Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Should favelas be open source?

Hmmm. Wiring the favelas with open source software (thanks to Matt Hall for sending this BBC clip my way) seems to be a case of poetic justice. Thus intellectual property mirrors private property.

Question: thought it's fine for favela residents to have Internet access, why does this kind of infrastructure always seem to take precedence over organizing and empowerment?


Anonymous said...

Why does this sort of infrastructure take precedence over organizing and empowerment, you ask.

Well, it might be naïve, but perhaps community centers with free Internet access and more Internet access in private homes in the favelas will actually lead to more organizing and empowerment - or lead to better conditions for these?

After all, they mean that the favelas will not lag so much behind the technological/Internet revolution happening in the rest of society.

rn said...

OK, Carsten. But its certainly not guaranteed.

Viva Rio, a large non-profit in Rio de Janeiro, has set up high speed Internet centers in several favelas. They are popular but have not resulted in better conditions or community empowerment.

There is much self-congratulatory talk about the importance of the web to the poor. Yes, computers do offer vital communication and learning opportunities. But they're no substitute for low-tech hardware like electrical wires and water mains. I'm not against computers in the favelas. Only asking why it seems possible to install wi-fi but not sewer pipes, and why outsiders seem willing to fund the Internet but not projects to mobilize the communities.

Anonymous said...

You definitely have a point. Why Internet and not sewers, clean water and organization?

I suppose the real explanation is that Internet acces and wi-fi are "hip", sewers and clean water are boring and taken for granted by people with money enough to support that kind of projects.

With regard to community mobilization in the favela, there's also the problem (in Brazil, and I may be mistaken) that it tends to leed to conflict with powerful interests - i.e. law enforcement (who either want to maintain the "us-vs-them" concept and maintain their bribes), gangs (who like to be the ones in control), local authorities of various descriptions (who don't want to be pressured for more funds to deprived areas), and this might make such work very dangerous. Putting up Internet access is more neutral and less controversial.

And of course, when I go down to the library in my own home town (Aarhus, Denmark) and see the numerous workstations with free Internet access, I don't see a lot of people being empowered - I see a lot of people reading their email, chatting about not very important things and reading their newspaper on-screen instead of in a physical copy; maybe it's more probable that empowerment would lead to Internet access than the other way round.

So I'm afraid that on second thought you may be all too right.

Anonymous said...

Sure, favelas need sewers and clean water and health care and so forth and so on. However, the open-source way is DIY (do-it-yourself) and it belongs to the community and anyone in open-source will tell you, if you see something that is missing, then you are equally responsible for not implementing the solution as everyone else. Instead of scolding people for trying to help or empower the folks living in the slums with a means of overcoming the widening technological gap in the developing world, if other things are seen to be missing, then you yourself have the ability to organize a solution to target those specific problems.

rn said...

Anon: You're right: the open source way--and, indeed, the way that guarantees true local control--is DIY. But I don't think I was being a scold. Rather, I was raising an issue. Technological things seem persuasive and transformational to many people. My question is whether the DIY-ers in squatter communities have the same sense? For concrete improvements in their lives, tough local organizing is key -- and I've grappled with how that could be taught and encouraged and motivated and funded -- given that every environment and culture and political reality is different and every community has different resources and manners and pipelines for pressing its needs.