The Cyberspace "War of Ink and Internet" in Chiapas, Mexico

Article excerpt

On the first day of January 1994 the Ejercito Zapatista de la Liberacion Nacional (EZLN, or Zapatistas), composed mainly of Mayan Indians, burst onto the world scene when it occupied seven towns in the Mexican state of Chiapas, among them San Cristobal de las Casas, the second largest town in the state. This uprising came as a shock to the government of Mexico, which had expected the day to mark Mexico's investiture into the First World with the kickoff of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). With the Chiapas revolt, a minor province in Mexico made headlines and refocused world attention for a few days on the problems of indigenous people, taking the spotlight at a time of celebrated globalization. The Internet rapidly became an important tool for disseminating information and organizing support on an international level, and it provided a forum in which events were watched by a variety of civil organizations, thereby limiting the possible range of actions for a government concerned about its international image.

The role of the Internet is in some ways surprising, because Internet access in Chiapas is scarce indeed, with Internet hubs in only the towns of Tuxtla Gutierrez and San Cristobal de las Casas and no telephones or electricity at all in most of the rural areas. The southernmost state in Mexico has been aptly described as "a rich land and a poor people" (Benjamin 1989). Rich in resources like oil and tropical hardwoods, and a major producer of hydroelectricity and coffee, Chiapas reigns at the bottom of most Mexican social indicators, exhibiting a severe polarization between a small, rich, urban minority who benefit from the resources and a severely marginalized rural population (Schmidt 1996, 30-35). The uprising offers the apparent contradiction of a high-tech medium brought to aid an insurrection of indigenous peasants who are hardly aware of its existence.

After situating the concept of cyberspace within social theory, I present a brief history of the uprising, with emphasis on the role of the Internet. I concentrate on the interaction between information movements in cyberspace and the effects of the interaction in the social spaces outside this limited technospace. It is my contention that cyberspace has become part of our reality and that, as such, it embodies many of the traditional contradictions, as well as possibilities, found in other socially produced spaces. The role of the Internet is to enhance the scale of an event in order to increase its visibility and draw in actors from outside the immediate area of struggle. Scale thereby becomes an object of the struggle, part of which is carried on in cyberspace.

RHIZOMES OF CYBERSPACE

The technology of the Internet is easily described. It is a connection among computers (servers) that communicate with each other through standardized protocols. No central facility organizes communication; rather, each server is connected to a number of other servers, so connections between two servers are often routed through a number of different intermediate computers. Users of the Internet can connect their computer to these servers, usually via telephone service and modem, if they lack direct access to them. This design began as the military Arpanet, a project whose task was to build a communications net that was invulnerable to strikes against a central location. The solution was found in the present architecture of a net with multiple connections and no central server, in which messages can easily be rerouted if one or more servers is destroyed (Cleaver 1996). The Internet was then opened up to allow for scientific communication among universities, and recently more and more private corporations have extended the Net. Theoretically, its growth has no limit, for it can always accommodate new servers. Additions simply have to make themselves known to at least one other server throughout the domain name-server registry. Once the connections are made, physical distances and national boundaries matter little, because information travels between servers at the speed of light, linking computer users around the world. …