Distraction Free Reading

Indigenous Women’s Engagements with Technology: From Anomaly to Autonomy

Introduction: Satellite Túpac Katari

In 2013, Bolivia became the last of South America’s major nations to launch a telecommunications satellite. The government outsourced construction and the satellite’s launch to the People’s Republic of China for USD302 million. Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, Evo Morales, was present in Xichang for the launch while those in Bolivia’s capital city, La Paz, watched on large screens erected in public squares. They cheered as the satellite, named after 18th century Indigenous leader Túpac Katari, started to climb.

Katari was a revolutionary leader who in 1781 consolidated Indigenous and non-Indigenous forces to lay siege to La Paz, aimed at choking colonial Spanish control. At the height of these insurrections more than 100,000 had joined the rebellion, but after several months royalist forces captured Katari. He was drawn and quartered, and with his last breath he shouted, “I will die, but I will return, and I will be millions.”

This well-known history in Bolivia became fodder for jokes, as countless cartoons and memes depicted a satellite shouting, “I will return, and I will cost millions.” But many outside of Bolivia, who wouldn’t have understood this wordplay, laughed as well. To them the idea of Bolivia funding this kind of technological project, and particularly naming it after an Indigenous leader, verged on the absurd. In North Atlantic media consumers’ imaginations, Bolivia is most often a symbol of the “backwaters” of the world. It is mentioned in films as a place where chemical waste might be made to disappear (Seth Gordon’s “Horrible Bosses”), and home to “those barefoot kids from Bolivia who need foster parents” (Woody Allen’s “Manhattan”). John Oliver has twice begun segments (on Elected Judges and Traffic Cebras) on Bolivia with a mislabeled map, playing on the assumption that most viewers cannot even locate the country. Even imagery produced by the tourism bureau highlights pastoral scenes, llamas, and women wearing brightly colored woven shawls. What would these people, barely understood as coeval beings, need with a telecommunications satellite?

a meme of a satellite in orbit of earth with a speech bubble that says "volveré y costaré millones" (in English, I will be back, and I will cost millions)

English: I will be back, and I will cost millions

The Anomaly of Indigenous Technology

Such reactions are fundamentally entwined with understandings of indigeneity. From the North Atlantic, and within Latin America, Bolivia is understood to be synonymous with indigeneity (though not without remark from non-Indigenous Bolivians). There is often an “aura of unexpectedness” that accompanies discussions about Indigenous peoples’ engagement with modern technologies. They are framed as “anomalies.” This unexpectedness both emerges from and reinforces notions that Indigenous peoples have been culturally isolated, remain confined to longstanding traditions, and are not integrated into the global consumer capitalism associated with developing technologies. These depictions not only obscure the ways globalized capitalist forces have affected such people (usually through dispossession and exploitation), but in doing so condition foreign audiences to understand Indigenous peoples’ experiences as antithetical to technology.

High Tech Knitters

In 2015, news began circulating globally about Bolivian women creating occluder devices used to correct certain heart defects. As may be expected, news reports framed their involvement as anomalous. While occluders are mass produced for adults, infants with the defect require a device too small to be made industrially. Instead, Aymara women in La Paz have been recruited to knit the devices from fine wire. One BBC article began “The Indigenous Aymara women have centuries of experience of knitting and weaving distinctive woolen hats, sweaters and blankets. Now, they are applying their expertise to a hi-tech medical product – which is used to seal up a ‘hole in the heart’ which some babies are born with.” The article goes on to note that such innovations are especially welcome given that Bolivia is the poorest country in the continental Americas, and thus lacks advanced hospital resources.

The knitters, who usually remain nameless, serve as eye-catching introductions to these articles, which then shift focus to the technology’s creator, Franz Freudenthal. Though Freudenthal is also a Bolivian national, he carries a name indicative of his German ancestry, and has looks to suit his name. Freudenthal is portrayed as innovator while the women are described as “an army” under his direction. Their knitting skills are framed as a form of knowledge inherent to Indigenous women, which has been repurposed and mobilized, not through their own innovation but transformed into a technological advancement only through association with a non-Indigenous leader. This type of reporting capitalizes on the anomaly of Indigenous women to attract readers, then reverses the aura of unexpectedness through focus on a non-Indigenous person as the true innovator.

Campesina Inventors

Not long before reports of the knitters began to circulate, Erika Mamani (aged 11) and Esmeralda Quispe (aged 12) constructed a hydraulic arm, which won the Scientific Olympiad of La Paz. Bolivian newspapers picked up on their story, marveling at their ability to achieve the feat at such a young age and using only recycled materials. These newspapers also focused on their residence in a town of 550 people on the shores of Lake Titicaca, providing short narratives of Mamani and Quispe’s daily lives. They detailed their 90-minute bicycle ride to school, their joy in perfecting written Aymara, the Indigenous language of the area. The articles also mention their after-school activities, like herding sheep, and describe in detail their clothing—the pollera style associated with rural Indigenous women.

Even before the Bolivian government could recognize the girls with medals and a reception, Facebook’s campaign for Internet.org (now named Free Basics) portrayed Mamani and Quispe as poster-children. Free Basics aims to “bring Internet access and the benefits of connectivity to the portion of the world that doesn‘t have them.” They produced a video depicting Quispe and Mamani, much as Bolivian newspapers had, walking in the Andes, in their simple classroom, holding the Wiphala (Andean Indigenous peoples’ flag), and riding over Lake Titicaca on a totora reed boat. The video’s narrator highlights that the girls did not have access to the Internet while building the arm. “And the Internet would have helped, big time” the male voice emphasizes. “That’s why we need to connect them…The more we connect, the better it gets.”

Many around the world have criticized Free Basics as an affront to net neutrality (The Guardian referred to it as “digital colonialism”), and in Bolivia enough people protested that the service was discontinued for the country in 2016. But more specifically, as with many North Atlantic representations of Global South Indigenous peoples, the video resorts to Indigenous symbolism (the girls’ clothing and the Wiphala), traditional technologies (the reed boat), and pristine landscapes (the Andes mountains and Lake Titicaca) in order to portray Mamani and Quispe’s foray into technology as anomalous. It makes no mention of global inequalities, poverty, or neo-imperialist policies (both on the part of the United States and regional adversaries such as Chile) which have fostered circumstances in which so many Bolivians live with little to no Internet access. For a global audience who may only understand Bolivia as a place with “barefoot children,” the portrayal of Mamani and Quispe confirms reductive understandings of “third world” people’s lives, while offering a simple redress to the problem of global inequalities through a technical solution.

Toward a Better Understanding of Indigenous Peoples and Technology

Achieving a balance between portraying the culturally specific aspects of Indigenous peoples’ technological engagement without exoticizing is no easy feat. But representations that do not rely on such exoticization will foster greater understanding that Indigenous people are capable of, interested in, and already engaging in technological growth. Indigenous engagements with technology are key to raising standards of education, health, and basic living quality. To imagine Indigenous people as contrary to technological advancement frames them as not necessitating high quality of life. By ignoring the historical, economic, and neocolonial underpinnings of these misunderstandings, we naturalize discrimination and implicitly justify further global inequalities. But through greater acknowledgement of Indigenous technological engagement, and normalizing its treatment in media, we can move toward a world in which Indigenous peoples are better able to use technology toward communication, economic ventures, education, healthcare, language revitalization, development projects, and social renewal on their own terms. This would, in part, enable an autonomous response to their own needs, rather than always being subject to others’ solutions for them.

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