The Free/Open Source Software as Hybrid Concept: Considerations from a Colombian Activist Perspective

Luis Fernando Medina Cardona

Associate Professor, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá

Keywords: technology, software, FLOSS, metaphor, metamedium, activism, hacker, craftsmanship, DIY, hybridization

Introduction

This short essay aims to expand on the notions of Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) in relation to cultural activism and resistance in Colombia. This activism aims to confront the software’s hi-tech Global North origins in relation to the socio-political and economic conditions of the region, where traditional indigenous practices and related referents allow the emergence of more compatible local narratives. To present these ideas I will focus on some local examples, as well as present a more personal narrative of a project in which I had the opportunity to collaborate. As a conclusion, I aim to make clear the connection of concepts such as the “hacker ethic,” “neoliberalism,” and “hybridization,” while highlighting the communal framework and vernacular organizational traditions behind their creative commons process.

Free, Libre, and Hybrid

In Latin America, FLOSS [1] practices have undergone strong hybridization processes; a consequence of socio-economic realities specific to the region—particularly, in reference to media arts experiences that combined computer-based practices with a desire for social and political change. In Latin America, the real contribution of software—and FLOSS in particular—does not rely on the instrumentality of software, but rather, on its incarnation as “a culture”: a way of sensing the material world through code and, most importantly, its structural values of collaboration, cooperation, and distributed coordination.

The history of computing points out that software discourse has been developed at a “global” level (in the United States and Western Europe, and to a lesser degree in Russia, Japan, and some nodes of Eastern Europe); however, FLOSS as software and as discourse had a different trajectory with a much broader impact. So, what makes Latin America or, to a greater extent, the so-called Global South, special in this narrative? Our region did not participate in the development of this technological revolution—exemplifying how big technological endeavors are closely connected to capital, its means of production, and its global holders (therefore excluding less economically developed regions such as Latin America). [2] As the FLOSS ideas spread worldwide (due to the commercialization of computer networks brought about by globalization), there were few instances of a software industry native to Latin America—let alone local hackers, in the computer sense of the word, to provide a framework to the “hacker ethic.” At the same time, the widespread political upheaval in the region in reaction to 1990s neoliberal reforms spawned a resistance movement involving a whole new generation of activists eager to engage the global debate using new technologies that articulate vernacular practices and new communities that matched Eric Raymond’s “bazaar” model of collective participation and “productive anarchy.”

There is no novelty in pairing hacker values with activism—there is enough scholarship on hacker ethics ranging from Marxist to anarchist interpretations—and there are similar hybridization processes happening in other places. To understand the complexity of this period and the tensions between capital and (digital) technology-based social movements, one may need to consider some parallel developments occurring within the same period: Linux making its debut, the spread of the World Wide Web, the discussion of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), and the “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” by J.P. Barlow at the World Economic Forum in Davos. [3]

Antonio Falcón Villalobos and Collective Agit P.O.V., NO DESAPARECER +, 2014.   Performance using bicycle and open hardware electronics in support for the protests concerning the disappearance of Ayotzinapa students in Mexico. Collaborative workshop held by Agit P.O.V. (Petit Objet de Vélo – Alexandre Castonguay, Thomas Ouellet Fredericks, Sofian Audry, Daniel Felipe Valencia y Mariangela Aponte Núñez). Photo: Mariangela Aponte Núñez. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Antonio Falcón Villalobos and Collective Agit P.O.V., NO DESAPARECER +, 2014. Performance using bicycle and open hardware electronics in support for the protests concerning the disappearance of Ayotzinapa students in Mexico. Collaborative workshop held by Agit P.O.V. (Petit Objet de Vélo – Alexandre Castonguay, Thomas Ouellet Fredericks, Sofian Audry, Daniel Felipe Valencia y Mariangela Aponte Núñez). Photo: Mariangela Aponte Núñez. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

To illustrate this argument let us take a look at two concurrent events taking place on January 1, 1994: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Zapatista uprising. These events were to make a big mark on history and are considered a “key part both of the anti-globalization movement and the emergence of hacktivism.” [4] As stated by Reinhard Krüger, the Zapatista movement was among the first to be aware of media’s importance and the Internet’s increasing relevance, relying extensively on the use of communication networks for its benefit. [5] It is no coincidence that the zeitgeist of the age has left us, on one hand, with the commercialization of the Internet, and on the other, with the image of the guerrillero (revolutionary fighter) who chooses the computer over the machine gun as a weapon. The “struggle” was to be displaced from “taking over the means of production” to the production of one’s own media. This would be the starting point of a series of remixed and hybrid readings of the FLOSS practice, turning the hacker into an activist via the software-networks tandem as a medium.

It could be argued that values of collaboration and cooperation have always been present in human history and have been tightly connected with the evolution of technology; however, the digital network’s omnipresence may provide new historical readings of FLOSS practices. [6] If European thinkers have linked them to economics of the “commons,” Latin American indigenous and mestizo imaginaries may present a parallel development. Traditional “commons” have been described as communal facilities (such as wells, rivers, pastures, and fields) established for the beneficial use and enjoyment of a whole community, similar to practices of pool sharing of a computer code used and improved collectively. [7] Latin American indigenous communities developed their own cultures of open sharing that were to include not only resources, but forms of organization. This is illustrated by the following two examples: the milpa, a collaborative, Mesoamerican, agricultural system dating from pre-Columbian times that fits seamlessly with the idea of an open communicative process— “El conocimiento técnico, un conocimiento libre” (Technical knowledge, free knowledge); [8] and the minga, a pre-colonial system of communal organization and voluntary cooperation of South American indigenous societies. Minga could be compared to FLOSS’s abstract knowledge-sharing, rendering a physical (and also networked) space where the hacker, the indigenous people, the communitarian leader, and the public server may meet. [9]

FLOSS practices blossomed in Latin America through this time period. Combined with the associated DIY ethic, it has been seen as a source of social and horizontal innovation for change outside of corporate and government institutions that were perceived as threatening failures. Projects, collectives, festivals, meetings, laboratories, and art spaces engaged the dynamics of the open and free discourse of technology, applying it to a mixture of art, education, and political action. I would like to focus on three examples to show how this hybridization has taken place in Colombia.

Inside the Bazaar: The Colombian Remix

Platohedro
http://platohedro.org/

Platohedro is an independent space in Medellín, Colombia devoted to artistic and activist practices revolving around non-formal education that draws heavily on free software, free speech, and free communications rhetoric. The center aims to put in place educational alternatives in a city perceived as violent, and in doing so, it has matched a DIY ethos with local practices such as cacharreo (tinkering) as a low cost approach to technology. In their projects and language they use funny yet revealing adaptations of hacktivist jargon, such as La Jaquer es Cool (a Spanish-English wordplay on hacker, but also on “cool” and “school”) and Parce to Parce (a pun on the p2p movement, which translates to “dude to dude”), bringing their activities closer to regular street language.

Protoboarding and Fritzing Software Workshop, 2015. Platohedro workshop held at Platohedro in Medellín, Colombia. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Protoboarding and Fritzing Software Workshop, 2015. Platohedro workshop held at Platohedro in Medellín, Colombia. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Minkalab
http://minkalab.org

A project and event located in the countryside of the Risaralda Department (Colombia). Its name is a combination of minka (another word for the already-described pre-Columbian minga) and “laboratory.” Having taken note of the problems of rural Colombia and the divide with technology activism mostly located in urban areas, Minkalab is based in the midst of local indigenous groups, small-scale farmers, and Afro-Colombian communities. It attempts to generate a space for dialogue where urban activists, artists, and scientist are also welcomed. The idea of minka is materialized in the collective work and the horizontal sharing of experiences, exploring the continuum of traditional, ecological technologies and modern technologies—and the construction of a geodesic dome, which serves as a communal meeting place, reminiscent of the traditional indigenous maloca.

Khatarina Klemm and Minkalab, Minkalab 2015, 2015. Video documentary of Minkalab. Used with permission.

Festival del Trueque (Barter Festival):
https://festivaldeltrueque.wordpress.com/

The Festival del Trueque is an event held in Cali, Colombia on May 1, International Workers’ Day. Due to the growth of free-trade areas and an increasing number of FTAs between countries—where even the storage and selling of seeds not approved by corporations can be considered a law-breaking offense—the search for economic alternatives has once again been extrapolated from the lessons of FLOSS discourse. This festival takes place in a well-known square and congregates students interested in exchanging used clothing, appliances, and music. The FLOSS narrative is provided by “on the streets” workshops about free media and computer applications, and by Internet radio transmissions that promote hacker ethics. Local color is given by the increasing interest in seed exchanges (given a controversial and FTA-compliant government project) and by salsa music, itself an important part of the mestizo identity of the city.

Edition and digitization by Walter Julián Rodríguez, invitation to the Third Trueque Festival by Trabajo Libre, Cali, Colombia, 2015. Collective design, illustration and free software digitization. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Edition and digitization by Walter Julián Rodríguez, invitation to the Third Trueque Festival by Trabajo Libre, Cali, Colombia, 2015. Collective design, illustration and free software digitization. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

I detail these experiences because they are close to me, but also because they represent a plethora of initiatives within Latin America. These initiatives can be considered as nodes of larger networks that promote the horizontal exchange of information using software tools (e.g., the activist social network Anillo Sur) and encourage local or international meetings (e.g., Labsurlab). As suggested by the use of the word sur (south), there is an awareness of the origins of FLOSS and the figure of the hacker (in Europe and the United States) and the resulting need for a non-colonial reading of both. Thus, what I have called “The Colombian Remix” conveniently supplies a “glocal turn” of the FLOSS metaphor, where it is possible to bridge a foreign and software-inspired imaginary with local practices (traditional and modern) without losing sight of global activist discourse. As noted before, similar processes have taken place in different parts of the world—however, whereas both corporations and activists have embraced FLOSS in developed countries, in the Global South activists have been the only ones to do so (and to a lesser extent some governments and local companies).

Fire at the Press

FLIA
http://feriadellibroindependiente.blogspot.com/

My personal experience can also serve to support my thesis via my participative role in the FLIA project, or “Fería de Libro Independiente y Autogestiva” (Independent and Self-Managed Book Fair). FLIA is a loose network of small DIY book fairs, which began in Argentina and have spread to different countries in South America. Even though this movement does not present itself as “FLOSS-inflected,” its practices, tools, and logic match on some levels. FLIA presents its idea, “everyone can set up a book fair in their town,” by providing a simple set of rules: fair visitors and exhibitors should not pay any money to participate; no private or state support is allowed; and all spaces, workshops, music, and advertising are negotiated based on an exchange economy where money is avoided. It should be noted that FLIA tends to identify with anarchist philosophy, and that this set of rules is provided as a kind of code that can be adapted and modified—that is, remixed—to meet local needs. As with the hacker ethics which propelled the FLOSS development, FLIA activities rely largely on voluntary labor and a list of tasks where participants choose their level of engagement. Some of its members have made the connection with other grassroots organizations, alternative communications collectives, and—of course—FLOSS activists; however, these relationships remain unstable within FLIA discourse. The dichotomy of process/product also took place when FLIA Bogotá decided to surpass the event organization and pursue an editorial product in the form of a fanzine. To do this, a set of rules was designed to allow for open participation of all submissions, distribution, and production by means of photocopying, using a silkscreen cover, and organizing the collective writing of the introductory text (which employed a well-known collaborative pad tool very popular among hacktivists). The tension between tool and ideology was also manifest in the meetings, where some people expressed the coherence between the structure of FLIA and the use of “free tools” as understood in FLOSS or non-corporate social networks. This provoked numerous and sometimes clashing points of view between pragmatism (if it works it doesn’t matter whether it is free or open or not) and activist core values closely related to the FLOSS metaphor and its ethics. The importance of the FLIA example is that it allows for comparisons to be drawn between the main software metaphor being discussed and its counterpart in technology hybrid settings (i.e., where digital tools interact with analog tools). This is direct evidence of the materiality of this metaphor—hence of software—and its significance for some Latin American “artivism” movements.

Vogel, Independencia, 2015. Cover of the FLIA Bogotá Fanzine. Digital collage and silkscreen. Used with permission.

Vogel, Independencia, 2015. Cover of the FLIA Bogotá Fanzine. Digital collage and silkscreen. Used with permission.

Conclusion

The examples discussed provide a glimpse of a larger pool of projects that are offered to illustrate the complexity and extent of FLOSS in Latin America. The so-called free culture is an evident consequence of the logics of free and open software gaining ground in the field of cultural production. However, as previously mentioned, intellectual protection clauses in FTAs place the cultural vernacular in danger. Here, some counter initiatives stand out, such as the very active Creative Commons community, or examples of musicians releasing their music “freely” as a form of protest. Finally, it can be said that the main force behind FLOSS development and “mestizo hacktivism” is “the community.” In such a construct, the “hacker gift culture” meets the workshop method as a materialization of cooperation, as in ancient ritual, providing a flexible narrative where the bazaar and a minga are alike. [10] If technology reflects our ontological state, hybridization and collaboration are expected outcomes—even when sometimes veiled by the system.

La Real Academia del Sónido, Quémalo, 2011. Musical video. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

References

  1. It should be noted that in this text the term FLOSS is preferred over FOSS. While both are in common use and refer to the same thing, the term “FOSS” in English removes the Spanish word libre and introduces ambiguity about the term free. To emphasize that “free software” refers to freedom and not to price, we say “free/libre software,” adding the French or Spanish word (libre) that means free in the sense of freedom. Secondly, the inclusion of the Spanish libre represents a kind of playful language hybridization important for the main point about hybridization addressed in this essay.
  2. Debra Benita Shaw, Technoculture (Oxford: Berg, 2008), 13.
  3. Mario Tascón y Yolanda Quintana, Ciberactivismo: Las nuevas revoluciones de las multitudes conectadas, (Los Libros de la Catarata, 2012), 18.
  4. Tim Jordan and Paul Taylor, Hacktivism and cyberwars. Rebels with a cause? (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), 59.
  5. Reinhard Krüger, “The Maya and the Internet: Networking Structures in Indigenous Myths and Global Communication,” Form+zweck 19 (2002): 68–101.
  6. Howard Rheingold, “Technologies of Cooperation,” in The Art of Free Cooperation, ed. Geert Lovink and Trebor Scholz (New York: Autonomedia, 2004), 29–64.
  7. Dongbin Wang, “Understanding FLOSS as a Commons,” in Co-operative Innovations in China and the West, ed. Caroline Gijselinckx, Li Zhao, and Sonja Novkovic (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 143–159.
  8. Blanca Cruz Cárcamo and Erick Huerta Velázquez, Haciendo milpa. Memoria del taller: Estrategias de apoyo a la formación de comunicadores indígenas (Mexico: Redes por la Diversidad, Equidad y Sustentabilidad, 2015), 23.
  9. Xabier E. Barandiaran, David Vila-Viñas, and Daniel Vázquez, Buen Conocer Flok Society. Modelos sostenibles y políticas públicas para una economía social del conocimiento común y abierto en el Ecuador (Quito: Flok Society, 2015), 14.
  10. Eric S. Raymond, The Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary, (O’Reilly Media, 2001), 80; Richard Sennett, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation (London: Allen Lane, 2012), 199.

Bio

Luis Fernando Medina Cardona is Associate Professor in the Department of Cinema and Television (School of Arts, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá). He is interested in the interactions between new media, art, the city, remix theory, and DIY/DIWO (do it yourself/do it with others) practices—particularly in how the free and open software movement provides a creation model for cultural artifacts. He combines teaching and research with creative practices of fanzines, street art, hacktivism, and radio, among others. As one of the founders of the Trueque Digital Collective (Digital Barter), he was awarded the prize of the Ministry of Culture of Colombia in 2011 in the field of Contents for the Web. He was also recognized with the Innovative Teaching Award from Universidad Nacional de Colombia for his promotion of free software and open access. Currently he is a doctoral student at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne (Germany).
http://www.radioaleta.net