There’s more than one way to campaign against creeping privatisation and inequality. The following is a good reminder that privatisation or capitalisation isn’t always the evil twin of state ownership, as struggles over natural resources might seem to suggest. It can also take the form of copyright law, or other restrictions on the flow of information, and as such, people come up with new ways to subvert it or work around it.
Even the new Bolivian constitution allows for three kinds of property – state, private and collective – by way of acknowledging the rights of indigenous groups to control and administer land according to a communitarian tradition. But what about a fourth category, that which cannot be owned or administered by any appointed person, but which is the result of unlimited collaboration among an open-ended network of volunteers? I am referring, of course, to open source software.
It’s tempting to build all kinds of political allegories from the open source movement. Its decentralised, horizontal, collaborative aspects are appealing to anyone who instinctively mistrusts hierarchy and monolithic corporations (or states). And the deliberate open-ness of the code to scrutiny, testing and repair is something of a poem to political transparency: the more people who actively pick holes in your system and then suggest ways to fix them them, the stronger the system becomes. It’s popular consultation writ large, only without a set of intermediaries to decide which set of improvements to make and which to disregard. It does rather remind me of popular assemblies and community meetings I attended in Bolivia, where everyone present had a right to speak if they had something to say, even if it meant that the meeting carried on all night and well into the following day.
Here, the parallel rather trips up: politicians can only act as emissaries of public opinion to a certain degree, and responding to every single grievance and complaint – in other words, pleasing all the people all the time – is an impossibility. But that wasn’t what I opened this window to post about, so that discussion can be had another day. Let’s instead focus on the appeal of open source software itself for Bolivia and Bolivians. Well, it’s free, for one, and it’s adaptable, for two. The first obviously goes some way to leapfrogging the digital divide between those with access to computers and those without. But not only is it within the economic reach of anyone with a basic box and a knowledgeable friend to install it, it’s also customisable beyond the imagination of $Windows. Hence the extremely cool news (not very new anymore, but you have to forgive the blogosfero anglofono for being late to the party) that a group of people have released a Bolivian version of Ubuntu, a widely used open source operating system, adapted especially for Bolivian needs:
Unlike other GNU/Linux distributions, BoliviaOS has been created so that it is possible to install and use it from the two CDs provided, without needing an internet connection to complete the installation process and obtain a completely functional system which is capable of writing texts, running spreadsheets, navigating the internet, communicating by chat and email, programming, playing and creating music and videos and much more.
Bolivia OS sets out to cater to the necessities of all Bolivians, including speakers of indigenous (originario) languages. It includes a text processor for Quechua and Aymara and a Quechua spellchecker. (Translation – TW)
Dudes, I cannot adequately convey how exciting I find the idea of a Quechua spellchecker without writing !1OMG, SQUEEEE!11′ in large letters, and I’m sure you’d prefer I didn’t.
What is more, the the same compañero who pointed this out to me briefly discusses the HackBol project, started several years ago by five anonymous Bolivians (who never met) who provided a patriotic service to sites with poor security: hacking them in order to highlight their weaknesses, so as to prevent future incursion by foreigners.
This isn’t the first example of benevolent hacking, but it might be the most patriotic: as well as using the attention to promote campaigns against software patents and child pornography, the group posted messages on the commandeered sites telling the sysadmins to tighten up security in the name of Bolivia’s international reputation. In an example of active citizenship and pride in the Patria: the messages went beyond, ‘Your s3cur1ty suck5 h4h4 n00b! – 1337 h4x0r’ but went as far as to upbraid them for bringing Bolivian webdesign into bad repute and leaving the country open to attacks from Brazilian and Argentinian crackers.
We have just one word for the security on this site – USELESS. We’ve come to stay, to show that there are educated and capable people in Bolivia who go further than taking exams where they ask you what the ‘mount’ command does. The situation we’re living in in Bolivia is DISASTROUS and all the fault of of governers who only want to get rich and abuse the trust the people place in them
and in another case:
Why do we do this? Because we’re tired of seeing how foreign groups take over ‘cracking’ Bolivian servers, and so that you know that Bolivia isn’t behind in these ‘matters’, the seed was planted and now we are growing!
But DarkRho, one of the 1337 team involved looks back on it reflectively, saying how he prefers to dedicate himself to open source projects these days and thereby work for the common good:
‘To do a ‘deface’, find a bug in a badly-made php application, compile an exploit and look for vulnerable servers, obtain admin privileges, is a fun and exciting challenge. But to help people and form a community goes further than personal satisfaction and ego. We all walk isolated, obtaining knowledge here and there, but it’s difficult for us to help others arrive to the point that we have arrived at.’
Open Source philosophy and Bolivian patriotism and public-spiritedness: it’s a match made in cyberspace.