It is a myth of the West’s choosing: perpetual economic growth, advancing through a digestive system of sorts, one that uses technology as one of its core components. In its churn, ecosystems became goods; people, mere consumers. The myth turned the world into a place increasingly inhospitable to human life.
I write these words from the periphery of the metropolises that command this global digestive system — an enclave that resists the myth’s logic. In these parts, resistance begins with a name. Here, Latin America is neither Latin nor America; it is Abya Yala, a term the Guna people of Panama use to describe the Western Hemisphere’s largest landmass as it existed before 1492. This is a territory that comprises an array of Indigenous nations, Afro-descendant communities, and societies created by political projects of miscegenation. As a whole, the history of this diverse group of peoples is inextricable from the ravages of colonialism. Yet that history has also been defined by those peoples’ ingenious use of new technologies — not as consumable goods, but as means of resisting colonial imposition in the midst of an unprecedented climate crisis.
To metropolitan eyes, Latin America, with its minimal patent production and negligible investment in science and technology, lags behind. The Silicon Valleys springing up in different parts of the world — more an ideological concept than a geographic location — have long dismissed the region as a passive receptor for technology. But Abya Yala challenges that narrative. Here on the periphery, technology, when repurposed for resistance, can bolster the autonomy of peoples and communities. In Abya Yala, digital technologies have created virtual spaces to be shared — woven webs of sustainable collaboration among the continent’s subaltern voices.
This form of collaborative effort has ancient roots. To many peoples in Mexico, it is known as tequio (from the Náhuatl tequitl) or, farther south, as faena, kol, or minga. Through tequio, schools have been built, potable-water systems have been installed, and art has been made. Tequio has also become a strategy for meeting everyday needs. Just as the modern-day technology of free, open-source code has enabled collective progress in the digital sphere, the communal labor of tequio raises the possibility of resistance in Abya Yala — and survival of the world at large.
But as is true in every struggle against power, hegemonic narratives — those dominant myths that determine how we see the world — must first be confronted in order to avoid what Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has called “the danger of a single story,” the all-encompassing Western mythology flooding our distant territories.
Since 2008, the Wayuu Film and Video Showcase, for instance, has given voice to the Wayuu, an indigenous people living in what is now Venezuela and Colombia. Similarly, the Vídeo Nas Aldeias streaming platform, created by Vincent Carelli and the Nambiquara, has enabled Indigenous peoples in Brazil to learn to make films and tell their stories in their own narrative formats. The purpose of these initiatives, according to Wayuu director and film curator David Hernández Palmar, is to “close the digital gap that exists between these peoples and technology.” But “closing the gap” doesn’t only mean bringing film to the Wayuu: It also means building a bridge to the West to foster intercultural exchange.
Abya Yala, by repurposing imported technologies, is far ahead of the West in understanding how digital technology can burst out from the realm of the intangible into the “real world.” The West has recently witnessed how “fake news” and online interference in political disputes can spill over into its streets and ballot boxes. But Abya Yala has spent decades waging its struggles in digital spaces, particularly in defense of its native languages: Within the next hundred years, experts estimate that up to 80% of the world’s approximately 7,000 languages will have disappeared. Meanwhile, digital knowledge is accessible through just a few Portuguese-, English-, and Spanish-language gateways, inaccessible to non-hegemonic language communities in the periphery. But groups like Activismo Digital de Lenguas Indígenas are filling the void. This continent-wide digital indigenous-language movement has forged a network of activists from all over Abya Yala, including Wikipedians, app developers, and programmers, among others. Collectives like the one created in the Triqui region of southern Mexico have worked together to ensure that they have access to browsers in their own language. In this way, we see digitally underrepresented peoples appropriating technology as a tool of linguistic resistance.
Abya Yala’s technological struggle also extends to the vindication of material sovereignty. In Mexico, Community Cellular Technology, through which cell phone systems are locally owned, administered, and operated, has been built against a backdrop that has started to crumble: As proprietors of their own cell company, these communities defy the slogan of the conglomerate that controls 70% of the country’s mobile communication services: “All of Mexico is Telcel territory.” The response from these communities is No: Not all of Mexico is the territory of Carlos Slim, one of the wealthiest men in the world. They strive for technological sovereignty.
Technology has also tapped into ancient collective philosophies to resist the metropole. Rodrigo Pérez Ramírez, better known in Mexico as Zapoteco 3.0, is part of the Mozilla Nativo movement, which seeks to empower indigenous peoples online. He told me that he had found in open-source software a natural ally to his local Zapotec-language activism. There is a serendipitous affinity between the logic of collective effort and free cooperation that defines open-source software like Linux and the philosophy of many indigenous communities who built structures to survive the harshness of colonial rule. Both rely on mutual support and small-scale, community-level labor linked into a circuit of larger tasks. Such tequio is an essential “social technology” common across Abya Yala. It has been for a long time, including back when indigenous peoples, organized into small communities, created networks to resist paying taxes or to plan rebellions against the Iberian crowns.
However, this form of scalable Abya Yalan tequio could be a crucial asset to the entire world in the years ahead. When technologies are deployed in forms that resemble tequio, rather than in pursuit of insatiable competitive growth, we may indeed get a true solution to the dire climate emergency we are facing. Even so-called green capitalism has raised hopes that some technological invention will solve our ecological emergency. But we in Abya Yala can see how even some forms of renewable energy wind up as just another pollutant. Here, we have seen rare earths violently extracted from our territories in order to create “green technologies,” which are then installed on “empty land” by dispossessing our communities. This phenomenon was explored at the Wayuu Film and Video Showcase in a documentary called “Tatuushi” (My Grandfather). Through traditional Wayuu singing, it tells the story of a grandfather who travels to the city in search of food. On his return, he finds that coal companies have devastated his land and destroyed his home. Faced with dispossession, the grandfather responds with a traditional prayer.
An alternative, offered by Abya Yala, lies in separating economic development and the development of new technologies from consumerism. This would place technological creation and ingenuity once again at the service of the common good, not of the market. Technology as tequio; technological creation and innovation as a common good. A kind of open-source software we can all participate in, just as we have participated in the construction of our lives as the colonized peoples of this continent, resisting genocide and extinction. In the face of our current global climate emergency, we need to foster forms of technological development that emphasize living with dignity, not infinite economic growth as an end in itself. We must focus on technologies based on collaborative labor more than on competition. As peoples of Abya Yala, we’re experienced in this strategy, which I call tequiology. If the world were to listen to the people of Abya Yala and adopt this new tequiological vision, we could perhaps escape the digestive system that so threatens our world’s climate and endangers human life.