Narcocorridos, Apps and Culture

As human beings we go through different stages. We keep realigning our focus as that-thing-called-life develops. What was a logical top priority on high school makes us feel embarrassed in a party just a few years later.

Developers —despite it what might seem looking at HackerNews— are not different, we’re human beings too. We shift from obsessing on every single detail of the last MacBook to read every book on parenting. One funny thing on my personal experience of this evolution is that over time I’ve become more conscious and self-aware of the evolution itself.

During the last 10 years I’ve got more and more obsessed with the political, social and cultural implications and goals of technology. Initially I got really obsessed with the Open Data movement that was having a huge boost in UK. As result I created —one of?— the first Open Data organization in Spain and started talking publicly on how to use technology to hack politics.

In 2010 I moved to Iceland, I got interested on the startup approach used here to redact a new constitution and how technology was used as a catalyst for political transformation. A few years ago I had the opportunity to talk about the historical implications of mobile devices and how HFT and Amazon’s warehouses are just the first examples of automated systems from which complex, unexpected patterns emerge. Last year I talked about the implications of digital tools in the concept of human mortality.

I still care and love researching new technologies and paradigms, but studying them as purely engineering problems can sometimes give us a wrong scale of their relevance. Discussing the political agendas built on top of them, thinking about the cultural objects generated, or analyzing the new social interactions they create, presents far more interesting questions.

Whenever I mention these topics I usually get two reactions.

From people in the tech community and conference organizers I usually get a mix of “But what is the practical use of this?” and “Developers are not interested on this”. For some reason most developers feel safer if they talk about technology as if it’ll be used on a vacuum, without any kind of context or consequences other than retention, traffic, page views or downloads. I guess part of the problem is that today’s tech industry is mostly composed by white male twenty-somethings –like I was once– that simply feel disconnected from politics and social issues… because, well, they don’t have them.

From the non-tech people crowd I often get a shockingly high number of dismissive reactions. Exhibiting a surprising intellectual snobbism, the average middle-age, middle-class partygoer considers every digital tool as ineffective, every new hot app as irrelevant. Any shitty book seems to be more fundamental to humanity’s cultural commonwealth than the interactions of MMORPGs players, every mediocre film more politically influential than Facebook’s UI, used 1.5 billion people every month.

Of course this mentality provokes important problems, like the lack of proper long-term storage strategies on most web services. It’s just teenagers taking selfies. Not worth the effort. If you add the VC-oriented approach followed by most starupts and the way apps profit from being data silos, eventually you end up losing 90% of what was created in the early years of the web and with networks that forget at an increasingly fast pace.

Last week I found a very eloquent example of how Snapchat, Instagram, Beme… YouNameIt are culturally relevant. In July, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the drug kingpin known as El Chapo, escaped Mexico’s most secure prison. Again. The escape opened the news worldwide and specially shocked Mexican society, that was promised a few years ago, this would be impossible.

Most human groups find their way to encode social realities in cultural artifacts, making them memorable and shareable. From singing farmers on the Euphrates riverside to Gangsta Rap, music is one of the most powerful artifacts we’ve created to this end. In an increasingly violent Mexico, this practice has taken the form of Narcocorridos, folk songs focused on drug smugglers and kingpins. Just a few hours after El Chapo’s escape dozens of new narcocorridos were posted on Youtube and other social networks.

These songs reflect on the lives and stories of the criminals, sometimes praising them, but very often openly criticizing the corruption and uselessness of a Mexican government that can’t and won’t deal with them. Both approaches are enough reason to ban the narcocorridos from all mainstream media. And, therefore, the reason why spread like fire on the digital realm.

Recorded with phones, shared on Snapchat and Instagram, these videos connect with the suffering and daily reality of millions. You can hear their creators asking the audience to like and follow. Uniquely suited for the network, the narcocorridos are folk history, formed in real time in front of your eyes, created exclusively in these irrelevant, good-for-nothing apps.

As it’s well known these days software is eating the World. The World, in exchange, seems to be covering every last corner of our servers with politics and culture.