Imagine. An indigenous woman in Mexico enters the Secretary of Foreign Affairs to apply for a passport. The bureaucrat asks, in addition to the legal requirements, for her to sing the national anthem. She was rejected. Another indigenous woman follows the same procedure, this time, the bureaucrat asks for her high-school certificate to “prove” she is not Guatemalan. She was rejected. This surreal scenario is what dozens of Zapatistas experienced a month ago. They were asked to prove their Mexicaness as their birth certificates were not enough to “verify” it. In the twentyfirst-century, the colour of skin and the manner of speech and dressing still determine your “citizenship”. If this is the current state of affairs, what happens when procedures and documents go digital (e.g., e-passport; e-voting)? How do racism and digital technology interplay?
In our new article, The machinery of #techno-colonialism crafting “democracy.” A glimpse into digital sub-netizenship in Mexico, we explore what it is to be a “sub-citizen” in the digital age. We problematise the concept of citizenship to unveil how it acts as a homogenising category that paradoxically is racialised. In Mexico, the first Constitution (1814) granted citizenship to those with an “honest way of life”. Since then, people who did not meet the prototype of an imaginary citizen, that is, those who lack a minimum income, were domestic servants, spoke a native language or were considered an obstacle to the country’s modernisation, were constructed as “internal others”. Indigenous peoples were subjugated to the identity, imaginaries, and project of the nation-state. Not only Mexico, but all states formed an exclusive and hierarchised conception of citizenship to sustain the capitalist project and vision; women, indigenous, black, illiterate, and impoverished persons were excluded.
About two centuries after, Michael Hauben’s idealisation of the digital world revitalised the homogenising force of citizenship. He envisioned a “netizen”, a global, free, equal, and networked subject with full membership to a political community. However, can technology democratise societies and eliminate inequalities and oppressions? Actually, white male elite members are the most empowered netizens, as evidenced within the United States. Technology, we argue, interacts with race, ethnicity, class, gender, age, sexuality, language, temporality, and geography producing sub-netizens within a global matrix that crosses the analogue-digital dimensions of life. Nowadays, ICTs reproduce, aggravate, and create new exclusions for the sake of “progress”. Sub-netizenship serves, like this, to differentiate the ways and degrees in which people are hierarchised and classified in the era of big data.
In our perspective, sub-netizenship cannot be dissociated from techno-colonialism, a frame – adopted consciously and unconsciously – that assumes technology to be an apolitical tool needed for the development of societies. Through the dissemination of technocratic values (efficiency, efficacy, and certainty) and an instrumental rationality, technological innovations shape our opinions, decisions, and actions and more broadly capitalist social relations. While techno-colonialism has been operating for centuries, nowadays, digitalisation has transformed it into a more opaque and rapid process no longer limited by time and space. For instance, the COVID-19 global crisis urged people to stop and give the world a break, but the tendency was to go digital. Zoom, Amazon and Uber transformed the daily lives of millions; they connected us 24/7 to keep alive capitalism. We have naturalised the “need” for connection and accepted data extraction in all aspects of life, whereas sub-netizens are further disenfranchised by digital innovation. Fortunately, they also resist.
This techno-colonialism/sub-netizenship dynamic manifested in the experience of María de Jesús Patricio Martínez (“Marichuy”) as a Nahua independent precandidate for the Mexican presidential elections of 2018. Marichuy (pictured) was the spokeswoman of the recently created Concejo Indígena de Gobierno (CIG), a proposal of the Congreso Nacional Indígena (CNI) and the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN). However, she was hindered from becoming a presidential candidate. In a highly unequal and diverse country, the Electoral Commission, seeking the “modernisation” of political processes, required aspirants to collect citizen support via an app accessible for Google and Facebook users. The app was monolinguistic, could only be run on high-end digital devices, and was intended only for netizens. Marichuy, the CIG and other sub-netizens resisted this scenario through a legal system that seeks to homogenise and render people into algorithms. Even if Marichuy could not run as a candidate, they were able to start a bottom-up conversation on their exclusion and showed the perils of the machinery of techno-colonialism.
Our article takes a first step by identifying the techno-colonialism/sub-netizenship dynamic that set ups the terms of connection and engagement. The second step, which we must pursue together, is to find a plural, non-homogenising notion of political membership among unequal and diverse networked communities. The Zapatistas and their networks are leading the way. In October 2020, they decided that “various Zapatista delegations, men, women, and others of the colour of our earth, will go out into the world, walking or setting sail to remote lands, oceans, and skies, not to seek out difference, superiority, or offence, much less pity or apology, but to find what makes us equal”. The rejected passports were in fact to initiate this ‘Tour for Life’ in Europe; a journey that challenges national borders as well as social and cultural boundaries that have delineated the notion of “citizenship” and the broader logic of capitalism. While governments embrace the digital ecstasy to impose individual, isolated, homogenised, controlled, traceable and marketable lives, Zapatistas use digital technologies to build bridges, alliances and organisation across languages, cultures, times, and geographies to break walls and create globally other forms of social relations across the analogue-digital dimensions of life.