NATIVES ON THE ELECTRONIC FRONTIER: Technology and Cultural Change on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation
Technology and Indigenous People: the Debate
In 1991, author-activist Jerry Mander released In the Absence of the Sacred: the Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations. This book continued some of the arguments that Mander originally made in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Mander, like many other popular writers, assumes that technology is somehow antithetical to indigenous peoples, and that the invasive spread of technology into their societies is simply the latest manifestation of Western cultural imperialism. Mander somehow feels that technology is just part of the latest onslaught of the Western attack on the cultural survival of these groups. Continuing a long-standing dichotomy in our intellectual tradition, he associates indigenous people with nature, authenticity, and ecological balance, and the Western societies encroaching upon them with artifice, artificiality, and disharmony.
One lengthy chapter in the book describes Manders lament for the horrific effects of television on indigenous people. Like many other people, Mander sees TV as an instrument for spreading the insidious Western value of consumerism into indigenous communities. Since Indian people do not see themselves (or any representations of themselves with any dignity) on the screen, it helps advance the Western goal of assimilation and acculturation. It causes a decline in sociability, in traditional storytelling, and in family cohesiveness. He cannot possibly see anything positive arise out of the interaction between native people and television, which he sees as absolutely poisonous and inimical to their way of life as firewater (alcohol) or disease.
But he does not simply reserve his criticism strictly for television: rather, he sees TV, computers, automobiles, and biogenetics as just tentacles of a spreading "megatechnology" which is decreasing the quality of life for all of humanity. For Mander, technology is the absence of the sacred. Apparently, technology is incompatible with the sacred, forcing it to retreat as it advances. The only place where he feels any genuine sacrality remains (which, for him, must always manifest in the form of reverence for nature and the earth) is in the indigenous communities of the Americas and elsewhere - and, like some giant Borg collective, technology is horrifically "eating up" indigenous cultures and assimilating them into a homogenized Western monoculture.
Its easy to take to task popular writers like Mander or Jeremy Rifkin, who work outside of the groves of academia, and simply declare a brusk "tsk, tsk" over their lack of scholarship. Unfortunately, those of us in the ivory tower are not immune to the larger ideological currents of our society, and so the writings of Mander may reflect certain trends of thought which are perhaps not so overstated within our gates. For a review of most of the anthropological literature on technology and indigenous people will show that almost all these authors agree that Western technology transforms indigenous culture and makes it more like modern industrial Western society. Whether they call this process or phenomenon "modernization," "acculturation," "globalization," "development," or "absorbtion into the world system" seems to vary. The only disagreement seems to be whether this transformation is a beneficial evolutionary adaptation, or a terrible threat to their continued survival. No one seems willing to stand up and argue that perhaps neither outcome accurately describes what is happening.
The simple reality that these anthropologists and activists seem to be ignoring is one that is receiving quite a bit of attention, mostly in the literature of visual anthropology. Frustrated that they cannot control their self-representation, apparently many indigenous people are beginning to use video cameras as weapons of cultural resistance, tired of the way they have been depicted both in popular Hollywood productions and in scholarly ethnographic documentaries. No longer content to pose for the camera, the new indigenous filmmakers are seeking to stand behind the cameras gaze, using it to promote their "indigenous aesthetic" (as Faye Ginsburg calls it), and to help their cultures resist the onslaught of the very "megaculture" that produced the technology in the first place. TV (which is, after all, the "broadcast mode" of the technology of video) is becoming the key tool these cultures are using to survive - so is TV the agent of their dissolution, or perhaps one of their key agents for revitalization?
However, its not just television and video. Indigenous communities are now using other creations of the Western "megaculture" - such technologies as radio, personal computers, multimedia/hypermedia, and the Internet as tools in their struggle for survival and cultural resistance. These and other technologies are being used to preserve and promote disappearing languages, bring traditional arts of storytelling back to the growing youth population of indigenous communities, and create propaganda for the ongoing war for greater tribal autonomy, sovereignty, and respect. Further, they are linking together various indigenous groups that were previously isolated into new "pan-Indian" movements and coalitions. Formerly isolated ethnic groups separated by arbitrary national borders are relinking through a web of technology.
The Technologies of Culture; the Cultures of Technology
How is it, then, that a particular stimulus - the introduction of a new technology - produces such strikingly different outcomes in different societies? Could it be that the reason why anthropologists are observing these dichotomous outcomes is that, once again, a crucial intermediate variable is being overlooked? In this paper, I intend to suggest that in studies of technological diffusion, perhaps MANY intervening variables have been overlooked, but the key one is one of control. I think that in order to understand what impacts new technologies have on indigenous people, perhaps we need to look more closely about what technologies they choose to adopt, why they adopt them, how they are implemented, and whether those technologies put them in a passive or active position. Those technologies which indigenous groups can understand, control, and adapt for use in a new context, may be the ones which help them survive.
People who study the "sociotechnics" or social factors in the adoption and use of technology in modern societies consider these factors. Indeed, there is a vast literature now on how technologies developed for one purpose by their designers and engineers end up being "repurposed" for novel applications and purposes by the consumers who use them. The Internet is a classic example of such a technological system. Originally designed for military command, control, and intelligence (C3I) by DARPA, the Internet later became a noncommercial academic research network (NSFNET), and then, after the development of the World Wide Web (itself originally developed by CERN mostly for sharing papers in the physical sciences), ended up becoming a commercial network (.com sites have more registrations than any other type of domain on the Net today.)
Each community of users has left their own distinct stamp on the Internet, using it in novel and unexpected ways that its military and academic developers probably could never have foreseen. Probably none of the men of DARPA thought that this tool for making nuclear war a winnable proposition (at least in the 1960s) would ever have foreseen Internet virtual marriages, fish cams, and the use of the Internet as an organizing tool by anti-nuclear activists on IGC/PeaceNet. One of the laws of technology that seems to be well established is that as technologies become more complex, they are subject to a wider range of novel uses. More importantly, when technologies have open-ended components in their design, the potential for novel uses increases.
There has always been a yawning chasm, of sorts, between technology developers and the communities who use technology. Inevitably, the developers end up underestimating various human needs, especially for sociability. Alexander Graham Bell thought the telephone would be used primarily for listening to musical recordings. In France, when Minitel was developed, they thought it would primarily be used for looking up phone listings... not for participation in the "pink" chat rooms which became infamous for arranging amorous liaisons. Developers of web sites, bulletin boards, and online services have often found that areas that facilitate user interaction are the most popular; other "information services" are often completely ignored. Almost every technology ends up being rolled out first for "vertical" or top-down use, and then only later for "horizontal" person-to-person use.
In many modern or post-industrial societies, a large informal sector has sprung up, using the cast-off "obsolete" technologies of the larger society in new and creative ways. Young African-American kids practice "reuse and recycle" by acquiring last years turn table, music mixer, drum machine, or audio system. As the relentless pace of technological progress marches forward, a state of the art piece of equipment can become yesterdays news within a year or two. After a life cycle or so in a professional studio, these items can wind up in some kids garage, ready to start a new life for giving house parties. The cast-off technologies of the professional class end up becoming the weapons of dedicated amateurs, using them to cement together their own "nation" of youth united through music and dance.
This process seems to exemplify what I might immodestly call Mizrachs first law: as technologies become more complex, they also become more subject to redesign, modification, and repurposing. So -- why is it that few anthropologists of technology study this more informal process of "technology transfer"? Its easy to get lost in watching the big tech-transfer projects of various development agencies, while not paying attention to the more constant background shuffle of people in developing societies to acquire new technologies on their own at the grassroots level. Most of the literature on technology and cultural change among indigenous people only looks at efforts to impose new technologies on these societies from outside, from the top down, through the government. It doesnt look at the other process - of groups and individuals in those societies going out and obtaining the technology on their own, for their own objectives. And as this is occurring, these technologies are winding up in new and different niches from where they usually sit in modern Western society.
Indigenous Visions of Technology
We know the kinds of social and cultural change produced by these technologies in Western society. But we would be erroneous in assuming that they produce the same effects in indigenous cultures. There has been quite a bit written about the social dissolution produced by television in industrial societies. Recent studies have suggested that TV seems to have lowered civic involvement and participation by Americans. Others have claimed some sort of antisocial effects on children. And, indeed, when TV is used by Native Americans in the same way as it is used by other Americans, it appears to produce many of the same effects. However, the key thing to understand is that, all of them are not always using TV in the same way. In indigenous communities like the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, television and video are being used as tools for cultural renewal. There is great interest in taking control of whats onscreen, and in using these technologies to reassert their tribal autonomy.
Rather than causing the acculturation of Native Americans to the larger society, or having the corrosive effects on the traditions, values, and languages of these people that Mander suggests, in many indigenous communities, these technologies are having an opposite effect. Invariably, in social science, when we see a stimulus or cause producing two dichotomously divergent effects or consequences, it usually means that it is being mediated by a hidden, intervening variable that our research did not identify. I believe the key variables in understanding the effects of technologies in indigenous societies are: a) who controls the technology? b) who understands how the technology works? c) is their relationship to the technology passive or active? Those technologies that indigenous people can understand, control, maintain themselves, and actively repurpose, are being turned into tools of cultural revitalization. Rather than being "assimilated" into some large technological collective, these indigenous groups are seeking to carve out a different path.
There are some obvious correlates from this to projects in applied anthropology and development. A great deal of research literature suggests that efforts to introduce new technologies (agricultural, contraceptive, educational, etc.) into societies fail when the cultural context of these societies is ignored, or when there is no effort made to teach local people how to repair, maintain, and modify the technology. Further, when technologies are introduced into developing societies in such a way that the people are rendered passive to their deployment and distribution, they end up having corrosive effects on social relationships as new social and familial inequalities ensue. It appears that "participatory development" vis-a-vis technology transfer may also be the best route as well. The best role for anthro-technologists in the future may be in teaching indigenous people how to acquire and use new technology themselves.
This is not to say that technology does not have certain inherent consequences - "halo effects". Regardless of the signal carried on a television set, the very presence of the set will probably change behavior in certain key ways - the amount of time people spend indoors, for example, or the amount of time they spend visiting with other people. The presence of computers will inevitably change peoples focus on what kinds of information needs to be stored and tracked. Videotape inevitably fixes the dynamic reality of storytelling, dance, or ceremony into a static form, freezing out the living context of praxis to which it belongs. As culture is first and foremost a system of lived phenomena, Native critics are right in that electronic preservation of their culture will never capture the total subtlety and the nuance of any cultural performative act, and that adopting these technologies means an inevitable adoption of certain behaviors associated with using them.
Most importantly, of course, technology is not free. Often, neither is the knowledge to maintain, operate, and repair it. So, as tribal governments acquire these technologies, they face the inevitable tradeoffs of having to divert scarce resources that might be going to meet basic human needs of tribal members. On the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, the obsolescence cycle of so much of electronic technology (the constant revision of processors, operating systems, and peripherals) has a much higher toll than it would in any ordinary office or business. Likewise, the cost of support and maintenance. Many systems on the reservation were maintained by a Montana computer support firm called CSA, who would only send a support representative through once every 2 weeks - at most.
Deconstructing Technology, Culture, and Nature
These days, the act of "deconstruction" seems almost ridiculously trendy. It seems to signify an academic act, the main goal of which is to baffle or confuse. Still, if there is anything serious that can be taken out of postmodern scholarship, it is that the binary dichotomies which often seem to organize our mental models of the world sometimes serve powerful interests. In deconstructing these dichotomies, we occasionally may show that ideological emperors may be wearing no clothes at all. There seems to be a long-standing meme in Western society which associates technology with falsehood, routinization, or loss of individuality and heterogeneity. Technology is anti-nature, anti-spiritual, anti-people; various rhetorical gestures try to cast technology in the light of an alien force, an out-of-control Frankenstein monster shaping humanity to its own inscrutable ends. Technology is the West, modernity, progress; in contrast indigenous people are put in the realm of "nature," which is why statues of them in natural history museums so often seem to show them standing naked.
But, as we have slowly begun to realize through our anthropological investigation, our indigenous cousins are no less human than we are. And we humans left the realm of nature for the terra incognita of culture a long time ago. As much as we like to sing the praises of mother nature as a conservationist, it actually conserves very little. Most of all, it does not seem to conserve knowledge and experience. In order to adapt to new circumstances, "learned behavior" requires the facilitation of technology - and one of our first technologies, human language, served exactly that purpose. For homo sapiens sapiens, culture and technology is as "natural" as the shell of a mollusc - we exude it continuously, live in it as our natural environment, and could not survive without it. Humanity has been transforming nature and the environment for thousands of years. Technology is no more "unnatural" for the Yanomamo in the depths of the Amazonian jungle than it is for us, and he is just as reliant on it to survive as we are.
Tool use and technology seem to have helped cause the explosion in cognitive capacity that make us what we are. So, to forego technology is for us as unnatural as birds giving up laying eggs in nests. Technology also seems to have been a longstanding partner in all of our human needs - even our needs for the spiritual or sacred. Drums, bull-roarers, whistling double-chambered vessels, lyres; all have been built and used to create the musical rhythms and tones which shift our consciousness and our emotions. Technology also has often been our best tool for saving and preserving our natural environment, even if the original causes of that environmental decline came from other, earlier technologies. Our view of the Earth from space, through satellite photography, provides us better strategies for dealing with global ecological problems, than we could have ever devised from our sense "on the ground."
We know that the Lakota would not have achieved the dominion over so much of what is today South Dakota were it not for the introduction of key Western technologies in the 18th century- including saddles, guns, and canvas. While they probably suffered from certain introductions from Europe -- notably, new germs to which they had no immunity, alcohol, and of course, the railroads which began to crisscross their territory -- they also benefitted from others. Their existing buffalo-hunting subsistence economy only became augmented, and they were able to expand their territorial control through their greater capacity for waging war - and thus for a brief century, anyway, they became Masters of the Plains.
It is time that we stop putting indigenous peoples in the category of nature. They are as much the children of homo faber as the rest of us. The hominid revolution that took humanity out of the realm of mere nature and into the realm of learned culture affected them as much as it did us. The indigenous ethnoscientists of the Americas watched the motions of the stars, and observed closely the medicinal chemistry of plants. Today, we know that state-level indigenous peoples had incredible technologies in the areas of medicine, calculation, and architecture. Perhaps their technologies may have been more appropriate for the North American environment than ours, but they were as dependent on those technologies as we are on ours. Some day, we may move beyond our current technological monologue, and toward a more considered technology dialogue with the indigenous people of the Americas.
Who Will Triumph on the New Frontier?
One of the frequent points made by minority activists about the information superhighway is that ethnic minorities have become its "roadkill." Because they lack the high-tech skills and the access to the technology, they cannot reap its benefits. The global Internet often skips their communities because they do not have the telecommunications infrastructure to connect to it. Their schools often lack adequate facilities for their children, let alone the high-tech toys which are supposed to be the basis of computer literacy. Today on the Cheyenne River Reservation, an amazing 75 percent of people have telephones, but when you look at neighboring reservations such as Pine Ridge, that number drops to a sobering 45 percent in some small towns.
There are many anthropologists who feel that the Lakota are, like other indigenous people, somehow ill-prepared to deal with the consequences of technology. However, some Indian activists, such as the Canadian Metis Duke Redbird, argue exactly the opposite. Redbird, building on the ideas of McLuhan, suggests that the new electronic media technologies are fostering a new form of "orality" which is unlike the "literacy" of linear print civilization. He feels that Native Americans, having such a longstanding oral tradition, are better prepared to cope with the new orality or teleliteracy required to make use of the electronic media. For him and for others, the goal is to increase the access of natives to the media which are the lifeblood of post-industrial civilization.
Many tribal governments feel that the Internet and electronic commerce could mean a more culturally appropriate way of pursuing economic development for their peoples. It could provide a better source of employment and revenue than casinos. For the CRST, the Internet represented a way of increasing revenues from cultural tourism, their growing bison herd, and the sale of native crafts. There were plans to set up a data processing center on the reservation - which for Lakota people meant a way to participate in the silicon economy without inviting in the outside industries who had so often despoiled the environment of other reservations. All they lacked were the high tech skills - which is why the Tribal Chairman made technology training for people on the reservation, and upgrading the facilities of the local community college, his highest priority.
As the Cultural Center soon found, for various reasons, people internationally (especially in Europe) are far more interested in the Lakota culture than people in the U.S. are. For a long time, there was no simple way to reach this international audience. But after I helped establish the cultural centers web site, email started pouring in from places like Germany, Holland, Australia, and Spain. Lakota artists now had a vast international market that they could try and sell their artworks to. The Keeper of the Sacred Pipe at Green Grass, Arvol Looking Horse, used the Internet to organize indigenous and other people all over the world. He held an international gathering at Pipestone, Minnesota, to protest the commercialization of the sacred red mineral which is found only there.
The last encounter of Indians and Europeans on the Old Western frontier ended in tragic consequences. In a curious repeat of history that would beguile even an unflappable Marx, the new 21st century electronic frontier seems to have its share of console cowboys, electronic homesteaders, and, unfortunately, Indian haters too. Yet, there seems to be some evidence that on this new frontier, the Indians will not have such a distinct disadvantage. Their history of adapting to new circumstances seems to leave them uniquely prepared for the cultural dissolution that our own civilization seems to be undergoing (what one scholar called "disappearing through the skylight"). When Indians and Europeans meet again on this new frontier, who will emerge victorious may be a lot harder to call.