Do you know why this is called La Casa Azul?” My classmate Nate and I shared a hesitant look. “Well, aren’t all the walls blue?” I asked in reply.
Oliver Fröhling laughed. He knew that we were used to overanalyzing questions that professors asked, so he always had fun messing around with us.
“Yeah!” he responded, grinning and moving right on to another joke. “We Germans have a special sense of humor. You do know how many Germans it takes to change a light bulb, right?” Nate and I looked at each other again, perplexed. “One!” he said, “we’re all really efficient and have no sense of humor!”
We worked with Oliver over the next two weeks, and the jokes never stopped. Nate and I were in Oaxaca, Mexico for the field component of a class called “Development and Grassroots Resistance in Latin America.” Oliver looked like a hipster Indiana Jones in his weathered leather jacket, T-shirt with the logo of his organization, and felt fedora. After spending just a couple hours with Oliver, we realized that behind his lighthearted charm was an acute understanding of modern Mexican politics. He walked us through the crowded streets of Oaxaca, past markets selling huitlacoches, tortillas moradas, sopes, chapulines, and Oaxacan moles, and into the office of Servicios Universitarios y Redes de Conocimiento en Oaxaca (roughly translated as University Student Services and Meeting Networks in Oaxaca), also known as SURCO.
SURCO is Oliver’s brainchild. He founded the organization after writing his PhD on indigenous political movements in southern Mexico. The small organization, which he runs with just a few other people, serves to educate and facilitate communication between different social movements in Mexico. SURCO provides information to both nongovernmental organizations and to municipios, local administrative entities in Mexico. In Oaxaca, the vast majority of municipios are run by indigenous people with their own governmental structures. SURCO’s research has created significant awareness around social issues and helped numerous up-and-coming movements overcome barriers to education, information, and infrastructure.
After the debt crisis in Mexico in the ‘80s, new neoliberal policies resulted in the removal of social services formerly provided by the state. Organizations like SURCO stepped in to provide assistance (and even education) in the state’s absence. While some organizations see the end goal as the filling the need created by the lack of a Mexican social safety net, Oliver says that the real goal is to topple capitalism, which, he thinks, is the power structure that created the lack of services in the first place.
One of SURCO’s ongoing projects works to preserve the indigenous Zapotec language. To encourage Zapotec speakers to engage with the language in a modern way, SURCO is developing open-source software in Zapotec. This would enable indigenous communities to use Geographical Information System (GIS) software, allowing them to impose demographic, resource, and cultural information onto maps. GIS can be used to prevent and monitor the spread of diseases, analyze the risk of an oncoming natural disaster, and help address the endless list of other problems. SURCO wants to use the software to aid indigenous groups in maintaining sovereignty over their lands.
Mapping software in Latin America has historically been used in ways that curtail political liberty and reinforce existing power structures. The first significant use of GIS mapping in Latin America was during the drug war in Colombia. According to Geoffrey Demorest, the U.S. military researcher in charge of this project, GIS was used “in both counter-narcotic [efforts] as well as the suppression of lawlessness.” He called the tool “an indispensible starting point” for the state as a tool of power, and this pattern of GIS usage has continued ever since.
In 2006, geographers from the University of Kansas went to Oaxaca and completed a mapping project financed by the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO). This was part of a larger effort to predict areas of potential unrest and perceived drug flow in southern Mexico. The mapped areas were home to social movements that the state saw as hostile. Oliver pointed out that the FMSO-funded expeditions were met with immense criticism from indigenous communities. These communities argued that the expeditions were potential threats to their liberty and sovereignty, due to the involvement of the U.S. military and the historically antagonistic relationship between the Zapotec people and the Mexican state. “Mapping has always been very close to [the] state and military, and basically just reflects state and power relations,” Oliver told me.
Military involvement was bad enough, but the issue has gotten more muddled as the private use of GIS has increased. (Think of Google Earth, for instance.) The private sector places yet another variable into the equation, one which makes the cultivation of data even more potentially detrimental to liberty. Mining companies, for example, will often use different geographical information systems in order locate the resources found within land granted to them by the federal government. Because around 80 percent of land in Oaxaca is held communally, government land grants tend to foment unrest. SURCO has been using another form of open-source GIS called Quantum GIS (QGIS) to inform communities how much of their communal land will be surveyed or potentially taken from them and offered to private companies. These are mostly Canadian-based mining companies that practice open-pit mining, a particularly destructive form of mineral extraction.
Aside from the outright infringement of destructive mining on indigenous lands, the use of GIS by private companies also creates what Oliver calls an “increased surveillance mechanism.” He explained, “If you’re growing organic coffee or you’re part of these kind of environmental carbon trading programs, then your land will be placed in these GIS programs in order to surveil or estimate the amount of carbon that is captured.” It is this combination of government surveillance and private investment that raises problems within communities. Open-source software allows SURCO and those who use it to analyze and manage their own resources, thus subverting the existing power structures—which, after all, was Oliver’s original goal.
If the main point is basically “who gets to do the analysis and who gets to generate the data,” as Oliver put it, then QGIS is important because it allows anyone with a computer and an internet connection to democratize and improve data. “The reason why we use open-source is because it is free,” Oliver said. “But we also very much support [a] philosophy of [the] open-source movement because knowledge is not something that should be proprietary. It should be something that is created collectively; it should [be] out there in order to be improved.” Democratized data has given these marginalized communities a way to fight back.
mpowered by SURCO’s assistance, various Oaxacan communities are now using geographical mapping systems for resource management. In Capulalpam de Méndez, a forest community, people have warmly embraced QGIS and open-source technology, and other Oaxacan communities are now following suit. In fact, Oliver said that “forestry communities are using it [not only] for resource management [but also] to create community-protected areas.” QGIS has even been used to map out the effects of a hydroelectric dam and see what areas are now susceptible to flooding. These projects are what Oliver calls “capacity building,” meaning that they help develop a community’s capacity to resist exploitation, by giving them technologies that they need to generate and analyze their own data.
Here, Oliver claims that one way in which modern government exercises power is through big data and “dataism,” which is the idea that data is supremely valuable. Oliver takes his concept of big data from the prominent Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, one of the first to express concerns about the rise of dataism. Han writes, “Every click we make is registered, each word we introduce into search engines … Our digital footprint reveals an incredibly exact representation of our self, of our soul, perhaps even more precise or complete than the image we make of ourselves.” The internet has allowed for a complete registration of life into data. This becomes a huge problem when you factor in microtargeting, or the strategic use of data in order to manipulate potential clients (and in the case of the U.S. election, voters). Because our digital footprints are such complete and precise representations of our selves, companies are now capable of reaching, influencing, and predicting our psychological processes.
This field of study, called digital psychopolitics, poses a significant question to human liberty because it supplies governing bodies with more direct access to our “selves” than was ever previously possible. Han warns us that digital psychopolitics will usher in “the end of liberty.”
Big data in Oaxaca, when viewed from Han’s perspective, is an attack on community liberty, privacy, and democratic procedures—and that’s before considering the potential for exploitation at the hands of private interests. “The big issue is security,” Oliver said, “but that’s not all of it. Oaxaca is … part of this extractive economy, so there are mining interests, energy interest[s], and then the whole flip side of the green economy [the forced expropriation of land so that companies can install windmills or solar panels].” Big data provides access to information that incentivizes private investment.
Nonetheless, Oliver made it clear that “technology is certainly not always bad,” and that technology and mapping are only tools. “I like my cell phone,” he said, “but [I am] also not on the other side—that technology will free us all. It can only free us if our social and political structures are set up for technology to make us more free.” Oliver reiterates that “technologies are never neutral”—they are created for certain purposes. He also thinks they can “be appropriated by people for certain new and maybe positive ventures.”
He added that there “are all kinds of barriers, the first one being language … you are talking about indigenous communities that might not even be that proficient in Spanish, and most of these software programs tend to work in English.” Additionally, access to decent computers and high speed internet can be quite costly. Data is not transparent—certain groups are barred from accessing and understanding it. SURCO’s aim is to provide and translate that data so that people can create a collective consciousness about projects that may be detrimental to communities. Open-source software is key to social movements because it democratizes data. Because, as Oliver notes, the questions that surround the use and cultivation of data are fundamentally questions of power.
Despite their promise to support community movements, QGIS and other forms of open-source software are only a means—a crutch for democracy—in what Oliver calls “the war.” It’s the war against private and state use of GIS for exploitation, but it’s also a broader war against inequality. “Wealth is distributed in an uneven way so that, a lot of the time, communities have to accept projects that they don’t really want just because they don’t see any other option to survive.” He paused, gave a wry smile, and said, “So, I’m getting at this thing called capitalism.”