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Developed world responds oddly to Starlink’s integration in Brazilian tribe

The negative response inadvertently reveals long-standing ideals of an ‘untouched’ culture from an outside perspective.

Hundreds of isolated tribes across Brazil are now accessing the internet, thanks to Elon Musk’s satellite service Starlink. 

It hasn’t gone down too well where the Western media’s concerned, however.

Musk’s Starlink antennas, which have enabled high-speed internet to reach villages like those of Brazil’s Marubo tribe, were first introduced to locals in 2023. And despite the life-changing capacities of the internet, they haven’t necessarily overhauled the lives of indigenous people to the extent many netizens are suggesting.

For starters, the Marubo tribe, located in the Amazonian municipality of Atalaia do Norte in Brazil, are not an entirely ‘remote’ tribe. 

In fact, many members of the population already had mobile phones before Starlink was introduced last year. These were used to communicate with one another when they were in the city, and to take pictures of local wildlife and landscapes. 

Yet, public response to the news that Marubo people are now perusing social media has been an overwhelmingly negative one. 

The overarching theme amongst Western commentators has been the mourning of a now eroded, once ‘untouched’, tribal culture.

‘Why couldn’t they just be left alone to be pure and peaceful?’ said one Instagram user, beneath a New York Times video of Marubo people using Starlink’s new satellite to access social media platforms. 

The irony in leaving a message like this via the same platform that is believed to be ‘destroying’ tribal lives is quite the humdinger. It’s also an irony that’s been around for some time. 

In Western society, this concept of a ‘pure’, ‘perfect’ people – untouched by the frills of ‘modern’ society – has been central to myths like those of The Last Frontier; that the United States was developed from a ‘virgin land’ and built by settlers. 

But why, if we’re all able to scroll social media, should certain corners of the globe be sheltered from the same technology? Just as one might argue it’s not our place to share the internet with tribes like the Marubo, who’s to say it’s our right to withhold them either? 

Nowadays most indigenous communities – even those we may like to believe are ‘untouched’ – have made contact with the wider world. Even more now use technology like smartphones

But the morose narratives surrounding these facts are uncomfortably patronising, and extend a colonial sentiment in and of themselves. 

Of course reports of death and disease following ‘first contacts’ between tribes and the wider world are devastating. But the West continues to uphold the notion that it is they, and they alone, who should determine how indigenous peoples exist within society.

If developed societies have been impacted by the modern world and its accompanying tools, we shouldn’t be surprised when everyone else is. 

The Marubo tribe is now facing the same challenges that have changed all modern households; social media addiction, group chats, and teenagers glued to their phones. But this doesn’t mean their culture is eroding. 

To presume so is to suggest that an ideal version of indigenous society exists. But this is an ideal crafted in the colonial psyche. 

The Marubo can not be frozen in time and isolated in space simply to meet the fantasy of an untouched culture. Change is a part of life, one that everyone has the right to – for better or worse. 

As has already been evidenced by reporters on the ground, internet access for these tribal communities won’t be without its pitfalls. But it’s also brought life saving changes, like the chance to call for help in a medical emergency

The reaction from the wider world, then, reveals a deep-seated contradiction. Introducing internet access is not about imposing a certain way of life, but rather about providing the means for communities to engage with the world on their own terms. 

To ‘shelter’ indigenous communities from modern technology is rooted in colonial narratives that see tribal peoples as primitive and fragile, in need of protection from the ‘corrupting’ influences of the outside world.

Colonial ideals over the autonomy and self-determination of indigenous populations imply that these societies are only valuable if they remain in a static, museum-like state.

But suspending a tribe like the Marubo in time is as much about control as the purported internet ‘enforcement’ it seeks to counter. In the end, the response to Starlink’s remote satellites says more about modern society’s concern for its own fading dream, than its grief for an ‘eroded’ culture.