October 13, 2011

Wizard of the Upper Silicon: The Steve Jobs legacy in Amazonia

Moises da Silva, a Baniwa film maker, reviews the day's footage on his MacBook;
Aiary River, Upper Rio Negro, October 2010.

Whatever your opinion about his business model, labor policies, or global media empire, one thing is for sure:  Steve Jobs forever changed the way we all use digital technology.  From Silicon valley to the upper Amazon, words like "mouse," "click," "drag," "notebook," and "iTunes" have become household -- even thatched hut -- vocabulary in all conceivable languages. Not merely portable but downright personable computers have transformed and revolutionized the way we work, play, communicate with one another and project our individual and collective selves to the world. 

Far from being overrun by modern technology, indigenous groups of the Amazon like the BaniwaKayapó, and many others have found ways to use digital tools to engage with the international public and reinforce their own traditions and values. The Baniwa video documentation project pictured here has received support from Brazil's Ministry of Culture. Baniwa high school students at the remote Pamaali community use a satellite internet link powered by solar panels to surf the web, exchange email with family and friends in distant cities like São Gabriel and Manaus, and post a regular web log of their own.

Moises prepares to film as a ceremonial
longhouse is being constructed
Baniwa children warm up at a bonfire by the
longhouse after the ritual is done
A Baniwa shaman supervises
the ceremony and filming

We cannot attribute the entire digital revolution to one man, but Jobs made a singular contribution by taking the "tech" out of "high-tech," developing elegantly intuitive, deceptively effortless, and widely imitated designs for interfacing between devices of all types and humans of all ages, professions and cultures. This posting is dedicated to his legacy.

-- The digital culture projects mentioned here are featured at the Goeldi Museum's  current "Amazonidas" exhibit. The Goeldi Linguistics department has a large documentation program for indigenous languages.


  1. First of all, I love the picture at the top. Very dramatic and evocative.

    How widely do indigenous people use high-tech devices? How much modern technology do they use? Cars? Tv? Phone? Or did they just leap frogged over those technologies and went straight to wireless.

  2. Kristina,

    Thank you for your kind comments. Coming from a digital culture specialist like yourself, I am especially honored. Short-wave radios have long been fundamental communication tools for indigenous communities and associations. As more indigenous leaders have traveled the world seeking support, cel phones have taken on an equally important role.

    Many have worried about the growing impact of satellite TV links even in remote communities. Yet as digital cameras and laptops have become more affordable, indigenous associations and even individuals have found ways of absorbing the implicit media lessons and turning the barrel around on the camera, as it were, producing documentaries and generating cultural commentaries of their own.

    Thank you again for your comment and your insightful question.

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