Digital divide or network frontier?

In Yelapa, cybercafes and police squads have arrived, but a road into town is still controversial.


Cliff Barney
April 7, 2004 11:30PM (UTC)

An array of investors, developers and governments -- operating in real time over the global communications network and basing their decisions on financial and political events -- is conducting real estate development around Mexico's Bay of Banderas. Their immediate purpose is to transform the two-state area around the bay, centered on Puerto Vallarta, into a mega-resort that will triple tourism and population in the area within 20 years. That process will require building plans and the construction of physical infrastructure, as well as multiple investment and marketing initiatives, and will incur massive social displacements.

Small towns in the southern part of the bay like Yelapa and Pizota are included in these plans, but they have special requirements: They are isolated geographically, off of the highway grid; and they are on the wrong side of the digital divide. Yelapa did not get electricity until three years ago, and Pizota still has none. Yelapans are only now beginning to enjoy the fruits of television, telephones and computer technology (including two cybercafes and one game arcade).

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In order to be integrated into the bay's development plan, and made into a place comfortable for tourists, Yelapa will have to be helped over the digital divide (though not helped too much; part of the plan for Yelapa and Pizota is to let them remain attractively primitive). In the process, the towns will find themselves socially displaced; where once they were isolated, they are becoming connected to the global network. The digital divide, which Yelapa is now crossing, is one dimension of the network, but the barrier is more than purely technological. The global network links the entire world economy into a single marketplace. When it incorporates a locality that has previously been isolated, the border, the edge of the network map, becomes a frontier between a primitive environment and a powerful invader. In this respect, Yelapa is a frontier town and a representative of what happens locally when the world comes calling.

Although it is a thoroughly Mexican village, Yelapa is politically an Indian reservation. The people are now mostly mezistado and they have little trace of any indigenous customs; they don't know their indigenous history or how they got here. Because of its geography, this area has always been remote from both the Spanish and the Mexican governments, and it has run its own affairs. Today, Yelapa is being integrated into a global society and its global economy.

Sociologist Manuel Castells calls the emergence of a global society and economy, a "network society" because, he thinks, power resides in the real-time economic and communications networks rather than in localities. But the network frontier is no more about digital technology than the American frontier was about guns, axes and iron pots; rather, they are both concerned with who exercises power over land and resources. "The most significant thing about the American frontier is, that it lies at the hither edge of free land," wrote Frederick Jackson Turner in his seminal essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," and later, more ominously, "The first frontier had to meet its Indian question, its question of the disposition of the public domain..."

With jungle, bay, views, and beaches, Yelapa's land is one of the most beautiful chunks of coast in Mexico, and it is practically undeveloped. As part of an indigenous community that owns its own land under a Spanish charter, Yelapa holds all its land in the public domain; except under special circumstances, its land cannot be bought by outsiders. Nevertheless, the increasing price of land around the whole Bay of Banderas has increased the value of Yelapa's land; tourist rents have doubled and even tripled in the past two years. The community has already granted a long-term lease to a multinational company, Omnilife, under terms that permit Omnilife to sublet the land to any outsider for any type of tourist center. At least one outsider has laid claim to Yelapa land and tried to sell it.

With electricity have come appliances worth stealing, and the latest advance of the network frontier has been to send in Marshal Dillon. After an entire history without a police force, Yelapa last month saw armed deputies patrolling the town's paths, always in a squad of all four members. Their first bust was a local crack user and thief who had been more or less tolerated since everyone in town had known him all his life. A day before the police appeared, an Anglo crack addict left Yelapa with apologies to everyone and promises to enter a treatment program. Like the good citizens of Dodge, the burghers of Yelapa welcomed the law, and at the town meeting that was called to announce the police presence, the people burst into spontaneous applause.

In fact, Yelapans are almost dazed at the largesse provided by the network in the past few years. In a town where most women still wash clothes by hand in a river, one enterprising resident has opened a wash-and-fold laundry. In addition to electricity, the town now has a 24-hour medical clinic, paved pathways with lighting at night, a cement pier at the beach where previously all supplies had to be unloaded on the sand, and telephones. All of this, acknowledges Luis Reynoso, the former president of the Chacala community, to which Yelapa belongs, came from the Mexican federal, state and municipal governments. Yelapa had asked for this assistance for years, but got it only when the Bay of Banderas became a major focus for integrated tourist development.

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Yelapa still lacks a road, the feature that John Steinbeck saw as the defining element of cultural expansion. In "The Log From the Sea of Cortez," his account of a 1940s expedition to then undeveloped Baja California, he wrote: "Once we thought that the bridge between cultures might be through education, public health, good housing, and through political vehicles -- democracy, Nazism, communism -- but now it seems much simpler than that. The invasion comes with good roads and high-tension wires. Where these two go, the change takes place very quickly."

Yelapans and the expatriate community are fond of telling each other scare stories about maps showing "The Road" that many fear -- and others hope -- will eventually be built into town. Some of these tales describe a kind of corniche snaking down the mountainous coast south of Puerto Vallerta; others report on a series of feeder roads to the bay from the main highway inland. No one has ever shown such a map publicly. There is a bulldozed road over the mountains in back of town, but it's not suitable for tourism either in condition or destination.

But with or without a road, the global network is established. Yelapa is firmly tied to global marketing plans, and its rentable properties may be inspected, reserved and paid for via the Internet. Its local autonomy has been diminished by the activities of the Mexican government, and its media isolation has been dented by Rupert Murdoch, whose Sky TV is now the source of all news programming. After much struggle, the town's secondary and college preparatory schools have access to computers, and it is continuing to adopt new technology: the municipal government has even promised to install a system of potable water.

But the increasing connectivity to the outside world and the pervasiveness of new technology do little to change the Yelapa economy or give its young people jobs. Many Yelapans routinely leave town to look for work, and there are entire communities of Yelapans in San Jose and Santa Cruz, Calif. The community government, unable to settle its differences internally, has begun making alliances with mainstream Mexican political parties. Wherever its place on the digital divide, Yelapa's ability to maintain its local character under intense global pressure to develop depends on whether it can continue to protect its land, and how it responds to life on the network frontier.

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Next: Think locally, act globally.


Cliff Barney

Cliff Barney is a journalist who has covered technology since the semiconductor revolution in the 1960s. He lives in Ashland, Ore., and in Yelapa, Jalisco, Mexico.

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Globalization Latin America Mexico

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