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From issue: Trafficking and Transnational Crime (Spring 2010)

Fresh Look Reviews

Fresh, unique perspectives on recent books from across the hemisphere originally published in English, Spanish and Portuguese.


In this issue:

La revolución horizontal: El poder de la comunicación en manos de la gente by Gonzalo Alonso and Alberto Arébalos

Marco Enríquez-Ominami

New information technologies are constantly redefining the ways in which politicians and businesses are interacting with consumers and voters. The result is a changing paradigm in the fundamental order of societies—a fact welcomed by many but greeted with apprehension by others.

La revolución horizontal: El poder de la comunicación en manos de la gente (The Horizontal Revolution: The Power of Communication in the Hands of the People) is perhaps the most refreshing book to come out of Latin America recently that examines the evolution of communication and the Internet. As a politician who has used social media to wage a dark-horse political campaign, I can attest that the young authors accurately portray how technology—including Twitter, Facebook, and similar social networking—has reshaped the way in which candidates reach out to their base and bring others into their political circle.

The authors add a real-life, practical dimension to the book that is often missing from such larger macro studies. Alberto Arébalos is the director of communications and public affairs of Google in Latin America, and Gonzalo Alonso is the vice president of operations at Globant and was previously Google’s general director for Latin America.

The authors approach complicated subjects with philosophical reflections on how people perceive and communicate their options, tastes and consumption. They describe the evolution of certain instruments or tools in different industries, such as music or literature, but more specifically they deal with the new type of human formed by these new tools. Technology has distorted the perception of being; today, peoples’ sense of the here and now can be played out repeatedly and simultaneously online. Although this book is limited to the phenomenon of new technologies, it also raises questions about fundamental philosophical tenets, both about the nature of man and the organization of society and the economy.

The authors prove with theoretical and empirical evidence that information technology is sparking a “horizontal revolution.” In doing so, they also subscribe to a principle that is long overdue for a debate with traditional liberal thinkers. As Adam Smith said, freedom and self-interest produce order, not chaos. But what happens—as discussed in La revolución horizontal—when people want different things at different times? Or, with the Internet, when everyone wants the same thing at the same time? This raises fundamental questions of social order and the nature of human interaction.

Some argue that the term “all” cannot include everyone. They consider poverty to be a structural problem and believe it is senseless to seek precise answers to these questions. I believe this feeling perpetuates the status quo and turns a blind eye to the poor who merely sit and watch as the country grows and leaves them empty handed.

Without getting bogged down in a formal analysis, the book picks up on this idea in an original way and encourages the reader to think about whether these premises are correct. It also describes the Internet as a vehicle that allows something new to take place: simultaneous and repeated communication without limits. This gives freedom a new meaning, independent of free will.

This freedom can also mean that the reputation of a person or good can change instantaneously. For example, one compelling chapter examines how Twitter now means that the box office success of a multimillion dollar movie can be determined even before an audience leaves the theater on opening night.

The Internet is a network, not a way of life. And these young authors accurately observe that new technology has now become essential to a normal life today. But the book also questions how technology has changed our way of connecting with each other. La revolución horizontal, while offering great insight into contemporary philosophy, sociology and class politics, also holds out the hope of improving policymaking.

The only shortcoming of this book is its failure to explore how the Internet´s “horizontal revolution” has managed to exclude an important sector of the population: senior citizens. It would be interesting to explore how new technology can play a role in connecting the older generation with the rest of the information technology community. For instance, digital TV offers the elderly an interactive tool for which they only need a remote control instead of a mouse.

As the authors note, today’s information technologies “for the first time will leave more power in the hands of people.” It will certainly dictate how people interact for the foreseeable future. To understand how this has happened, and its meaning, I recommend that experts and novices alike read this book.

El insomnio de Bolívar: Cuatro consideraciones intempestivas sobre América Latina en el siglo XXI by Jorge Volpi

Andrés Mejía Vergnaud

Panama Canal Zone, 2050. After years of growing tensions, the armies of the Southern Alliance (a confederation of all South American nations) and the North American Union (formed by Mexico, Canada and the U.S.) clash in what comes to be known as the Seven-Day War. Hostilities cease when the Southern Alliance president is removed from office by a coup. Renewed contacts between the two blocs lead to gradual integration. In 2110, the climax comes with the promulgation of the Constitution of the United States of the Americas—a Pan-Continental federal country.

Is this a political forecast, fantasy literature or science fiction? Jorge Volpi’s prize-winning El insomnio de Bolívar: Cuatro consideraciones intempestivas sobre América Latina en el siglo XXI (Bolivar’s Insomnia: Four Untimely Considerations on Latin America in the XXI Century) contains all three possibilities. And that is both the strength and the weakness of this engrossing book.

Born in 1968 in Mexico City, Volpi is the author of six published novels and six non-fiction books. He has been awarded some of the most prestigious prizes in Spanish-language literature such as the Biblioteca Breve, and, for his latest book, he won the Debate-Casa de América 2009 prize.

Among the questions left unanswered by El insomnio de Bolívar is which literary genre it belongs to. The book explores the meaning of Latin America through analyzing its past, present and future. Although on one level it is an imaginative work of futuristic fiction, it may also be classified as a political essay. The book covers, among other topics, the history, governance systems and economic woes of Latin America.

The difficulty in pinning down a specific genre is not necessarily an argument against the book. As the author himself might argue, sticking to a single genre would leave important areas uncovered. Had Volpi decided to write a purely fictional work, readers might have missed the serious political commentary he felt was important to his presentation.  And a formal academic work would have constrained his exquisite style, which provides captivating portraits of Latin American cities, places and people. The only label that really fits this book is a simple one: a meditation.

Actually, the book is composed of meditations on four topics: the disappearance of the traditional concept of Latin America; the region’s perennial struggle with political and economic pains; the new frontiers of Latin American literature; and the future. Each offers a different perspective and a unique style. Nevertheless, the transitions between sections are awkward. They fail to smoothly tie the overall book together.

The book’s brightest sections are its portraits of Latin America’s cities and people. Volpi’s writing talent is demonstrated when he describes a snobbish literary festival in the Colombian city of Cartagena where Gabriel García Márquez is scheduled to speak. “Only at the Vatican, and nowadays not even there, such an intense air of sanctity can be perceived, such a fervent devotion, an admiration that borders with ecstasy,” Volpi writes with barely concealed irony.

Toward the end of the book, however, his tone changes from sarcastic to professorial, when he offers a dull, long and exhaustive description of current literary trends in Latin America.

Volpi’s book underlines his stature as one of the region’s shrewdest observers. As an analyst, he defies tradition and refuses to blame external agents and causes—such as imperialism and the United States—for Latin America’s suffering. As a critic, Volpi risks isolation from fellow intellectuals by refusing to join the utopian thinking that has seduced and corrupted so many Latin American minds.

But oddly enough, Volpi seems to drop his critical abilities when analyzing Latin America’s political and economic problems. Ignoring sound academic methodology, he opts for generalizations that do not explore the causes or relevant case studies when looking at the region’s evolution. Since politics and economic development represent a substantial part of the book—and are crucial to Volpi’s arguments—this unfortunate slip into superficiality, cliché and extravagant assertions is a fatal weakness of El insomnio de Bolívar. Volpi’s determination to reach general conclusions about Latin America forces him to ignore differences and nu nuances among countries.

Nowhere is this more visible than in his analysis of Latin American politics. His extremely simplistic account is that of an “imaginary democracy,” where elections, individual rights and division of powers are a mask for domination by caudillos, parties or interest groups. This is hardly an accurate portrayal of the variety of governments operating in Latin America today, ranging from an authoritarian Venezuela, a post-Partido Revolucionario Institucional Mexico and a strictly-constitutional Colombia.

Even weaker is Volpi’s depiction of the region’s economic woes. Disappointingly, the author naively blames “neoliberal prescriptions” for Latin America’s problems. He fails to differentiate between country-specific situations and between various economic policies. Each policy (trade liberalization, fiscal discipline, privatization, etc.) has produced unique effects within countries. His failure to offer a complex analysis is frustrating for any reader that seeks greater insight into the region’s future destiny.

In the end, Volpi’s writing skills cannot conceal the fact that his futuristic fantasy of Pan-American war and Pan-American union relies on a shallow treatment of politics and economics. El insomnio de Bolívar (a title that shows a shallow understanding of Bolívar’s conquest for Latin American unity, which never sought to achieve the utopian dream of a perfect society) is an intense and exquisite read, but it’s also a missed opportunity. Volpi misses the chance to go beyond the standard set by most Latin American literary intellectuals, who are fond of generalities and unwilling to dig deeper, with a book that could have carefully untangled the region’s complex problems.

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