Digitalization in Latin America “Technologies alone won’t suffice to safeguard liberties”

Children playing with a computer game in the favela
Young people are able to integrate the new devices into their lives | Photo (detail): GES-Sportfoto; © picture alliance / augenklick/GES-Sportfoto

Is the Internet merely a reflection of the current political and social decline in much of Latin America or a bastion of creative and expressive freedom in the region? We asked Germán Rey, a Colombian expert on media, communication and culture.

Mr. Rey, at the start of the 21st century, people thought “the Internet would make us more free”. What’s your take on that notion today?

I think the issue of freedom is as fascinating and topical as it is complex and endangered. It always gives rise to conflicts – and restrictions. The Internet has expanded the scope of free speech and knowledge sharing and given rise to all sorts of unprecedented networks. It has radically transformed how we interact and how we get and share information as well as producing new forms, such as platforms, social networks and apps. It has turned the existing media ecosystem upside down and exponentially increased memory. It has become part and parcel of everyday life and has undermined the very foundations of trust and credibility in our society. As Roger Chartier writes about digital reading, “The present-day digital revolution is changing everything all at once: the tools and technologies we use to write, reproduce, read and share text. Such simultaneity is unprecedented in human history.”

Let’s look at the Internet and digitalization in Latin America. To what extent is the web a realm of freedom?

In Latin America, the Internet has inescapably come to resemble the deep-rooted realities on the continent: inequality, diversity, democratic deficits, poverty. All of this is manifest in the digital divide that still exists, even though it’s been shrinking in some countries: the Internet is spreading faster in urban areas than in rural life. The digital realm has come to reflect the political scene, in a complex process of assimilation that holds opportunities, but also makes problems worse: polarization and aggression, a refusal to deliberate and debate the issues.

What is the positive impact?

The other side of the story is how tremendously creative our society has proved in appropriating technologies, the wonderful interaction between the new digital devices and street protests, between the informal sector and what Sheila Jasanoff calls the “technologies of humility”. Jasanoff is referring to young people who are able to integrate the new devices and its languages into their lives, to the entry of arts and culture into the digital ecosystem and to the communal values some people have found in these innovations to help them cope with difficulties.

Has digitalization brought more freedom?

Digitalization has helped not only to expand liberties, but also to guarantee them. And in several ways: by encouraging free speech among the visible and, above all, invisible members of society, by augmenting the social control mechanisms of the powers that be, by accompanying social mobilization and mass protests, and by generating new autonomous movements among women, young people and various sexual orientations.

Let's talk about digital native media: What issues do they address and how free are they in Latin America?

One thing that struck me whilst conducting the first study of digital news media in Colombia in 2010 was their diversity, not only because they were spreading all over the country, but also in terms of the issues they covered and their community ties. Now that we’ve completed our research at the Gabo Foundation on digital native media in Latin America, these findings have been reinforced: we’ve found 1,521 digital media in a dozen countries on the continent, which form a teeming hive of expressive activity. Michel de Certeau said culture is a fourmilière, an anthill that tends to proliferate on the fringes of society. And in Local Knowledge, Clifford Geertz recalls an African proverb: “Wisdom comes out of an ant heap”, which is precisely what we’ve found in Latin America’s digital native media. They’re different from traditional media in that they prioritize the objective of providing a public service. They also tend to have less general and more focused agendas, treat their audience as a community, valorize collaborative work, and highlight issues and actors that don’t always get much media coverage.

How do they go about that?

They attach importance to storytelling, adopting a mix of earnestness and light-heartedness  and coming up with narratives that interpret not only the journalist’s objectives, but also the complexities of reality. The most frequent topics are environmental issues, coverage of the economic, social and political powers that be, community action, education, science and health. These media are not the big clunky structures of the past, but ants moving across networks and multiple screens, with various sustainability models and an impressive degree of technical versatility, even in countries with rigid systems of state control like Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. The ant tries many different ways to gain its freedom and goad the public with its bites. Its work is not far removed from political activism and it challenges traditional assumptions about journalism, that it’s always impartial and objective, for example.

How free are Latin America's mainstream media?

The mainstream media haven’t given up their freedom, but they did jeopardize it when they began considering themselves a power in their own right. In his acceptance speech at the Collége de France, Roland Barthes asks, “What if power were plural, like demons. ‘My name is Legion,’ it could say.” He goes on to point out that power infiltrates every mechanism of social life, and “even the liberating impulses which attempt to counteract it”. This is a terrible assertion, but it’s true. The mainstream media’s compromises with other powers have been blatant: in some instances, to be sure, they have spoken out resolutely and courageously against dictatorships or organized crime, but in other cases they’ve been deafeningly silent and complicit – and paid the price: a huge loss of credibility and trust, their most precious capital.

All of which occurred as the Internet and digitalization were spreading.

Yes, but also as the media’s business model was unravelling, leading to their economic collapse. The lesson to be learnt is that technologies alone won’t suffice to safeguard liberties: we need to have a sense of community and to be open to innovation, we need to be able to identify and read grass-roots movements, to be consistently involved and lend an attentive ear to emerging voices and their urgent calls.

Germán Rey’s profile at the Gabo Foundation

This article was first published in Spanish, Portuguese and German in the “Humboldt” magazine.