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The Code is the Seed of the Software

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
28th May 2013


The following conversation is from an interview with Adriana Sánchez by Silke Helfrich, which appeared in the anthology, The Wealth of the Commons.

(this is a version without notes)

“Helfrich: Adriana, could you briefly introduce yourself?

Sánchez: My name is Adriana Sánchez. I am from southern Costa Rica, a very beautiful territory, which has been gradually ravaged by the intensive agriculture of companies such as the United Fruit Company. I studied language and literature at a self-managing professionals’ cooperative specializing in knowledge manage­ment, technology and society. We support social and solidarity enterprises. This enterprise is called Sulá Batsú, a name in the Bribrí language that means “creative spirit.” I also work voluntarily in the Cultura Libre de Costa Rica community, which brings together artists, developers of free software, farmers, and persons who believe in the importance of sharing knowledge.

Helfrich: In other words, you are farmers and programmers who share the same space?

Sánchez: All of us persons in a social formation, be it a country, a community, or a work team, share interests and a sociocultural heritage. Cultura Libre de Costa Rica hosts a forum in which creators of culture from different sectors who share this heritage can sit down to discuss, reflect, and collectively construct new ways of distributing and protecting their works. Partnerships are created which for many people may be unexpected, but in our case they are the reason for our work: both the software developer and the farmer are bearers of a culture and knowledge that are beneficial to their entire communities, and as such they not only have the right but the duty to reflect on the social change that their activities can generate.

Helfrich: What do software and seeds have in common?

Sánchez: The seed is the germ of life. From it is derived food, clothing, shelter – in short, well-being. It is a small repository that contains centuries of history and knowledge. I’ve always liked the comparison between free software and seed because it helps us better understand the principle of liberty. If we restrict access to knowledge – independent of whether it is knowledge of how to farm or how to program – we restrict the capacity to create. When a company patents a seed and manipulates it to remove the genetic information it carries within so that it cannot reproduce alone after the harvest, it is restricting the harvest.Shutting off access to software code keeps other creative persons from being able to contribute their knowledge to improve it and adapt it to their needs and those of the persons around them.1

Helfrich: Why do people want to improve a software program? Why contribute knowledge in that field? Does that change people’s quality of life?

Sánchez: Well, there’s one omnipresent example: the Internet. During the first years of its development, people needed to have in-depth knowledge of software in order to make use of digital tools (websites, applications, repositories). For almost 10 years now, the digital tools available online can be used by the vast majority of people, including those who do not know how to read and write. Access to new end-user-friendly technologies around the world is improving their quality of life day by day.

Imagine a woman, a single mother, from a rural area in any country of the South: in those countries, services are centralized in the urban areas and this woman will have to travel several hours, even days, to conduct an administrative transaction. Now let’s imagine a rural online center that lets her perform that same transaction through the government agency’s website, without having to leave her children alone or miss hours or days of work. That is an improvement in quality of life.

Now, let’s imagine a rural online center that uses free software and is operated from and by the community. It is not a traditional online center; it’s a center where knowledge is not only shared, but is constructed by the people, based on their experience and their needs. This is how free software is designed. If we are able to transmit that way of building collectively to other spaces, there is a value-added that no proprietary tool will ever have: the value of belonging, of community, the value of improving all together to lift everyone up, and independent from “market supply.” In other words, autonomy.

Software code should be made freely available to that end. And I think the state should promote free software in public institutions and support the initiatives to universalize information and communications technology services, not just because of the low cost, but also because of their security, versatility, and above all their potential to stimulate learning and develop people’s capabilities.

Helfrich: And this value-added, how is it transmitted where you work, in southern Costa Rica? What do the small farmers have to say about it?

Sánchez: In general, promoting free software in these communities is simpler than we might think, for many of the people you work with don’t know other operating systems. In addition, developing capacities in the use of Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) goes beyond mere technical training. It is highly related to social impact. Working on a farm is not just planting the crops. Farmers need to keep track of spending, inventories, calendars, clients and supplier databases. In that sense, agriculture and software go hand and hand, and one who tills the land can easily appreciate that the community and every community member benefits most if the community as a whole – and not third persons – control its own seed and software.

Based on my experience in this area, I can say that a strict process of developing capacities – as enabled by free software – can mean a substantial change in the life of a person and his or her family. And having tools not encumbered by use restrictions, that are free, and that operate swiftly and effectively on old equipment – which is what one generally finds in the countryside – is always a very attractive possibility.

Helfrich: What does the idea of the commons contribute to your work?

Sánchez: At this time, intellectual property laws shut down the flow of knowledge. Knowledge is discussed and generated in “ghettos,” where it does not draw on what other persons know. It is so specialized that at the end of the day it doesn’t have any day-to-day application. When we work from the perspective of the commons, respecting free access to knowledge and promoting the notion that all people should be able to share in what is known, knowledge is made horizontal. In other words, the farmer’s knowledge is as valuable as the software developer’s; both benefit the lives of others. When we become empowered through the value we accord to what we know, we can more reflexively access our resources and our rights. This improves our livelihoods.

Helfrich: Can you give me a specific example?

Sánchez: Oftentimes, especially in the North, local knowledge is understood as limited in scope. It applies in rural areas, for example, or it applies to poor people. Local knowledge is not that: it is what is generated in a locality, and this may be my office, my school, my orchard, or my hackerspace. In these spaces, we constantly build on what has been transmitted to us. We transform that knowledge into any number of tools that enable us to improve our quality of life.

A group of people are working in agriculture and producing organic foods in northern Costa Rica. They have a project for the preservation of creole seeds. Since 2008, they have been selling processed products, such as crackers and flour. They make them in solar ovens that they themselves designed to tap this form of energy, which we usually fail to use. This group is thinking about sharing the instructions for building ovens with persons from other parts of the country, so they can use them for their own benefit. Open licenses such as those used by the free software community have seemed to them a good option precisely because they make it possible to put conditions on the release of that knowledge, guaranteeing that it will be protected from the big companies that devour local knowledge and then patent it for their own profit.

Although licenses like the Creative Commons licenses were designed to protect digital works, they also work for many other processes and creations. They help guarantee that such works are kept within the public sphere, so that that which has always been ours will continus to be ours.”

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