The tentacular reach of Elon Musk: from space to the Amazon

The advent of the Internet has undoubtedly changed our habits. You can bet that it will also happen to the people of the Amazon forest, who now have connection thanks to Elon Musk. A fortune or not?

In Elon Musk’s extensive ventures, ranging from space exploration to interventions in Gaza, Ukraine, and Italy’s Campi Flegrei, it’s not surprising that the billionaire founder of Tesla and SpaceX aims to make his name known everywhere, even among the most remote tribes of the Amazon. However, a pressing question arises: Do these uncontacted populations truly desire a connection to a world beyond their own?

The answer might already be evident, yet it seems it doesn’t sit well with Musk. Through his Starlink satellite system, he has connected the Marubo people, who have long lived in settlements along the Ituí River in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, to his telecommunications network.

Since Musk’s arrival in South America (in 2022, Musk and then-Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro announced Starlink’s arrival with the slogan: “Connecting the Amazon“, the service has expanded throughout the Amazon region, reaching some of the last places on Earth without internet connectivity.

The paradox of connectivity

This technological leap has brought both utility and challenges at a high cost.

An intriguing investigation by The New York Times explored the impact of sudden internet access on a small, isolated civilization.

“When it arrived, everyone was happy,” recalls Tsainama Marubo, 73, sitting on the floor of a small hut where the Marubo sleep, cook, and eat together. Internet brought clear benefits, such as video chats with distant relatives and emergency help requests. “But now things have worsened. The young have become lazy because of the internet. They are learning the ways of the whites. But please, don’t take the internet away from us.”

Within months of adopting Starlink, the Marubo are grappling with the same issues that have plagued modern society for years: teenagers glued to their phones, endless chats, addictive social networks, online strangers, violent video games, scams, misinformation, and minors viewing pornographic material.

Modern society has dealt with these problems for decades as the internet’s reach continued its relentless march. The Marubo and other indigenous tribes, who have resisted modernity for generations, now face both the potential and peril of the web. This presents a significant threat to their identity and culture.

By the numbers

In their villages, they mounted antennas atop poles and connected them to solar panels. These antennas began linking Starlink satellites to the villagers’ phones.

The internet became an immediate sensation, drastically altering routines in ways that proved harmful. In the village, if you don’t hunt, fish, or plant, you don’t eat.

Currently, there are 66,000 active contracts in the Brazilian Amazon, covering 93% of the region’s legal municipalities. This connectivity has opened new opportunities for work and education for those living in the forest. However, it has also provided loggers and illegal miners with a new tool to communicate and evade authorities.

“Some young people maintain our traditions,” says TamaSay Marubo, 42, the first female leader of the tribe. “Others just want to spend the whole afternoon on their phones.”

Kâipa Marubo, a father of three, appreciates that the internet helps educate children but is worried about video games:

“I’m concerned that they might suddenly want to imitate them.”

Alfredo Marubo, a leader of a Marubo village association, is the tribe’s most vocal critic of the internet. The Marubo traditionally pass down their history and culture orally, and he fears that this knowledge may be lost: “Everyone is so attached to their phones that sometimes they don’t even talk to their own family“, he laments. It’s a story that feels all too familiar.

Regardless, one thing is certain: there is no turning back.

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