices that highly value communal life. Looking out onto the horizon, how do you envision Taleans’ communicative and digital futures?
Roberto J. González: It’s now been more than 25 years since I first went to Talea. If you had asked me a decade ago what the future would look like, I probably would have given a bleak assessment. Since doing this project, I’ve become more optimistic about the ability of villagers to harness technology in ways that reinforce values that have been passed down from generation to generation. By villagers I mean not just Taleans, but those in other Zapotec communities throughout the region, as well as Mixes, Chinanetcos, and Mixtecos.
The reason I say this is because most of these places have functioning democracies, where people talk about, discuss, and debate substantive issues and set common goals: How can we get a road to export our coffee? What is the best way to get cell phone service? Should we let children have access to smartphones, and if so, what limits should we place as a community? Or more recently—how should we deal with COVID-19? (A proud villager recently sent me a link to a nationally broadcast news report highlighting Talea’s success in fighting the pandemic—as of mid-July, not a single case had been recorded there, and strict social distancing measures and face-covering protocols are being enforced by village authorities.) Citizens also tend to have a strong, stable sense of cultural identity—of who they are as a pueblo, of what unifies them despite differences in class, political perspectives, or religious beliefs.
With that kind of political system in place—a vibrant local democracy where people are active, self-assured, and knowledgeable—it’s much more possible to quickly deal with the side effects of being technologically and globally connected.