Mexico’s digital future: moving beyond technological determinism

Source: PixabaySource: Pixabay

On the 31st of March 2018, phase 1 of Mexico’s new wholesale mobile network, Red Compartida (Shared Network), will launch. There are big expectations for this project, expected to cover 95% of Mexico’s vast territory: it will bring cheap, reliable data to millions (along with all the digital products and services this will facilitate) by the mid 2020s. Yet, despite the government’s rhetoric of Mexico’s digital future being just moments away, this article suggests that up until now, this intervention is lacking the social and educational investment needed to match such radical technological change, putting the success of this intervention at risk.

Red Compartida is a wholesale network, meaning that it will build a network across the whole country and rent out access to multiple digital companies. They will then be able to offer products and services cheaply across the territory since they will not need to invest in infrastructure. A private company, Altán Redes, will build and manage the network with a lease for 20 years, but the spectrum rights will remain state owned. This public/ private partnership is the first of its kind worldwide. In an effort to ensure longevity, the network will use advanced 4G LTE technologies and is 5G ready. This is the biggest and most expensive telecommunications project in Mexico’s history, garnering international attention from governments and international organisations. In fact, Red Compartida was recognised at the 2016 Mobile World Congress where Mexico received an award for its efforts in government leadership.

The pressure is on to reform telecommunications in Mexico because for years the country has suffered from a sector dominated by a private monopoly. The privatisation of Teléfonos de México in 1990 basically passed a state monopoly into private hands, allowing the rise of telecoms tycoons such as Carlos Slim (now one of the richest men in the world). The market has long been acknowledged as failing, with Mexicans suffering the highest call rates in Latin America and one of the widest gaps in rural/ urban digital inclusion. The privatisation of this market, although introduced with much fanfare and celebrated by the leading international institutions of the time, has been a resounding failure. Red Compartida is a key mechanism to reform the market, improve customer experience and reduce the political and economic power of tycoons such as Carlos Slim.

According to the government, releasing cheap mobile internet access across Mexico will be the spark to catapult the Mexican economy, education system and social relations, significant factors in determining Mexicans’ quality of life, into the digital era. The Mexican telecommunications system certainly needs reform, however, like many large-scale public and private technological initiatives, this reform has been driven by technologists and technocrats who believe that technology on its own can change society. This perspective can roughly be labelled as technological determinism; the belief that technology is the most predominant agent of change in a given scenario.

According to such a belief, once designed, technology need only be “switched on” in order to achieve its expected outcome. The belief in the transformative power of technology, created through hyperbolic claims from international institutions and marketing speak, blinds technocrats and technologists alike to the simple fact that all technology (which requires human users) is socially embedded. Any transformative power that technology has depends on a social, cultural and educational matrix underpinning it. Although the less ‘sexy’ side of implementing technology solutions, this matrix of experiences, customs and knowledges into which technology is released often proves the most critical factor to success. Latin America has seen its fair share of ‘snazzy’ technological fixes which, despite high hopes, have flopped because design and implementation have not taken into account the wider social context. For anyone interested, a quick google of the infamous XOPO laptop programme in countries such as Peru will highlight this issue. Technological determinism, although offering us the world on a plate, prevents us taking a wider perspective when analysing technology projects.

In multiple analyses of the Mexican government’s programmes to accompany Red Compartida (such as Mexico Conectado and Mexico Digital), a solid programme to develop digital skills in the populations most disadvantaged by current social and economic disparities is lacking (for a more thorough analysis see the work of Guadalupe Sosa Hernandez). These long-term studies highlight that digital education and skills initiatives, though launched with much excitement, soon fall out of political favour and end up under-resourced. This means programmes tend to be selective in their provision of services, targeting those who are easiest to access or require less resources per head to fill targets. School children in urban areas benefit the most from these initiatives, with a big focus on digitising educational resources and using online teaching methods. Of course, providing opportunities for younger generations to develop digital skills is important. However, this should not come at the expense of older generations, rural populations and those with little formal education. These individuals are already excluded from multiple social, economic and political realms; the digital sphere should be exploited as an opportunity to reintegrate these individuals, and should not exacerbate their exclusion.

For those who already possess some digital skills, this intervention will open up a whole new sphere of digital products and services to them. Much of the marketing speak and rhetoric surrounding Red Compartida suggests a (semi-nationalistic) new era of Mexican digital innovation on the horizon. Of course, given the forthcoming federal elections in the summer of 2018 and souring relations with the US, such a large-scale intervention is going to be milked for all the political capital it is worth. However, this new era is only likely to benefit those existing (multi-national and mainly US based) market players who have the capital to launch ‘big and fast’ in this new market. The government has invested in initiatives like Hack CDMX (a huge hackathon in Mexico City) in efforts to make Mexico the “Aztec Tiger economy”, but such piecemeal investment will provide little protection from the rush of international VC funded, ready branded and packaged digital products and services. It is not surprising to find that the Mexican company, Altán Redes, is nearly 30% owned by international venture capital and another 40% owned by international banks and pension funds. Innovation and trade across borders should of course be welcomed, however, if Red Compartida is being sold as Mexico’s fast-track to a self-styled digital revolution, then the hacker culture, computer science and programming opportunities, and start-up funding need to be there to match.

Technocrats and technologists in Mexico (and elsewhere!) would be wise to look at Clapperton Chakanetsa Mayhunga’s recent What Do Science, Technology and Innovation mean from Africa (2017). This edited collection explores the social and cultural environments (some state sponsored, some more organic) which have fostered the successful appropriation of mobile and digital technologies across Africa in recent years. Importantly, these researchers and thinkers (along with those in Latin America such as Eden Medina, Ivan da Costa Marques and Christina Holmes) debunk the myth of technological determinism. To be successful – if our measure of success includes the appropriation of technology, not just its passive use – such large-scale interventions require a much deeper appreciation of the educational, social and cultural foundations to technology usage and adoption. These take sustained investment and time to nurture. There is no “switch on” moment, but years of cultivating skills and finding opportunities to make digital technologies useful and accessible for people in their daily lives.

The March 2018 launch is fast approaching. Mexico will soon enter a new era of telecommunications, dismantling the existing monopoly and releasing new social and economic forces into many facets of everyday life. Let’s hope that over time the Mexican government (and governments and institutions elsewhere) recognise that a more holistic approach to technology intervention is required, before this telecommunications reform becomes another tale of failed intervention.