I asked Marco Fioretti of the Italian Digifreedom to report on the congress on free software and education that we both attended as speakers in Quito, Ecuador, and which was organized and hosted by the Salesian teaching order, who preferentially work with the children of the poor.
Before I leave it to Marco to report on the conference, just a short preliminary assessment. It was indeed a great conference, and I was very inspired by the committment of the Salesian teachers, but even more so by the dynamism of the students. What I found most inspiring in the conference, was the discovery that the free software movement in Latin America is not just a technical movement, but a real social movement, with a very high political awareness. I never had this experience, certainly not where I live in Asia. You could just feel that a deep tranformatory process is taking place in that region.
“The Universidad Politecnica Salesiana (UPS) of Ecuador hosted a Congress on Free Software and Democratizacion of Knowledge in Quito from Oct 21st to Oct 24th 2008. I and Michel Bauwens participated as speakers and really enjoyed both the conference and the rest of the trip. Before I forget it, our official thanks go to all the girls and boys of the protocol staff, who all were very efficient, professional and helpful from the first to the last minute!
Ecuador started later than other South America countries to promote official adoption of Free Software, but it’s doing the best it can to catch up. A recent presidential decree demands that many central Public Administration migrate to use exclusively Free Software. This was one of the first thing we heard in the opening speech. In the same occasion, Fr Filiberto Gonzalez Plascencia, Salesian Councillor for Social Communication, pointed out how Salesians want to promote Free/Open Source software because of the important role it can play in the democratization of knowledge and in “educommunication” or education to communication, both fields where they want to play an active role. Even in the closing speech Dr Edgar Loyola, Vice Rector of UPS, renewed the committment of the University for the spread of the knowledge and use of Free Software.
Michel held the first conference of the congress, titled “Production and consumption of knowledge at the frontier of the digital world”. He explained how peer production is a radical change with respect to current industrial models and that extending the Open Design process so common in Free/Open Source Software to physical goods may revolutionize production of many such goods.
The other main point of the first day was the presentation of the Spanish edition of the book from Fr Julian Fox, “Digital Virtues”, whose relevance I discuss in separate blog entry. Personally, I presented my attempt to help all parents to become digital rights activists with the Family Guide to Digital Freedom and, in a separate talk, the perspectives that Free Software has as a social movement.
In synthesis, what I said was that:
* Free Software must become a social movement because, as I love to say, “our own civil rights and the quality of your life heavily depend on how software is used around us”…
* but it risks to fail if its activists don’t acknowledge that FOSS only plays a little part in the current scenario of attacks to Free communication and participation to democracy, and if they don’t change language and attitudes
In the second day, Charles Escobar held a conference on the ethical and political dimensions in the Free Software Culture. He started pointing out that, according to the current laws on copyright, 95% of people should be considered “ladrones” (thieves) and asked “what kind of society is one which does this? Can a law that makes 95% of people criminals be right?” Personally, I find this specific way to introduce the issue a bit weak.
If 95% per cent of people routinely killed whoever gets in their way this wouldn’t make homicide right, now would it? Of course, illegal copying isn’t homicide and I don’t defend the current copyright laws: I just have the feeling, as I said, that asking a question worded in that way may not be the most effective way to approach the problem. With this minor exception, Charles’s speech was great, and he was very effective in laying out the absurdities and dangers in the current status of things, especially when he showed photographs of “IP criminals” from the Copy/South dossier. You can find all of Charles’s speech on his website.
The third day’s conference was from Fr Julian Fox: “Rights and equity in the democratic building of knowledge“. While criticizing some positions and attitudes of both the FSF and OSI, Fr Julian explained why it’s important for Salesians, and Catholics in general, to finally develop a theology of technology in the path laid by the Church’s social doctrine, in order to make of technology a real enabler of common good.
The last magistral conference was held by Prof. Ismar de Oliveira Soares, of the University of Sao Paulo, on “educommunication perspectives in the Third Sector”. The main message he delivered, with too many interesting, real world examples to mention them all here, was that it is necessary to enhance the “communication coefficient” of all citizens. This is essential in order to engage all of them in the construction of a society where everybody takes advantages of modern technologies. To make this work for the common good, Soares said, it is also necessary to favor formation of people who dialogue, rather than compete against each other.
In addition to these great conferences, there were plenty of really interesting talks, from government officials and FOSS/Free Culture activists from all of Latin America, Italy and Spain.
We heard about the social responsibility of Universities in promotion of FOSS, about how many different digital divides (generational, economical, geographical…) are being generated these days and what is their true impact, or about how FOSS is being officially deployed in Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia, Chile and other countries. Many technical issues and projects were presented, but they never hid the other sides of the problems, the ones the congress was really about: as Cladio Machado from Brazil said, “the greatest benefit (from usage of FOSS in the public sector) are not the economic ones (which are sure) but the cultural ones”.
Besides the conference itself, there are a couple other things that will surely interest all the readers of this blog.
On Saturday, after the conference, all the speakers were invited on a tourist trip north of Quito. Along the road, we noticed quite more Internet access points than we expected to see : it would be interesting to know some detailed figure of how they are used and by how many people. Above all, we visited a very interesting city, one about which Michel promised to make much more research and that deserves a separate entry: Cotacachi, in the Imabura province. What catched our attention were the three huge billboards at the entrance informing visitors that Cotacachi is the proud winner of:
* the Participative Democracy, Dubai 2000 prize, for being a city with “one of the most sound environmental, social and economic practices in its local government.”
* the 2002 Unesco City of Peace prize for “its dedication to dialogue and democracy”
* a UNESCO medal for being “the only illiteracy-free county in Ecuador since 2005”
The quotes above come from “Cotacachi: Quality Government, Quality Leather“. The awards are also mentioned in these pages:
During my stay in Quito, I also met, practically by chance, a man. The reason I’m mentioning this is because of what he answered when I told him that I had come to Quito for some “software congress”. Edgar is not a programmer and had never heard of Stallman (or anything P2P for that matter), but he soon told me that he isn’t happy with software. On one hand, he said, software is so expensive that many schools cannot afford to use computers or train students to use them, on the other you have these huge companies who only allow you to buy the software they think you need, when they want you to buy it.
Since we were speaking of education and choice now, Edgar added he’s also unhappy with the lack of knowledge and control that many farmers in his country have: “having the right knowledge, there are ways to farm and raise cattle which are much more sustainable and effective with the kind of climate and soil we have here in Ecuador, but people simply don’t know they exist, they just keep doing things the way they were, or the way they see on TV”.
He then added: “farmers here have no control of their work: they must produce only what big companies tell them to produce, when those companies want it and at their price. Meanwhile, there may be people a few kilometers away who may need those products and may even pay them a little more, but all these groups don’t know about each other or how to connect and work together”.
Of course, I immediately suggested to Edgar that he should check the Family Guide to Digital Freedom and the appropriate pages of the P2P Foundation, and maybe translate to Spanish some of them. Probably many readers here won’t find this surprising, but I was impressed all the same to see how Edgar had instinctively, partly inconsciously reconstructed all the same preliminary theory you can find here down to some catch lines (“how can you hide or take away knowledge?” he asked) and I consider the meeting with him an important part of my visit to Ecuador.
Another interesting, probably obvious but often overlooked conclusion from this experience may be the fact that the Internet is necessary but is far from being enough to make things happen, or at least to make things happen soon and wide enough to make a difference.
Edgar is a smart guy and had had a personal computer and an Internet connection for quite some time, but he met P2P, Free Software and so on only by chance and in person. Only, that is, when he physically met somebody who had already seen the Internet used to connect people who want to have under their own control at least parts of their lives.”