by Roberto J. González, author of Connected: How a Mexican Village Built Its Own Cell Phone Network

Right now, many of us are reevaluating what it means to be connected. In the United States, we often think of connectivity as having wireless broadband service, or 5G mobile access. Our minds might conjure up images of Big Tech and Silicon Valley, where I teach. That’s especially understandable in a moment of quarantines, social distancing, and working from home. But the times have also prompted reflection on the salience of human connections, as we find ourselves suddenly separated from those we love—or else cooped up at home with them, day in and day out.

My book, Connected: How a Mexican Village Built Its Own Cell Phone Network, takes a closer look at these ideas of connection through the story of Talea de Castro. Talea is a remote pueblo in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca that creatively connected itself to the outside world through the magic of mobile technology. For years, indigenous Zapotec villagers petitioned telecom companies and government officials to provide them with cell phone service, but they were either ignored or turned down. Then, in 2012 and 2013, they were able to obtain and install a local, community-based system with help from a non-governmental organization and a small team of hackers. Although there were glitches, it worked well—at least until Movistar, a telecom giant, muscled its way into Talea several years later. Despite this, the locally-based technology continued spreading across the region. Today the network ties together more than 70 Mexican pueblos, serving approximately 4000 users—and it’s still growing.

Community-based systems are a dramatic example of how indigenous peoples are harnessing twenty-first century technologies to reinforce values passed along from generation to generation. Across Latin America, pueblos are using the internet and social media to communicate with each other over long distances, broadcast and archive cultural events, and promote locally produced foods and crafts.

The technology and connection fostered by these community systems present a striking comparison to Silicon Valley. I began working at San José State University 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.”

The tech industry is booming right now, but Silicon Valley doesn’t have a monopoly on inventiveness. 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 get people thinking about innovation and problem-solving outside of Big Tech, outside the Valley, outside the cities. Anthropology can open up radically different possibilities.

“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.”

It’s 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 writing Connected, I’ve become more optimistic about the ability of villagers to create and adopt technologies on their own terms. 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 pueblos have viable, functioning democracies, where people discuss and debate substantive issues and set common goals: How can we build a road to export our coffee? What’s the best way to get cell phone service? 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-August, not a single case had been recorded there, and village authorities enforce strict social distancing measures and face-covering protocols.) Citizens also 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. As we continue to ask what it means to be connected—especially in the time of a global pandemic—we have much to learn from communities like Talea.