Tech for Forests


Free software, sustainability and social movements

Interview with Silvio Rhatto

Translation: Gavin


Silvio Rhatto has been a free software and open-source programmer for over two decades. Without specific formal training in the area, his trajectory started off as a self-taught learner. At the beginning of the years 2000, he began to participate in affinity groups and collectives that fomented the use of free software. His work, in his own words, kicked off side-by-side with social movements, in a do-it-yourself and alter-globalization perspective. Facing the precariousness of the tools in the internet at that stage, he sought to develop software according to the movements’ demands. Silvio, however, recognizes his privileges: he has had the time to learn, to focus his efforts and, chiefly, he had access to a computer at a time when this piece of technology had not yet reached a very wide audience.

In this interview, Silvio talks about development and technology movements, political contexts, emerging needs of organizations, sustainability of communities, the impact of the market and ideas for the future.

Do you see a difference between the open code movement of the beginning of the Noughties and today’s?

First of all, I consider free software important chiefly because of the issue of collective freedoms and protections, such as, for instance, care with privacy and security.

My experience in Brazil has always been related to a perspective of movements, of doing collective stuff, but there are many other currents, including those that are very neoliberal or else that are found within a logic of the Brazilian State apparatus, deeming free software as a possibility for Brazil to “advance” and level up technologically.

Crucial to the difference between the movement of two decades past and today’s was the process of the emergence of a center-left social-democratic government in Brazil in the years 2000, who carried out a commandeering of the public apparatus by means of the employment of a militant base, including those who worked with free software and who would be responsible for the migration of systems and data formats into open alternatives. Consequently, this process ended up demobilizing the militants, who were converted into a bureaucracy, that is, there was a flight of the “militant labor force” into the government. This has driven, on the one hand, the adoption of free software and open formats in public management and the strengthening of the Free Software Forum; but, on the other, it has resulted in demobilization and the lack of renovation of cadres in the long run.

Many groups and movements who maintained this close relationship with the government, most of times one of dependence, ended up collapsing at the moment when the government suffered political defeats as the social-democratic coalition went down the drain. This is why I notice there has been a kind of sudden disappearance of the movements, of free software as movement. I do not mean the Free Software Association and the development cooperatives, who did carry on, but a general drive that has lost momentum.

I don’t think that was caused solely by the political process in Brazil, since there was a role played by the market that stretches back to the times of the classic debate open source versus free software. The market has chomped off, worldwide, this open source idea and re-figured it as the concept of open core, under which there is an open core of software that is developed via a crowd-sourcing regime, relying on the contribution of a global community, but that in strategic areas still operates in the logic of closing the code and of protecting intellectual property. 

An immediate example is Google, an enterprise who is the owner of proprietary algorithms that are simultaneously industrial secrets and fomenters of what began to be called a free software “ecosystem”. Today there is an ecosystem management on a global scale, where a lot is developed on an open basis by force of a merely pragmatic reason and not on principle. For instance, this is a management that preaches solving common problems by means of the formation of communities of interest, grounded on the problems everyone has and by the search for solutions based as much as possible on free software. However, producing open core became a pragmatics of “let’s see, there are people interested in working on this, thus we save on investments, we will enjoy free tests, community and non-remunerated support. We may eventually even outsource everything onto the community, paying a few key figures to keep the code’s base”. Consequently, whoever controls the development of big free softwares, let’s say, the free softwares that are of critical mission, such as Linux’s kernel and others, are the big companies, because they can pay more handsomely for development. That which was developed in community now is managed by the entrepreneurial logic while keeping a community facade.

We are beginning to notice the difference between open source and free software. As a product, they are the same thing and the licenses are compatible. Now, as a process, they are completely different things. As principles they are completely different things. Thus it is possible that there is software that is developed in an authoritarian manner, but whose product is open; or a software whose community is influenced by businesses who pay developers in key positions, directing where the efforts are going to be made towards. I again bring up Linux’s kernel code as an example, whose recent versions will not run on very old computers, thus following the extremely techno-toxic logic of obsolescence.

I believe that in Brazil we were hit by this double commandeering: by the government and by big businesses, who appropriated the community and co-opted it. While a part of the community just needed a job, a portion was assimilated on the ideological level, thus producing a detachment of the free software community from the social movements.

In the countercurrent of these two trends, there was a debate regarding technology and social movements: whether the most important thing was to bring in people who were already from tech to work with the movements or if the most interesting initiative would be to train technologists among those who already were militants. And from a certain point the focus of some free software groups was to train (people) inside militant life. From this moment on I no longer paid so much attention to the free software community as a whole, perhaps already as a response to the decline of the Free Software Movement. This is where my present difficulty lies as I try to better understand what this movement has been transformed into and how much it remains as a movement, because I spent more time with people interested in solving political and social problems, independent of having or not previous knowledge for that. More important than accumulated knowledge and experience is the attitude and stance regarding both. In other words, it is basically the do-it-yourself logic, which for me is a principle implicit in free software and a position regarding knowledge, learning and sharing. This is why I started to increasingly focus on inward-looking training, for groups and movements.

Today I realize that, if we think numerically and in terms of generations, we have a lot more people developing stuff in open source despite being them unaware of the history of what they are doing, not knowing where they come from as coders and not always adopting a critical stance regarding what they are doing.

Also, the writing of software today takes place on another scale, in an open source global market square. A lot was lost in the huge growth of the last few years. There has been a rupture. Such multitude of developments grew little in the wake of the free software collectives, groups and communities, but instead it was grounded on market logic and on the logic of digital inclusion via the labor market.

Today the panorama looks very different. The Free Software Association has lost impetus and the Free Software Forum nowadays finds it difficult to follow a series of important and fundamental agendas. 

But we are also witnessing a transition with the emergence of collective groups and events linked to privacy, security, transparency and data analysis. In a certain way the Free Software Movement has been reconfigured in such groups, even if they are composed by other people or by other generations. Let’s take as an example the Cryptorave: it sources somewhat from the Free Software Forum but, despite sourcing a lot more from other experiences, it makes free software alive within the event and is able to keep its political sharpness. If they carried out a Free Software Forum today, a much more specific audience would turn up. Now, in an event like Cryptorave, where technology and its political implications are debated, a lot of different people are drawn in. Free software is more or less implicit in such groups and events around privacy, technology, transparency and data science. Such events also rely on the participation of various profiles: journalists, social scientists… and as its audience widens, the possibility of participation in events that have a code of conduct also opens up: they are more inclusive.

Cryptorave is an event that does not rely on public or business funding, not being muffled by the logics of commandeering, thus being more independent.

But such initiatives still seem to me to be very pulverized, rendering difficult a more general diagnostics. Perhaps there is still no convergent movement with enough potency to develop free software in an open, inclusive way and that solves common and difficult problems.

This reminds me of the place and time I have come from, in the wake of the alter-globalist movement of the Noughties and that featured this convergent aspect. It was not total convergence, but there was convergence, and the free software movement also seemed to be riding this wave of confluence in the years 2000, coinciding with the arrival of the internet.

As the internet arrived, it united what was distant and drove apart what was close. It created this paradoxical effect between the local and the global, allowing for the convergence of very distant people, who started to work together. So I think that part of such convergence is related to this, in the context of the internet being used to deepen an extremely perverse globalization. The logic of the movements at the time was to use the very technologies of this new world order so as to halt the exploitation process and strengthen the cooperation operations. In order to do so, it was fundamental to reprogram the technology according to several ethics, including that of the free software. But not without the reaction of the new orders imposing their interests… Then comes September 11 2001, comes the war on terror, after that the world economic crisis, the ascent of a new extreme right, followed by the pandemic and by a series of other catastrophes that created shock processes, sweeping away such convergences or rendering them increasingly difficult to carry out. And then, this effect of the internet of driving people away from each other more than bringing them together is rendered even more explicit with the thickening of individual, individualist, individuating bubbles within the hyperneoliberal perspective.

The pulverization and multiplication of the bubbles hinders the sketching out of a panorama for free software, even more so as we try to answer the question with certain pertinence. But things are moving on, they are re-transforming, the caravan rides on even if the dogs are jaded and we cannot cease looking at such processes without understanding the political contexts, and, finally, what was possible at each moment. So, I think that free software may have lost centrality, but I think it has not lost importance in any way.

What interests/motivates you in the open source projects?

For me source openness is a premise, as are security and privacy. It is a presupposition, it is a start, I start from this spot, I start from Free Software. To start from free software is my mode of action. I also come from another life path that is punk, and punk originates precisely from this, from the do-it-yourself attitude, from doing your own stuff, doing and remaking your own culture; but not in an endogamous way, where we bunch up just to do our little things and so on. But instead to receive, transform, copy, create and share, and do it whenever possible. Not only with software. Software is one of the many productions that we are able to make available to anyone and with no additional cost once the product is ready, once the production has been paid for. 

There are particularities to each person’s life, regarding what is necessary to do in order to live and to support oneself. I first have the need of a bread-earner, so I have to work, and I want to work in a place where it makes some sense to be in. As a programmer, there is no meaning in working in a place where the software is not open. So if I had no other possibility, if the only thing I could do now, if the only job available was to develop proprietary software… well, then I would have no choice and that’s the end of that. But having the choice I will opt for free software.

I think there is an intent behind the basic freedoms of free software, the freedom of running, studying, distributing and modifying it. We have very serious global and local problems, we have the issue of the inexorability of time, our life is ticking away… what will I do with my time? I can build a software that solves a specific problem, but I can spend a little more of my time making this software to solve a more general problem, and thus I will save collective time. Take this interview, carried out via the internet and with free software… how much time we don’t need to spend to have this conversation now? We don’t have to develop any of this, except if we want to learn how it is made…

Free software for me is a starting point, but it is not the only one. There is the principle of privacy and the technological principles that I am still discovering, but that are in line with William of Ockham, one of the thinkers in the long tradition against tyranny, who formulates: “let’s not proliferate entities more than necessary”. This would later be enunciated as Ockham’s Razor… Following this principle, I will avoid complicating things more than I need to. It doesn’t mean that I know which way is the simplest, but I will try not to complicate it too much. I think this is a principle that has a lot to do with free software. It is compatible with the refusal that states I do not want a life in which I have a relation of servitude with technology, where I sometimes deal with this technique as a server, sometimes as a servant; neither do I want to keep a relationship of fetishism or of magic with it, which seeks to always transform this technique into a sellable solution for problems created by other sellable solutions, in an infinite escalation of technological dependency and unnecessary complexification.

Heading towards the general in order to see where I have placed free software, I have concerns in two keys: how do we evade the abyss of this torturing society we live in? If there is a technique, if there is an exit, this is a big problem. Today I try to tackle such issues. And the second point encompasses the investigations regarding what are the forms of good living that work out on several scales. So I think that I am between these two aspects and free software is there, implicit. If I carry out research, if I code software, I want to share it. Free software for me became part of an ethos, which is internalized more as daily practice than as a political cause that I take up in the role of a militant in one specific area.  

You developed an open source software for an organization working with indigenous peoples. What are the main challenges you see today in the field of development of open source projects within organizations of environmental justice?

I think that the first challenge and perhaps the most important, is the very big abyss that exists internally and between organizations. Normally there is a laboring class or a technical group that seeks the organization, or the organization seeks the technical group, in a relationship like water and oil. It is very difficult to live together like this, because you are not able to create something that really makes a difference. There is no debate around technique in both the indigenist and the socioenvironmental organizations. As I see it, there is none. And I stress this point. There are people who discuss, who study, but there is no debate, and I think this is impoverishing. Professionals who start to work in this area come in completely biased, with foibles, they are drenched with the market, so they arrive with bad market habits, market productivistic logics, market methodologies, and imbued with the market’s single-mindedness, repeating “technique is like so”, “technology is like so”, “there is a correct way of doing it and it is this one here”, “there can only be a single correct way of doing this”. Other than that, organizations have a lot of demands to encompass… it’s a lot of havoc to handle.

Another aggravating circumstance is that the labor market in the technological area has been extremely heated, and the non-governmental organizations find it difficult to offer attractive remunerations. The few people willing to collaborate can easily get frustrated with the absence of debate and follow on researching at university, or abroad, and even migrating to private enterprises.

In conjunctural terms, I think there is a series of strong landmarks that further render difficult the existence of this debate and the convergence of free software, indigenism and socioenvironmentalism as they force organizations to increasingly operate in the key of urgency. As was the case with the new Forest Code. I remember a colleague saying that from that point on the avalanche of demands would begin in earnest. So we want to establish a landmark there, an inflection point, and I think we had this moment,  like with the demarcation of the Terra Indígena Raposa Serra do Sol, which was another inflection point, because after that it was very unlikely that we would have another demarcation of such a large continuous area. And since then pressure has only increased. 

Before these big turning points we could even say that the organizations were erring as they did not discuss technique, because up to then, no matter how busy life was, there were full conditions in place for this debate to figure in the agenda, but as I see it the organizations did not realize the importance of a debate around technique. Technology was just another consumption item, or an item in the budget spreadsheet, a funder’s demand, or, anyway, a service that is simply bought. The water of the organizations dashed on the oil of the professionals who arrived previously biased. So, from my point of view, this was a poor encounter, not a joyous splash, but a mixture that did not mix. And this was harmful, because the time of relative calm was not well spent to create a common infrastructure that could respond not only to the usual demands but also to the increasingly more frequent urgencies and emergencies.

It is important to discuss technique not because we are technophile. Technique is at the base. Technology understood here as a way of doing something, of thinking critically about this doing stuff, of considering if we could do it another way, what would these alternative ways be and what are the effects of what we do. So technique holds many dimensions, political dimensions, ethical dimensions, but chiefly an understanding that what the traditional peoples do is extremely technological, without underlining this mistaken conception that there are societies without history, without technique. What history is that? I think it is possible to discuss how we are to build our technological development, one not grounded on this word “development”, one that is not grounded on this word “technique”, but one caried out by means of encounters and mixing. I worked for ten years with a socioenvironmental organization and, as a developer, I have never spoken directly with traditional peoples in order to understand how I could improve my development, and how could I have a better impact on their lives. The conditions for this conversation to exist have never been created. 

I have built a few pieces of software for this organization and I have always insisted on the data openness needed to run it, since access to the source code is sometimes a small section of the whole plot. So another challenge is this, opening data, which also depends on a series of processes and cares in order to secure their being available, updated, checked and maintained in the long run.

Another huge challenge is of facing obsolescence, both in the software developed in and by the organizations and their integration with those developed externally.

It is a mistake to think that the production of a software involves only an initial cost and that, after implementation, it will run on indefinitely. There is great difficulty in finding funding for the maintenance of existing software, for there is a stronger tendency towards funding novelty, the as yet non-existent software. 

Unattended software tends to suffer what we call bit rot, the degradation of the software’s bits.

Software is a number, representable by bits. So, in simple terms, to code is an activity that produces numbers. The work of the software developer is basically to create a number. This number only reaches the desired efficacy if it is run by a system that interprets the number in such a way as to produce expected results. If such systems change, for instance in the course of time with system updates, that number we initially produced may not be one that performs the expected outcomes. So, if the technology necessary to run the software effectively is changed, that is, if the technology becomes incompatible with that software, then the software in a sense has rotted away. 

But it was not the software that has rotted. In a sense it was a rotting of the world that no longer bears providing efficacy to that number, that no longer provides the care; this technical and immaterial object is no longer compatible with the course of the world… a world where the rule is constant innovation producing “disruption” and obsolescence, processes that are intimately associated with the extraction of resources and the diminution of diversity in the territories. From the point of view of the rest of the world, it was the software that has rotted, but in the perspective of the software, it was the world that has gone off.

I have been working on a concept to express this process. Where people call it the Anthropocene, Capitalocene, or even Plantationocene, I dubbed it the Rottenocene, this process of total obsolescence. We witness such processes of mass extinction and of desertification, which can also be understood as rotting processes. 

Because of such challenges, I think that the socioenvironmental camp has serious difficulties in carrying out practical solutions in this technological field, with a few exceptions. There are exceptions. The very organization where I used to work boasted successful technological experiences, despite the big sustainability challenges, the dependence on constant funding as they were plugged into this big machine called “projects market”, with funding cycles usually a lot shorter than the temporalities necessary to create effective and durable software more able to resist the rotting operated by tendential obsolescence.

And specifically in the field of environmental justice, how is it possible to motivate developers to participate in such projects?

Look, I think that we have something that is automatically doing its own advertising, which is the environmental disaster already taking place, unfortunately. I think this is something that motivates and moves people. We need to create and publicize more narratives that instigate and invite people to participate in this process. It is a process that can be very gratifying for people to collaborate in. For the creation of such narrative we need first to break the barriers between the organizations, between funders and the people more of the technical area, so to speak.   

The choice of narratives is important, because we can invite communities to work together with more sustainable technologies. At the same time, this demands being careful, especially regarding the counternarratives that can undermine all the work done and can be formulated by those who profit from destruction.

Beyond narratives, it is important to think how communities can be fomented, without lapsing into the managerialism of the open source mentioned previously. And then to foment community is to think about projects, works or conceptions of projects that allow for the inclusion of people from different contexts, different conditions, different availabilities, different expertise and personal journeys, bringing this down to the concrete, avoiding the generic and the abstract. Concretely, how can we bring in these people in order to carry out such things? This demands thinking about systems and software architecture, about open hardware or social technology implementations and how all this stuff links up, as well as defining what are the common timetables. From all this it is possible to carry out planning compatible with more open temporalities, but that at the same time is effective in face of the urgencies of the world. In this sense I think we are talking about something new, which is not just reusing what exists today in terms of project management and software communities. I think that if we just pick stuff off the shelf we will reproduce a lot of bad things and will favor precisely those other unwanted narratives.

I think there is a lot of work involved, I’d say that it is in the order of decades to carry this out. It is not a thing just for the next funding cycle and I think it is necessary to articulate scales of time-space, short term, local scale, but also long-term stuff. Is it going to happen? Right now I am wading through not very optimistic weeks, so I don’t really see it happening. But this changes with mood, and independently of it happening or not, time will be inexorable. We have a lot to do and to face such challenges seems to be a good use of our short time available.

What are the main causes of a project not going ahead?

This is a crazy question, isn’t it, about what is to cease to exist. I understand that it is not the software that has disappeared, nor has it been glassed in at one of those software museums around us, but I understand that we are talking about the disappearance of the community that propels a project ahead.

Sometimes the organizations even manage to create an effective software project  that can be used beyond the organization itself, but they fail as they are not able to create a critical mass of people to compose the minimum for a community. If there is such community, it is easier for people to feel encouraged to collaborate, for the frequency of debates and of software updates are basic signs of vitality. There is a whole art in maintaining such communities. 

Evidently, it could be that the project refers to a problem of that specific moment and that ceases to be a problem further ahead, it ceases to be a focus of interest – then demobilization does set in. But this is not the case of many pieces of software in the socioenvironmental area dealing with priority issues…

To build free software is also to build communities. There is room and the need for more organizational roles, but equally there is room for communities where all participating people code and do management. It is important that there is care with management and with community strengthening.

In short, it is urgently needed to bring the socioenvironmental field in to discuss technology. There is still time!