An Unlikely Union of Hackers and Indigenous Peoples

One of the themes we are interested in has to do with “territory,” understanding it, occupying it respectfully and responsibly, and what that might look like in and around a city. This article, adapted from Ramesh Srinivasan’s (Professor of Information Studies and Design Media Arts at UCLA) book Beyond the Valley introduces us to just such a project.

A “funny” thing about territory and technology is that, to a certain degree, they don’t share density. Lots of tech in a dense city, much less in dense nature. That’s usually a normal and excellent situation but it also means that when an area is sparsely inhabited, some essential technologies might be hard to come by. A quality internet connection, to name just one.

That’s where the non-profit Rhizomática and its sister organization Telecomunicaciones Indígenas Comunitarias (TIC) come in.

Established in 2012 by a group of hackers, activists, and indigenous community leaders in the region, TIC emerged from centuries of grassroots political movements and philosophies that have extolled the importance of autonomy, communality, and collectivity.

Contrary to telecom giants, TIC made the effort of bringing internet connectivity to different remote communities across Oaxaca, at a price they can afford, and in the case of long-distance calls, even cheaper than what residents of the city of Mexico get!

The effort has provided daily service to more than 3,500 people despite some of the harshest conditions for building communications networks in Mexico — elevation, rain, dense forests, and the absence of other reliable infrastructure like electricity.

The service is cheap and owned by its community users. What makes this arrangement even more interesting, is how these values of access, community-ownership, and co-development overlap the values and cultures of the indigenous population.

The Oaxaca region in southern Mexico is home to about a third of the Mexican indigenous population, with speakers of at least 16 languages and dozens of dialects. The region contains about half of the entire nation’s species of flora and fauna, including gila monsters, jaguars, and, at 40 feet in diameter, the world’s widest tree. It’s here, in one of the most biologically and culturally diverse places in the Americas, that technology is being reimagined. […]

From its base in the city of Oaxaca de Juárez, TIC has implemented independent, community-owned cell phone networks in at least 63 indigenous communities of Zapotec, Mixtec, and Mije origins — making it the largest community-owned cell phone network in the world. [Emphasis mine.]

The culture and imagery behind the naming of Rhizomática (representing decentralized knowledge and mycelia forest networks), and the echo of the Zapatista movement from neighbouring Chiapas as well as Mayan culture, are both beautiful, and a useful framing for new approaches to territories and technology elsewhere.

How might these insights into the natural world influence our thinking about the digital networks human beings have created for our own communities and societies? Can the rhizome help us imagine alternative technologies that balance power, warn our neighbors about hostile threats, respect the sovereignty of diverse communities, and allow us to learn from one another? These are questions that motivate Rhizomática’s efforts.

And finally, the metaphor of the caracoles (snails or conch shells in Spanish) aligns perfectly with the Fab City.

This cultural touchstone inherited from Mayan ancestors poetically captures indigenous ways of being and knowing — slow, circular, reflective, concentric — central to the lifeways and histories in the region.