We are going to investigate three digital open/free source infrastructures that compose part of the case studies analyzed in this research: SMART, HERMES and Alertas+. The first is a tool for mapping and monitoring environmental preservation areas; the second consists in a digital data transmission system by means of short waves, convenient for isolated areas, where the access to telephone and internet networks are restricted; last is a platform that brings together and organizes – in the form of infographics and statistics – data about environmental degradation originating from different sources.
A common point in all three infrastructures is communication in network, whose structure1 favors:
Based on this common point, we carry out an investigation about the relation between technology, communication and power, based chiefly on Manuel Castells’ communication theory. From then on, we will try to justify the hypothesis that it is by means of the relation between these three elements that the analyzed infrastructures work against the noxious advance of climate changes. This performance is operated through the capacity of communication to influence power relations, since it produces meanings, directing our mode of thinking, which, ultimately, ratifies the norms and values rendered concrete in the institutions that constitute society.
Let’s start with the definition of power given by Castells (2019, 83): a relation asymmetrically established that allows for a social actor2 to influence, in favor of his or her interests, wills and values, the decisions of another social actor. That is, in a power relation, there is always a social actor with a greater degree of influence, so that the instances composing this relation – the one who dominates and the one who is dominated – do not exert reciprocal influences.
In this sense, in a society constituted by power relations, whoever holds it shapes the social institutions according to their interests and values. Conversely, where there is power there is the possibility of counter-power, which is the capacity of the social actors to resist domination and eventually transform the institutions by means of which it is exercised. This takes place when resistance and rejection overlap conformity and acceptance, the latter elements inherent to those who find themselves in the position of the dominated in the logic of a power relation. In the extreme, when power is exerted by means of force or violence alone, so that the capacity for resistance is eliminated, it ceases to be a social relation. In this case, the power relations become non-social relations, because a social relation ceases to exist as soon as one of the terms that sustains it is eliminated (CASTELLS, 2009, 11).
Coercion, which is given by means of violence or the threat of violence, is a fundamental form of the exercise of power, of influencing the actions of a social actor in favor of the interests of those who occupy the dominant position. However, as noted by the author, few institutional systems manage to last long if they exert their power only through violence: “Torturing the bodies is less effective than shaping the minds” (CASTELLS, 2009, 83). In this way, information and communication play a relevant role in the clash between power and counter-power, because, instead of coercing, they persuade. Persuasion shapes people’s minds, and, ultimately, is the way of thinking of people that drives the institutions’ fate, which reflect the norms and values on which a society is built.
This can be seen in the manner state power is legitimated in a democratic system. The basis of the exercise of legitimate power is built on the sharing of a meaning in common, such as the belief in a representative democracy. The State’s intervention in the public sphere ceases to be legitimate the moment in which it is driven by private interests, becoming more a domination tool than one of representation. It is through communication networks, place where the citizens’ interests and values gain expression, that are built the conditions for the civil society to discuss and deliberate in the public domain the content that grounds the State’s actions, securing a legitimate exercise of power to democracy. As Castell states: “The democratic exercise of power is ultimately dependent on the institutional capacity to transfer meaning generated by communicative action” (CASTELLS, 2009, 13).
Communication, thus, plays a conditioning role in the establishment of power relations, because it is through the transfer of information that meanings are produced and shared. This affects the way in which people think and, consequently, conditions the meanings of the actions that people deliberate to themselves and to the community of which they are part.
Having said that, and taking into account communication technology in the digital era, which extends to several domains of social life by means of a network at once global and local, generic and personalized, it follows that the construction of power relations increasingly takes place in the field of communication. This construction, which articulates into a single place technology, communication and power, puts forward for debate a plurality of social actors, thus promoting a clash between several interests and values of the groups involved (CASTELLS, 2019, 84). It is up to us to try to understand the specific characteristics of the conflict that operates from this technological context.
Castells (2019, 84) takes two hypotheses as a starting point for the development of his theory regarding the relation between media and society: a) mass media transformed the way of doing politics, because besides transforming the political processes themselves, it has contributed to a large measure to what we today recognize as the global crisis of political legitimacy; b) the technological and transformational changes in communications, chiefly regarding the advent of mass self-communication – a concept employed by Castells to describe a socialized communication established by digital networks of horizontal character3 –, have decisively changed the operation modes of media politics. These two points distinctively characterize the form of the political clashes in network societies, so that:
The uses of both vertical mass communication and mass self-communication in the relationship between power and counter-power, both in formal politics, and in the new manifestations of social movements and insurgent politics, have transformed the landscape of power struggles in our time. (CASTELLS, 2019, 84)
Regarding point “a”, Castells kicks off from the thesis presented above that power depends on the capacity to influence the way people think, which is given by means of the long-reach socialized media. This role would be played primarily by television, which manages to establish a mass communication channel between the citizens and the political system. Despite the fact that this means of communication is not exempt from the influence of corporate and ideological forces shaping the message in favor of the power relations that interest them, this does not seem to be its greatest problem. For Castells (2019, 85), the absence of a message in the media is more significant than an explicit message aimed at shaping the minds in a given direction, since “[w]hat does not exist in the media does not exist in the public mind, even if it could have a fragmented presence in individual minds”. Without a presence in the communication media, that is, without visibility, the social actors find themselves by principle unable to intervene in power relations.
The words by educator and environmental activist Sandra Regina Gonçalves, spoken at The climate story lab Amazônia, in November 2021, were vehement as she brought attention to the exclusion of certain identities from the media – indigenous peoples, quilombolas, the sea people, the river people – from media space: “Enough of living inside big invisibility. For the government we are invisible, we do not exist”4. According to her, this exclusion process involves institutions ranging from the big media to the curricular grid of the education system. Without visibility, the erased identities do not participate or feel represented in the decision processes on issues that affect them.
In Castells’ (2019, 85) view, every political message is “necessarily a media message”, because, despite the medias not being the holders of power directly, it is within them that power relations are established and re-articulated. In the field of political marketing, this means to convert voters’ attention into votes for a certain candidate. As voters generally do not read the parties’ or candidates’ political programs, attention is concentrated on the headlines of news broadcast in the mass communication media, which can propitiate a voting decision based, above all, on the trust the voter places on a specific candidate. As a consequence, one of the main strategies of political marketing consists in linking certain values to certain candidates, giving politics a personalist character, where the most effective message is the one that builds leaders from the projection of characters that flesh out an image of credibility and of trust (CASTELLS, 2019, 86).
In face of this media-informed and personalist scenario, politics is induced to one further characteristic: it unfolds by means of scandal. In this logic, values such as credibility, trust and character are the central elements in the decisions of a political dispute, therefore, the destruction of such values is one of the most promising resources for the political adversary who intends to impose his or her own reputation. This basically results in two consequences. The first can be observed in the short term: when a scandal involving a certain candidate puts his or her credibility in question, the voters rethink their decisions, and this is reflected on the ballots. The second consequence is the constitution, in the long run, of a generalized discredit regarding the formal political system: everything that involves electoral promises, political leaders and parties is seen with skepticism (CASTELLS, 2019, 87).
We should have in mind, though, that our generalized disbelief does not imply in depoliticization. As Castells observes (based on empirical researches – CASTELLS, 2019, 88), several citizens still believe that they can influence the world by means of mobilizations, but mobilizations that take place outside the scope of formal politics. This leads us to the second hypothesis, raised a few paragraphs above in order to understand the relation between media and society. As already stated, power relations are reconfigured in the media space, because this is the premise in any democratic intervention in the public space. And given that traditional media is submissive to governments and corporations, who only reinforce the model of the formal political systems, an insurgent politics sorely needs a new media space.
Castells attributes this new space to mass self-communication, fit for political insurgency, which we can understand through the following main characteristics5:
These are the general outlines of a media space that we can consider as the communicational foundation of networked society. Its pillar is the computer network, its language is digital, and its participants interact globally. And even if Castells does not support the thesis that the medium – i.e. the very communication vehicles – determines the content and the consequences of its messages, he seems optimistic regarding the possibilities that mass self-communication features in producing meaning6: “it renders possible the unlimited diversity and the largely autonomous origin of most of the communication flows that construct, and reconstruct every second the global and local production of meaning in the public mind” (CASTELLS, 2019, 90).
Let’s try now to understand how mass self-communication renders counter-power viable, i.e., to what measure social movements and political insurgency articulate by means of it. As stated above, counter-power consists in the capacity by social actors to oppose institutionalized power relations in society, eventually changing them. This clash is a permanent characteristic of societies, in place wherever there is a form of domination, be it political, cultural, economic, psychological etc (CASTELLS, 2019, 90). In this sense, together with the legitimacy crisis of the traditional political institutions, contemporaneity has witnessed the growth of a variety of social movements, whose source of inspiration and meaning for social organization projects and institutional reform is based, for the most part, on identity issues, involving ethnic, territorial, national, religious identities. Generally, such movements oppose institutionalized values under which they do not see themselves represented (which does not necessarily mean that their demands hold an inherently progressive character):
Very often, social movements and insurgent politics reaffirm traditional values and forms, e.g. religion, the patriarchal family or the nation, that they feel betrayed in practice in spite of being proclaimed in the forefront of society’s institutions. In other words, social movements may be progressive or reactionary or just alternative without adjectives. But in all cases they are purposive collective actions aimed at changing the values and interests institutionalized in society, what is tantamount to modify the power relations. (CASTELLS, 2019, 90)
Mass self-communication allows for social movements to speak for themselves – and not through institutions of communication media that would represent them from a point of view that is not theirs, thus allowing for them to autonomously present their own projects, in their own terms. A relevant example of this is the self-documentation project by Uru-eu-wau-wau indigenous people from Rondônia, northern Brazil. After the death of Aruká Juma, the last remaining entirely Juma person on the planet, in February 2020 due to the Corona virus, Bitate, a young indigenous community leader, descendant of the Juma and Uru-eu-wau-wau peoples, by way of mother and father, respectively, decided to close his people’s territory to visitors. They later set up a team to document, by means of cameras, drones and other media technologies, how they survived for over a year with no serious instance of the disease7. His words express the aspiration of his people of telling themselves their own history:
Self-documentation is an opportunity to record our own history, our own reality. There are many journalists who want to come over here, but who do not understand a thing about our way of life. This is a great opportunity for the indigenous peoples to learn how to make films in order to record the history of our people8.
Txai Suruí – coordinator of Kanindé (Ethnoenvironmental Defense Association), of the Indigenous Youth Movement of Rondônia, and column writer in Folha de São Paulo newspaper, one of the biggest printed newspapers in circulation in Brazil – makes a reference, in her participation in The Climate Story Lab Amazônia, to the project headed by Bitate, besides highlighting the role of technology and of communication in the struggle against the climate crisis and in the preservation of indigenous culture:
By means of communication we still preserve our culture and show the world the beauty and knowledge of the indigenous peoples, which features such solutions [against the climate crisis]. Solutions to really change and transform and provide an exit to this crisis. This crisis that is already hitting the whole world and whose consequences we are already suffering. And this does not show up in the traditional media, this is the truth. What we see, chiefly what is happening in the indigenous territories, is said by ourselves, through our autonomous media, through our communicators. We have Mídia Índia, Apib, Coiab9. It is the indigenous communicators who are inside the territories speaking out to the world “look, gold prospecting is killing the people, here the invader is getting through, here there is cattle inside my land”. And who is doing most of this work? Youth.10
Still on autonomy, it is worth adding that it is an inherent characteristic of the internet itself. It is correct that the project that originated it, the Arpanet, was developed by the US Defense Department – by means of the ARPA research unit (Advanced Research Project Agency). However, as Himanen wrote (2001, 183), the extension and the meaning of this governmental participation in the internet’s beginnings tends to be exaggerated. According to this author, because university researchers have taken up, at that time, managerial roles, the development of the internet was driven by principles of self-organization, common to scientific practice. The most expressive achievements of this initial development were carried out by the Network Working Group, a group of hackers11 formed by talented university students. The way they worked already looked like the open-source operational model.
The Network Working Group operated on the open-source model: anyone was allowed to contribute ideas, which were then developed collectively. The source codes of all solutions were published from the very beginning, so that others could use, test, and develop them. (HIMANEN, 2001, 183)
Likewise, the World Wide Web – the hypermedia engineered based on the internet – was not created by a corporate or governmental fiat. Tim Berners-Lee, the person behind the initial project for the construction of the Web, relates:
Interested people on the Internet provided the feedback, stimulation, ideas, source-code contributions, and moral support that would have been hard to find locally. The people of the Internet built the Web, in true grassroots fashion. (BERNERS-LEE; FISCHETTI, 2000, 47)
We also have to acknowledge the social and community perspective that Berners-Lee projected for the Web:
The Web is more a social creation than a technical one. I designed it for a social effect – to help people work together – and not as a technical toy. The ultimate goal of the Web is to support and improve our weblike existence in the World. (BERNERS-LEE; FISCHETTI, 2000, 123)
In this sense, the mass self-communication technologies are not just a tool whose deployment allows social movements the autonomous development of their projects, they are also a social construction, the product of a culture that emphasizes the individual’s autonomy (CASTELLS, 2019, 91).
Furthermore, as we speak of the use of technologies, it is important to observe that, for the indigenous populations, the very domain of such tools represents a rupture with a place that is imposed on them by prejudice. Still in her talk at the The Climate Story Lab Amazônia, Txai Suruí mentions the case of a bolsonarista right-wing congressman from the State of Rondônia, Coronel Chrisóstomo (PSL), who, in an audience summoned to discuss the deaths of two indigenous children in an area of illegal prospecting within Yanomami territory, mocked indigenous culture stating that one cannot take an Indian with an Iphone12 seriously.
And we have also been doing this work [of indigenist communication] in order to demystify the still colonized heads of people who think that we, indigenous peoples, can’t have a cellphone, for instance. We saw the confusion yesterday [24.11.21] as a deputy called us fake. Why? Because we can’t have an Iphone? And no, the indigenous communicators have been bringing this up and demystifying this idea, that the indigenous peoples can be wherever they want, and that we have the right to have anything we like. People still look at the indigenous peoples with a mean gaze, implying that we, the indigenous peoples, are poor, and that we have to live in misery.
It is not incidental that a Brazilian parliamentarian makes a statement as prejudiced as that. At the end of the 1970’s, the occupation policy of the Amazon region promoted by the then military regime intended to develop juridical tolls to allow the distinction of indigenous from non-indigenous persons, so that the State could cancel the special citizenship status of the “Indians who had ceased to be Indians”. For the State, it would be enough to summon experts who, by analysis and ostent, would tell apart who was to be indigenous and who was not. Against this project, several organizations emerged or consolidated, such as the Comissão Pró-Índio, Associação Nacional de Ação Indigenista (ANAÍ), Centro de Trabalho Indigenista (CTI), Povos Indígenas no Brasil (PIB) – which is at the origin of the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA). Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2006), indigenist anthropologist that has lived through all such events, wrote about that time:
Our political and theoretical aim, as anthropologists, was to definitely establish – and we didn’t manage to; but I think one day we will – that to be Indian is not to wear a feather headdress, apply urucum paint and wield arrow and bow, something apparent and evident in this stereotyping meaning, but instead a matter of “state of mind”. A mode of being and not a mode of appearing. Actually, something more (or less) than a mode of being: indianity designated to us a certain mode of becoming, something essentially invisible but no less efficacious: an incessant infinitesimal movement of differentiation, not a massive state of “difference” preceding and stabilized, that is, an identity13.
We made this brief digression just to elucidate that the mere use of technologies seen as modern, independent of what they are capable of doing, already bear a different meaning when indigenous populations are involved.
Let’s return to the issue of mass self-communication. Besides allowing several social moments and different cultures to express by themselves their desires and demands, the peculiar characteristics of mass self-communication also encourage a phenomenon that Castells (2019, 92) denominates instant political communities of practice. This phenomenon is characterized by a reactive political insurgence, a spontaneous revolt prodded by indignation in face of oppression, of corruption or of the indifference of the elite in power. Generally, such revolts are sparked by a particular event, producing webs of protests that are set up from the use of the internet and of cellphones. Such mobilizations, which can take up gigantic proportions in a short time, have in their essence the use of horizontal mass communication networks. A few examples include the protests in Tunisia in 2011 that led to the deposition of the then president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, to which one can attribute as a starting point the self-immolation of street vendor Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, who set his own body on fire in response to the seizing of his belongings, and to the humiliation and harassment from security municipal agents14. With the same characteristics of a specific starting point and the numerous and spontaneous joining in processed by mass self-communication, we can also mention the May 2013 demonstrations in Brazil, headed by the Free Pass Movement (Movimento Passe Livre – MPL)15, whose origins are found in the increase in the public transport bus fares in the city of São Paulo.
The decentralized and expansive features of mass self-communication is reflected on the forms of political organization of the more recent social movements. As observed by Juris (2004, 349): “The internet does not simply provide the technological infrastructure for computer-supported social movements, its reticulated structure reinforces their organizational logic”. Analogous to the communication technologies that they use, such movements appropriated the network format, so that its actions and practices are based on non-hierarchical structures, in the horizontal coordination among these autonomous groups, in the open access, in direct participation, in consensus-based decision making, in free and open circulation of information. Differently from the party or trade union politics, which operates by means of a vertical and hierarchical structure, based on representativity, in the recruitment of new members and in the establishment of a hegemonic politics, the way of doing network politics works out by means of the expansion and articulation between different groups, collectives and other networks who converge to a point in common. This takes place through a flexible and decentralized organizational structure, which, besides interfering neither in the identity nor in the autonomy of the groups involved, renders viable wide ranging communication and coordination among themselves.
This reverberation of technology in the forms of political organization can be noted in the passage below, taken from a project elaborated by Coolab, a collective that works with the implementation of community networks in communities who face difficulties in accessing communication networks:
As a result, the strengthening of the associativist process of the selected communities is expected, securing self-management and sustainability of the community providers created. Coolab seeks further to stimulate the decentralization and the appropriation of this methodology by other groups, acting locally. In order to do so, we followed the premises in the use of free software, as well as carried out documentation of the methodologies and technologies used16 (Sic).
It is interesting to note in this quote how the notions of decentralization and sharing related to the concrete space of political organization – in this case, the communities where community networks are set up – are thought of as a consequence of the directives that define the use of free software.
Analogously, like the structure of the network technologies increasingly manifest in political organizations, network societies demand new network technologies. There is, as Welman clarifies below, a positive feedback between these two instances:
The technological development of computer networks and the societal flourishing of social networks are now in a positive feedback loop. Just as the flexibility of less-bounded, spatially dispersed social networks creates demand for the world wide web and collaborative communication, the breathless development of computer networks nourishes societal transitions from little boxes to social networks. (WELLMAN, 2001, 228)
Another important characteristic is that the frontiers conditioned by space-time are rearticulated in the network society. To bring people together does not imply necessarily in them being on the same space at the same moment, because data travels in the network for long distances and in principle are always available on demand. But despite this virtualization possibility, that works without presential meetings and assemblies, the social movements, besides using the communication technologies to organize direct actions and coordinate campaigns, do not cease to act locally and presentially. In this sense, it is worth bringing up the term “glocal” (JURIS, 2004, 347; HAMPTON, 2004, 226; WELLMAN, 2001, 236), which can be used to designate the at once global and local action mode of such movements, since a local action, as it enters the information flux of the communication networks, acquires the potential of global reach: a protest organized to take place in certain city can be replicated, from the sharing of sources and information – possibly in real time – in any part of the world.
All such factors brought together form, ultimately, an amalgam composed by the technological infrastructures, the data that travels in them and the people who use and feed them. The confluence of these elements constituted what Pierre Lévy defined as cyberspace:
Cyberspace (which I will also call “network”) is a new communication medium that emerges from the worldwide connection of computers. The term specifies not only the material infrastructure of digital communication, but also the human beings who navigate and feed this universe. (LÉVY, 1999, 17)
And as we remarked earlier, cyberspace establishes conditions that make room for new practices, values and ways of thinking – that, all together, we can define with the term culture. In this context, the MariaLab project is illustrative. This is a feminist collective that seeks to rebuild and reappropriate the way in which we develop and interact with technological infrastructures. The following passage, taken from the primer Weaving Care Territories: a guide for the learning and construction of community networks, gives us a good example of how appropriation of a technique or of a technological infrastructure is manifested in culture and vice-versa:
There are guides that seek to work out all the phases [technique, governance, training]. Other materials separate the technical work from the educational or political work. This role division often reproduces gender roles so common in our society. Men configure the equipment and women take care of the learning process.
This split does not interest us. We are women and we want to talk with women, in all phases of the process, aware that technology is political. As feminists we deny that the different knowledges can be hierarchized in a way where ‘technology’ is reduced to digital technical knowledge in opposition to other processes. We do not believe, also, that the role of manipulating digital technologies belongs to men and that the roles of caring for the learning process, of articulation, of food and other technologies necessary to the implementation of a community network are necessarily feminine roles17.
In this excerpt, we notice how cyberspace sets up conditions for the culture where it is manifested to be confronted and reconfigured. The building and use of a technological infrastructure – a wi-fi community network – propitiates the conditions for the issues of machismo, gender inequality and arbitrary hierarchies to be challenged. Thus, simultaneously to cyberspace there is the set of practices and values that are developed alongside it, or better said, there is cyberculture, as defined by Lévy:
Regarding the neologism “cyberculture”, here it specifies a set of techniques (material and intellectual), of practices, of attitudes, of modes of thinking and of values that are developed together with the growth of cyberspace. (LÉVY, 1999, 17)
Following the same author, it is important to mention that cyberspace does not determine the culture or the society where it takes place, but only conditions it. Even if technique follows, translates and favors the developments of a civilization, it would be too much to state that a society is determined by the emergent form a specific culture. As exemplified by Lévy, the invention of spurs has given birth to a new mode of cavalry, which has driven feudalism’s political and social structures. However, this does not allow us to state that the invention of spurs is the cause of feudalism, despite the fact that, if spurs did not exist, it would be difficult to imagine how the knights in armor would ride their battle horses, how the cavalries would have been set up, how wars would have been conducted etc. A state of a social or cultural fact is fruit of a complex and “partially undetermined” process of interactions, which practically renders nonviable identification with a precise cause. Thus, we can say that spurs indirectly condition feudalism, but do not determine it. That is, to state that technique conditions a certain social fact means to say that some possibilities could not “be taken seriously” if this technique didn’t exist, but this does not mean this fact would not exist if there wasn’t such technique; or, still, there are social facts that could have existed – given the possibilities opened by this technique – but that did not consolidate and we did not even imagine them (LÉVY, 1999, 25).
Following this reasoning, we can say with Castells that technology in itself does not play a determinant role in social transformations, however political and social autonomy, fundamental element for a social and cultural transformation, are related to the communicational autonomy rendered viable by the new communication technologies:
[T]echnology per se does not produce cultural and political change, although it does always have powerful effects of an indeterminate kind. Yet, the possibilities created by the new multimodal, interactive communication system extraordinarily reinforce the chances for new messages and new messengers to populate the communication networks of society at large, thus reprogramming the networks around their values, interests, and projects. In this sense, the construction of communicative autonomy is directly related to the development of social and political autonomy, a key factor in fostering social change. (CASTELLS, 2009, 414)
Next, we analyze separately a few open-source digital infrastructures that we have studied in the course of this research. Taking into account the classification proposed by Eghbal (2016, 46) with regards to how digital open-source infrastructures are organized and are funded, that is, considering the categories that she proposes: Within a company, As a new business and By individuals or a group of individuals, we can say that all the projects we investigated can be framed in the last classification.
A project within this category is characterized by being developed mostly by individual contributions, by featuring a decentralized work method and by been self-organized, devoided of strategies and explicitly defined and shared missions (LINDINGER, 2020, 5). And specifically in the case of the projects we investigated, most of them are developed within non-profit organizations (not directly related to the development of digital infrastructure, but to socioenvironmental causes), which at a certain point employ digital technologies to improve the carrying out of their aims.
On October 15 2021, we interviewed Felipe Spina Avino, in charge of the Technologies for Conservation section of WWF-Brasil. He told us about SMART18 (Spatial Monitoring and Report Tool), an open-source digital platform that involves many tools, from a cellphone app to cloud data storage. The system was created in 2011 and its development and maintenance involve a partnership between several organizations: Frankfurt Zoological Society, Wildlife Conservation Society, North Carolina Zoo, Panthera, Peace Parks Foundation, Wildlife Protection Solutions, Zoological Society of London, Re:wild and the WWF. With the support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation19, in 2019 the platform was introduced in the country by means of the WWF-Brasil, which besides offering training workshops, translated the system and manuals into Portuguese and Spanish.
SMART allows for the integration into a single system the field work, the data analysis and the production of reports. With SMART Mobile, users collect field data, such as information about biodiversity, illegal activities (deforesting, prospecting, invasion, hunting), patrol routes etc., and record it in a central database, the SMART Desktop, where the raw data is analyzed and transformed into reports useful in the understanding and documentation of what is taking place in the territories visited. SMART can be personalized for specific needs and contexts, able to adapt to marine or terrestrial territories and to places with or without internet connection. And besides its architecture favoring integration with other databases and applications, its functionalities can be widened by means of several plugins, such the SMART Survey, which tracks changes in the monitored entities, thus allowing the evaluation of the effectiveness of the implemented action strategies. Felipe analyzes in the following manner the role played by technologies similar to SMART:
Mobile phones can be great allies to conservation, and provide a wide range of relevant data facilitating the management and protection of Forest, and engaging diverse actors in this process such as tourists and local communities. We know that, unfortunately, there is a lack of sufficient resources for effective management and safeguard of protected areas, but technology can help us to know where to focus and how to better apply the existing resources to achieve favorable results and ensure the conservation of these areas20.
Felipe told us about the SMART implementation project in Rondônia, a Brazilian northern state. The project was carried out by means of a partnership between the Moore Foundation and the Kanindé Ethnoenvironmental Defence21. Its aim is to reduce the invasion and deforesting of indigenous lands, besides increasing the capacity of prevention and denunciation of illegal activities in these territories. The project is divided into different levels: more generally, a remote monitoring center via satellite covers all the indigenous lands in Rondônia; locally, indigenous teams monitor four territories with the help of SMART: Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, Igarapé Lourdes, Pacaás Novos, Sete de Setembro22; and to deal with issues related to bureaucracy and communication, there is a team of institutional character composed by lawyers and communicators, in charge of transforming the collected data into information useful to the control agencies and to the Press, so that the violations found in the field gain visibility and are adequate in the progress of juridical suits resulting from the denunciations recorded.
Each village has a monitoring team. Among the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, for instance, the team is composed by more or less five people – indigenous men and women -, who besides being aware of personal safety tactics, were trained in the use of SMART and drones. They go on surveillance rounds once or twice a month: they go out in expeditions that may last to two or three days and they go to the extremes of the territory, collecting and recording data during the process. Up to the moment of the interview, the group was waiting for an update of the alert system via satellite. More sensitive than the version then in use, it was possible to detect deforesting events in their initial stages – the moment when loggers start to open the first track, for instance – so that they can be interrupted before they evolve to a more advanced state of destruction. Furthermore, as related by Felipe, the early warnings are important because the State is practically inoperative regarding the punishment of infractions already carried out.
There are infractions, however, that a satellite is not able to detect, such as selective cuts of wood or trail opening, which underlines the importance of local expeditions. In face of a notifiable fact, photographs, local GPS coordinates, textual observations and even audio or voice recordings can be collected by means of SMART. All this data is stored in the smartphone and can be shared as soon as a network signal is available. In this sense, the implementation of HERMES23 is being tested in the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau village. HERMES is an open source digital data transmission system by means of radio short wave/HF, about which we write more below. Despite the fact that transmission is slow, especially when image files are concerned, this is enough to describe and to collect evidence of what is happening, so that it will be possible to react according to what the situation demands. According to Felipe, this way of action has shown to be effective. In a few cases, the infractions were surprised in flagrante delito, which demands subsequent actions (when tensions and risks involved are not to be neglected), such as notifying the Federal police or negotiate for the criminals to leave the site.
During the SMART implementation in Rondônia, several workshops were carried out, especially to detect the local specificities and priorities, which later are reflected on the app’s personalized configuration, adapted to the users’ reality. Felipe stresses the collective work with the communities:
We did the workshops with the indigenous people first to understand which were the threats, what was important for them to monitor, what kind of datum made sense. Then, further on, we brought in our legal people, to comment on what kind of information cannot be left out from the juridical point of view regarding a case to be built further ahead. It’s been a collective creation project.
In the case at hand, the Kanindé people worked with the SMART team, and both defined the relevant categories, that is, data modeling, “which is basically the information collection form”, besides defining elements of the graphic interface, so as to produce a friendlier usability on the field. After this initial configuration, the SMART manipulation becomes very automated. The application automatically generates, based on the collected data, reports and maps according to the previously configured categories.
Besides the possibility of personalization, Felipe highlights two further important features in SMART. The first regards security and privacy: data management is in the community’s full responsibility. Data can be shared or shown on the internet, however, this takes place by means of the explicit deliberation of the user, that is, the application in itself does not make malicious use of the information entered. The second point regards being free of charge and also its periodic maintenance. As SMART is maintained by a group of non-governmental group, this gives it wide financial sustainability, allowing it to be constantly updated, to have plenty of material support and to offer translations into several languages. Felipe says they always give preference to free or low cost open-source tools when a project is implemented, so that it can be more easily replicated in other territories, with limited budgets.
A symptomatic characteristic of NGOs is the difficulty in conciliating the aims, usually involving long duration actions, and the restricted deadlines approved in projects by funding bodies (BANKS; HULME; EDWARDS, 2015). This is reflected on the maintenance of applications. As related by Felipe, several apps are not sustained in the course of time because they cease to get maintenance when a project’s funding closes. This issue was a concern in the meetings organized in 2020, where various NGOs that have applications got together to discuss how to better work in tandem, so that the projects could converse with one another. A movement in this direction has been articulated by means of the construction of the monitoring system of the Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazonian Cuenca (COICA24), a project that intends to gather data originating in the apps used by several other indigenist organizations.
As mentioned above, in some communities SMART has been implemented in tandem with HERMES25, a digital data transmission system by means of short wave/HF. We had the opportunity to talk with Rafael Diniz26, lead developer and project manager at Rhizomatica27, an organization of which HERMES is presently part.
Rhizomatica is non-profit and was created in 2009, with the aim of setting up telecommunication infrastructures in communities that, due to many factors such as oppressive regimes, threat of natural disasters, infrastructural precariousness etc, find themselves isolated from communication media. Besides HERMES, the organization is involved in other projects, such as community cellphone systems28, mesh wi-fi networks, research and development of free/open source hardware and software. It also develops projects of juridical character, aiming to help small communities in the operation of their autonomous communication systems – for instance, the legalization of access to frequency bands, regulation of communication infrastructure and demands for funding. The focus of such work has been Latin America, with projects carried out in Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil.
HERMES’s main objective is to allow digital communication by means of short wave High Frequency transmissions. The advantage of this type of transmission is the possibility of connecting, without the use of satellites, cables or any intermediate system, very distant points, as far as one thousand kilometers away. In the Terra do Meio region for instance, in the State of Pará, there is a connection carried out with HERMES that reaches as far as about 500 kilometers. This long reach is relevant, especially as a cellphone tower covers an average of 30 kilometers, that is, any community away more than 30 kilometers from an urban center, a distance easily surpassed by Amazon region communities, will have no access through a telephone network. Faced with that, Rafel says that when he thought about a digital data transmission system for communities sited in rural areas or in the forest, the idea of using short wave cropped up naturally, since in a large portion of such communities the only communication means is the short wave transceptor radio29.
HERMES’ origin harks back to the project Juruá Fonia: communication networks for peoples of the forest of Marechal Thaumaturgo/AC, formed by researchers of the areas of anthropology and computer science, and by dwellers of the High Juruá Extractivist Reservation, sited in the border of Brazil and Peru. With this project, which took place in 2015, one tried to respond to the demand for a communication and information infrastructure that helped in the territorial and environmental management, as well as in the reversion of the social degradation caused by the isolation, both within the communities themselves and in relation to their relatives who live, study or work in the distant municipality’s headquarters. Within this scope, the first digital data transmission test was carried out by means of a short wave band: a photographic image was sent between the city’s station, at the headquarters of the Association of the Rubber Tappers and Agriculturists of the Extractivist Reservation of the High Juruá, and a station placed at the mouth of the Breu river, distant about 50 kilometers (CAMINATI; DINIZ, 2015, 2).
In 2018, HERMES gained fresh drive as it won the first prize in the competition30 promoted by the Mozilla Foundation, whose aim was to foment projects that present solutions for communication challenges in contexts of disaster or in communities with precarious access to the internet. With HERMES then part of Rhizomatica, on the occasion the system transmitted in the HF band SMS messages and voice recordings, connecting the capital of Oaxaca, in Mexico’s south, to a community sited in a mountain vale in the same state. Locally, users connected to a GSM network provided by a small radio station. In 2019, the system gained an update, so that the services provided by the HF network were now accessed through a local wi-fi network, thus allowing the sending and receiving of photos by means of a cellphone (DINIZ; FARIAS, 2021, 3).
Besides, at the end of 2021, when we interviewed Rafael, HERMES already relied on the development of its own hardware, so that it no longer relied on an “off-the-shelf radio”. The device, basically a box containing a computer and a HF transceptor, is a radio optimized to transmit data. Its construction is modular, so that a damaged piece can be changed independently, with no interference in the functioning of the others. Each device costs an average of a thousand dollars. There are also the devices that compose HERMES’ installation infrastructure, many of which are the same required for the installation of a traditional radio. A node in the HF band network in the forest region, for instance, typically requires a solar panel, a charge regulator, posts for the support of the antenna, the antenna, a cable to connect the transceptor to the antenna and the transceptor for the HF band connected to a computer (DINIZ; FARIAS, 2021, 3). As Rafael says, while it is not cheap, it is a low cost equipment, especially when one considers other digital data transmission options. A satellite internet, for instance, besides featuring a high installation costs, demands a monthly expenditures with the company that offers the service. Furthermore, it is noticeable that the value of approximately one thousand dollars is the equivalent of the price for a radio communicator. In this way, to install HERMES is, in any case, more advantageous than installing just a common radio, since the system can also function like one – which, as mentioned above, is a very popular communication system in the Brazilian Amazon region.
We can further list HERMES’ following advantages, which are similar to those in the use of a radio in comparison with a usual telephone or internet system offered by the big telecommunication companies: a) HERMES’ stations enjoy energetic autonomy, since they can be fed by a system of simple solar capture; b) a large part of the devices composing the system – transceptors, antennas, batteries, are more robust, durable and demand less maintenance than the notebooks and cellphones that, besides, are usually submitted to the logic of programmed obsolescence; c) as stated by Caminati & Diniz (2015, 4), rural or forest communities, in principle, could seek the installation of the internet in their territories by means of some public policy to promote access to communication means. However, the politics of mediation involved in such process, needed for the set up and maintenance of the infrastructures, often amounts to a barrier for these communities.
In face of such points, HERMES’ independence and autonomy stand out as its chief advantages. This is particularly relevant when security issues are considered. Felipe relates the case of a community where invaders sabotaged, more than once, the cables furnishing energy and the internet, leaving dwellers vulnerable without communication. Thus, he observes that, as a strategy issue of security, it would be interesting to have the HERMES system set up even in communities that already have the internet, for in similar situations they would still be able to communicate.
Another point that relates to the issue of security regards respect to privacy. In a usual internet connection, there is need for a company mediating the full data transmission process, so that it can make use of such information to the detriment of the user; in the case of radiophonic activity, calls can be intercepted by third parties. With HERMES, in contrast, the transmitted data is cryptographed, only the receiver can interpret it. In a HERMES presentation video31, made by Rhizomatica, there are two users of the system highlighting this point: Francinaldo Lima, aide of the Association of the Dwellers of the Terra do Meio Extractivist Reservation, notes the privacy in communication, especially when information is exchanged regarding threats to the territory, bringing more safety to the community; Raimunda Rodrigues, riverside dweller of the Iriri river and manager of the Rio Novo mini-plant, says that to exchange information through conventional radio about the management of the nuts stock, at the plant or in the canteen, causes a risk of theft, which has ceased to happen with HERMES’ cryptographed data transmission.
One of HERMES’ disadvantages, though, is the low transmission rate. As an illustration, in order to transmit 80 kilobytes in short wave takes in excess of 10 minutes. In this way, messages are limited to the maximum size of 20 kilobytes, and the transmission queue is configured to a limit of 80 kilobytes. So the data transmitted goes through compression codifiers that use machine learning. For instance, LPCNet is used, a computational neural network developed by the Mozilla Foundation to codify voice data at a rate of 1.600 bit/s. Despite demanding greater computational complexity, the result bears a better subjective quality when compared to the result of codifiers that do not feature machine learning.
Notwithstanding such limitations, it should be born in mind that HERMES is not exactly an internet access system – with which one can watch videos, have online meetings etc., but a bridge to it. Caminati & Diniz (2015, 2) clarify this point:
It is a fact that the bitrate that this coupling offers does not allow for the transmission of very big files, and also could not be used as a replacement for access to the internet. But it does contain huge possibilities of application in local services and even of integration with internet services. We haven’t been able to deepen such potentials, but in conversations during the tests and during workshops, when we presented them, we realized two main fields of application in services: remote education and geoprocessing – the latter deeply important for territorial and environmental management.
The integration with SMART, seen above, was witness to an advance regarding the use of the system as a geoprocessing tool.
Sending emails figures among HERMES’ main functionalities. In order to carry it out, the open-source software Delta Chat32 is used. HERMES also has a web mail service installed, which can be accessed through the wi-fi network created by the station. However, due to practicality and to the friendlier interface, similar to a message exchange app33 such as WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, the use of Delta Chat is being recommended. Working as an email client, it allows for the user to send from the cellphone text messages, audio, images and files. In this manner, a basic flux of data would be: the user connects the cellphone to the local wi-fi network created by HERMES and sends a message by Delta Chat; this is then treated locally, where it goes through the compression process, for instance, and is then routed through the short wave transceptor to the HERMES station that is in some point with access to the internet; from then on the message is sent to its final destination. Thus, any HERMES station can send (receive) data to (from) any part of the world, provided there is at least one station with access to the internet.
The topology of the network is a star, so that a central station, placed in a point that can offer adequate infrastructure for internet access, is connected by short band to every other station. In normal operation, the central station periodically connects to the other stations – every hour, every two hours, depending on the community’s conditions and needs – and synchronizes emails. As the reach of the connection is quite long, there is no need to make a bridge, like a mesh network, between stations: the central station is able to directly reach any other station.
According to Rafael, this is how they have envisaged the HERMES’ installation up to now carried out. However, nothing stops a peripheral station requesting from the central station an immediate synchronization, in the case of an urgent message, for instance; or that a station may directly connect with another, establishing communication independent from the central station:
Through the radio’s web interface you […] are able to send ad hoc messages, let’s say, without using the email transport. You want to send it to station x as if it was a bulletin board. [You] can send a message directly to a radio and it will pop up in the other radio’s web interface as a bulletin board (Rafael Diniz, interview on October 15 2021).
In the web interface – accessible by the user’s cellphone or computer – it is also possible to configure the radio’s frequency, output potency, radio mode (USB or LSB); the potency amplifier can be switched on or off (in case it is operating with low battery or in a proximity that does not demand amplification), users can also be created, passwords configured etc.
The advantage of not using the other stations as bridges is not having to use up the stations’ battery that, in the after all, would be operating just to intermediate the connection. Another point that should be taken into consideration regards the distribution of frequencies. If immediate synchronization with the central station is requested in the moment when it is synchronizing emails with any other station, this connection will collapse, because for each network there is only a single frequency. In this case, the connection will not be set up until there are only two stations in communication. Likewise, attention is needed so that common radio communication is not made in the same frequency as HERMES is operating. There should be, therefore, planning for the use of frequencies, so that the frequency of the digital transmission does not suffer interference from the analogical transmissions or vice-versa.
A myriad of data produced in the context of the monitoring Amazônia Legal34 is produced daily. Information comes from several sources35 and bring in data on the climate, deforesting, forest fires, prospecting areas etc. Because of the amount and dispersion of such data, it is difficult for a non-specialist to form a general and cohesive understanding about what is going on in the Amazon region. It is in this context that the Alertas+36 platform comes in. It was conceived by the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA)37. This is an online dashboard that tracks and filters several alerts of environmental degradation in indigenous lands and in conservation units of the Amazônia Legal. With it, a user can, for instance, generate a graph informing the evolution of local prospecting alerts during a certain stretch of time and in a certain indigenous community.
According to Silvio Carlos – who was part of the platform’s conception, development and programming team, and with whom we had the opportunity to talk with during the round of dialogues we carried out on the September 16 2021 – there is a recurring difficulty in making estimates in different spatial and temporal profiles on environmental degradation in the Amazon region. Faced with this situation, Alertas+ sought to create a generic engine of statistics and estimates based on the already available and daily updated data about the Amazon region, so that the common user, the Press or other organizations may produce informative content – in a language accessible to a wide audience – without dealing with complex calculations. Thus, from a variety of classificatory criteria, which filters data coming from several trusted sources, the system produces totalizing graphs according to the profiles stipulated by the user.
In the occasion of the platform’s launch (August 10 2021), in a live38 broadcast in the Instituto Sociambiental’s Youtube channel, Antonio Oviedo, researcher and coordinator of ISA’s Protected Areas Monitoring Program, and who is part of Alertas+ technical coordination, underlined three necessary elements for society to enjoy transparency and social participation mechanisms, so as to make adequate environmental decisions: a) to know the environment and the threats from anthropic activities; b) actively participate in the formulation of public policies and follow their implementation; c) enjoy the conditions to denounce environmental crimes. Antonio adds that, recently, the Access to Information Law and the Open Data National Policy were passed, forcing governmental bodies to produce and publicize information on the environment. Furthermore, besides the right to the ecologically balanced environment being secured by article 225 of the 1988 Federal Constitution, the Environment National Policy defines the production and communication of information as one of its aims.
In recent years, though, all this legislation has been under threat. There is a deliberate dismantling of the territorial and environmental monitoring agencies, a condition that is reflected in the expressive worsening39 of data on deforestation and forest fires, especially in the Amazon region. In addition, there is an information blackout, a decrease in transparency and social participation. According to Antonio, in order to overcome this situation the State needs to fulfill its constitutional responsibility, which involves, among other things, to promote qualified information and strengthen the environmental monitoring agencies with adequate teams and budgets.
We have observed in our research as a recurrent complaint the allegations about the limits in the actions that the organizations face before the state infrastructure, which, ultimately, should play the role of adequately processing the denunciations of violations of social or environmental rights. In independent conversations we had with Carolina Marçal, then member of Greenpeace’s40 campaign sector, and with Paula Franco, country manager of the Global Climate Justice Program, of Hivos41, a common point raised was the difficulty in securing favorable juridical development to those denouncing violations of environmental rights. What unfortunately takes place is that few denunciations are actually investigated, and when they are, rarely they reach beyond the first instance. Besides, the criminalization of the indigenous peoples is more intense than the carrying out of democratic access to justice by original peoples – Paula highlights. Ane Alencar, science director of the Amazonian Research Institute (IPAM)42, in the occasion of the Alertas+ launch also commented on the situation: “What I feel is that the indigenous peoples are on their own, they are not completely alone because we stand with them, but they are sidelined by the government”. Trying to deal with this problem, many organizations are bringing jurists and communicators into their teams, as we saw with Rhizomatica and in the SMART implementation workshops in Rondônia. Thus, the data collected by the apps have greater chances of promoting wider public commotion or of becoming more pressing juridical evidence.
In any way, as in the points raised above by Antonio Oviedo and how we have tried to demonstrate in the theoretical grounding of our research, democratic communication and free access to information are indispensable elements – though not sufficient – for any action that seeks to result in deeper reforms. Alertas+ contributes towards that. One of its prerogatives is to make the data produced by the research institutes more accessible, as there is a chasm between research and the production of such information, its publicizing and understanding. In this sense, the dashboard seeks, from the data requested, to create consistent and communicative narratives, illustrated by infographs and presented in an intuitive language – the results about the dimensions of a devastated area can, for instance, be expressed in measure units that estimate the equivalent amount of felled trees or the equivalent size to soccer fields.
For Silvio, Alertas+ is an answer-generating machine. Due to the possibility of creating practically inexhaustible combinations of criteria, hypotheses can be raised or interpretations can be better grounded. In this way, as important as getting an answer is to discuss what would be interesting to ask the machine:
We want to improve, so to speak, the educational side of the system, so that it is easier to seek data, so that it is easier to understand which questions people want to make, because we have created, basically, an answer-giving machine. We may remember the quote attributed to Pablo Picasso saying computers are useless because they only give answers, so we created an answer-giving machine. We need now to discuss and better translate how the questions can be made, what are the interesting questions (Silvio, in the Alertas+ launch live).
If, for instance, we look in the dashboard the fire spot alerts for the month of August 2019, restricted to the fires in the State of Pará, we realize that what was known as the Day of Fire43 in fact amounts to a whole month when fire alerts much increased. Besides, all this information can be accompanied by various comparisons — previous periods, surrounding areas, proximity of conservation areas etc –, giving a more understandable perspective on the dynamics of environmental destruction.
When asked about the system’s usability — if there has been a communication initiative between developer and user –, Silvio clarified that as the project relied on a small team, which should carry out the assigned budget as soon as possible, it was not possible to pay special attention to issues of usability and interface. So the more well-known open-source libraries were chosen, aiming at a generic solution, able to encompass different user profiles. Besides, the dashboard works in different modes, progressing from the basic – more narrative, with images and infographics for the display of data – to the advanced, in which the more experienced user can call up an articulation of data as he or she seeks a hypothesis or a piece of evidence:
Our system basically vomits a huge amount of data. You need to know exactly what question you want to make, otherwise you will not understand the answer. So we decided to work first on these access levels… A very initial profile, then a basic presentation mode and a few more advanced profiles. (Silvio, in the community call on December 16 2021)
Still on usability, Silvio brings attention to an episode that took place in another of ISA’s projects, Xingu+44, which consists in a map system of the region of the Xingu watershed used – also in printed form – in the making of deforestation bulletins: the users of the Xingu community always turned the maps upside down, because, differently from the way it was drawn, they see the watershed from the river Xingu riverhead outwards. This led Alertas+ to question the map library:
A debate we have is how do to take such map libraries and turn them upside down and change the projection. We are using the Web Mercator, which is an eurocentric, mercantilist projection, essentially colonialist. Then inside our socioenvironmental maps, with other initiatives we are seeking… I don’t know…. decolonisation, or some other type of interaction with the world, we are essentially placing there a library that is open source, that all the community uses, but the paradigm of such libraries is a mainstream paradigm. (Silvio, in the community call on December 16 2021)
As a result, a module within Alertas+ was created, where it is possible to alternate to the Fuller45 projection, where the Earth is represented as it were a single continent surrounded by the ocean. Notwithstanding, Silvio observes that in this process the development team realized the enormous difficulty that is to develop and maintain the new library. It is a lot less labor-intensive to resort to ready-made libraries and just make the necessary adaptations.
In this sense, Silvio believes that a solution would be to foster union between organizations, who for several reasons — among which competition for funding — always end up reinventing their libraries and systems, rendering it more difficult to carry on with the development of projects:
At ISA, we started with a library that we call eco map – which is an open map library, based on other libraries too – with this aim of trying to unify all the socioenvironmental cartography systems, using a single library. And then we would somehow manage to build a pool, bring organizations together to get funding and suddenly foment a convergent development. (Silvio, conversation rounds on December 16 2021)
We asked Silvio if the Alertas+ source code, which is open/free, had received any voluntary contribution, which has not taken place. According to him, this is the case when a software starts to get used with great relevance. Besides, contributions are not given spontaneously, active network efforts are needed to foment initiatives in this direction. In any case, despite the project not having been able to raise contributions, Silvio says that they had “opened the source as a necessary ethical point”.
Asked by one of the participants in the conversation rounds about what is, in general, the profile of the funders who support projects along the lines of Alertas+, Silvio clarified that they are not funders linked to issues of technological infrastructure, but linked to socioenvironmental causes. In this way, the technological infrastructures end up being seen as a means to – contingent in a way – to solve an urgent singular aim. For Silvio, this kind of vision hinders looking at the technological infrastructure itself, from which other relations could be built and break with infrastructures that are harmful to the communities. He argues that with a short term and merely reactive perspective:
we end up using any solution that works today in order to try and solve emergency problems. And in the case of Alertas+, in my understanding, what drove the funding of this round of development, the creation of our system, was the Day of Fire episode, in 2019, in August. […] We had no way to react to a threat this big, in such a short time. And then came the funding. But it is not ideal for this kind of situation, because this tends to create inflated systems: a lot of investment in a short time, but without a concern for sustainability. Then I think that this is a classic problem of institutions, living off funding. (Silvio, in the community call on December 16 2021)
This stresses a major characteristic of our study cases. The technological infrastructure is not considered in itself, as a place from which social relations or other types of infrastructure could be thought afresh. Despite projects like MariaLab and Rede Mocambos, in which cyberculture itself constituted the transformation space, most of the projects we analyzed – SMART, Mapa Guarani Digital, Alertas+, Proteja Amazônia – employ digital infrastructures only as a tool. In this case, the area of technology constitutes a distinct department within a wider organization whose main interest is not related to issues of technology. Thus, funding is chiefly obtained by the organization, which later distributes it to the technology department, in a kind of contractual relation. And if it is the case that the developed infrastructures has its source code open/free, this is more a consequence of the developers’ team working mode than the organization’s initiative of contributing to the open source community.
Another important aspect of Alertas+ regards the promotion of data resilience. The system works with six different data sets, which does not render it dependent from a single source. In a scenario where the State itself promotes disinformation, to rely on a single source, such as the Space Research National Institute (INPE), would be very risky, since this institute finds itself under constant threat of being hollowed out46. Because of the resilience rendered viable by the availability of diverse and independent sources, Silvio states that “we will not know what goes on in Amazônia Legal only if the satellites fall down or something as catastrophic takes place”.
The major part of the data is automatically updated, following the periodicity of the source update. The fire spot alert published daily by the Real Time Deforestation Detection system (DETER), of INPE, for instance, is automatically verified and updated every day. The dashboard also handles data that does not need human supervision, however, they sought to set up a system less dependent on maintenance than the lines of analysis that demand numerous geoprocessing analysts to carry out the calculations. Thus, we can say that Alertas+ is semiautomatic, meaning the information update or the notification of any problems are regularly monitored, manually and automatically.
The time scale in which the dashboard operates is denominated “close to real time”. It is not possible to know what is going on in the exact moment things happen, but, depending on the source of data, it is possible to know what took place 24 hours ago, a condition that allows for society’s prompt action, Silvio says. The systems presently in use do not offer data in this time scale, which was one of the reasons for the platform seeking to fill this gap.
The system works with export into open formats. Its architecture allows for the transport of components into other sites and products. This is, therefore, a structuring project, which supports plugins to import other alert systems. This feature, together with the perspective of unifying various data sets and automating maintenance to the maximum, was sought with the intention of giving the project greater sustainability, which values, Silvio stresses, a notion of open and collaborative science. Thus, every source code in the system is free/open, allowing for the reproducibility of the calculations employed, so that any organization or anyone interested can run instances of the system in order to check the calculations or to have one’s own application. Furthermore, data is publicly available in API (application coding interface), ready for immediate consumption.
As elaborated above, the mass self-communication features allow for the formation of horizontal communication networks whose content is produced autonomously and have the potential to reach a considerable audience. Such factors are important elements in the development of social movements that circulate outside the traditional political sphere, giving them a space where their demands are manifested directly, without the intermediation of a representative exterior to them.
Thus, one can say that a considerable part of popular mobilizations that took place from the first decade of 2000 – the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Free Pass Movement (MPL) – employed from its origins mass self-communication technologies47. Notwithstanding, after the initial furore of such mobilizations waned, and analyzing — with the sober gaze of the remaining consequences — the expectations then put into circulation, we would like to consider the following two critiques: a) despite the visibility and commotion achieved in a short period of time by such mobilizations, the related social movements found it difficult to carry out their agendas and to keep afloat for a longer time; b) the information management by the oligopoly of the big web platforms – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, Google etc. – have transformed the characteristics of self-directed emission and self-selected reception, which integrate the concept of mass self-communication.
Regarding the first point, some authors, such as Tufekci (2017) and Gladwell (2010), suggest that mass self-communication, as it allowed for social movements to form almost spontaneously, drives them apart from a more consistently formed base, where certain capacities of collective organization would have taken place:
The ability to organize without organizations, indeed, speeds things up and allows for great scale in rapid time frames. There is no need to spend six months putting together a single rally when a hashtag could be used to summon protesters into the streets; no need to deal with the complexities of logistics when crowdfunding and online spreadsheets can do just as well. However, the tedious work performed during the pre-internet era served other purposes as well; perhaps most importantly, it acclimatized people to the processes of collective decision making and helped create the resilience all movements need to survive and thrive in the long term. (TUFEKCI, 2017, xiii)
Thus, in order for a resistance movement to be durable and resilient against contrarian forces trying to kill it off, it is necessary to have a constant innovation capacity for action strategies. Notwithstanding, this demands more robust organicity and a sense of community than what generally is seen in movements that grow abruptly, without previous experience in community action and in collective decision making (TUFEKCI, 2017, xiii).
Furthermore, not only a more solid sense of community would suffice to favor the effectiveness of social movements articulated by means of network communication. Gladwell (2010) argues that a hierarchical structure, in which tasks and competences are distributed and coordinated among its members, is another fundamental characteristic of traditional activism lacking in post-internet movements. The horizontal structure devoid of leaders characteristic of such movements does not instigate a deeper commitment from its participants, which weakens the chances of the demands on the table being carried through to effective action: “Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.” (Gladwell, 2010)
Let’s now consider point “b”, mentioned above. Taking into account the information circulating within big web platforms – which involve social networks, search engines, news portals – the idea that the user today is autonomous to select the information he or she is interested in (self-selected reception) or to make available the content one produces to a certain audience (self-directed emission) has been shaken. As observed by Tufekci (2017, 134), from the year 2005 the internet was greatly transformed: the production of content that took place in the personal blogs and web pages came to be done mostly within great platforms, which algorithmically manipulate the visibility of information according to interests of the corporations that manage them, which for the most part are guided by commercial goals.
A paradigmatic example is the Iranian blogger Hossein Derakshan, aka Hoder:
Before 2008, he [Hoder] operated a lively blog in Farsi with a large readership in Iran, gaining a reputation as Iran’s “blogfather.” Tragically, he was put in jail in 2008 for six years, missing the whole shift to Facebook. When he was finally released, in 2014, he started enthusiastically blogging again – to crickets. There was no response or readership. (TUFEKCI, 2017, 133)
Hoder then started to produce and post on Facebook the content he produced before in his blog. However, his posts got lost inside the platform, since his themes were not able to earn sufficient likes to feed the algorithms that establish priority in the visualization of contents. According to him, the web became a sort of television, an observation that gives the precise dimension of the characteristics of self-selected reception and self-directed emission of mass self-communication. Even if these platform users enjoy the autonomy to seek information of interest, what he or she finds is previously filtered by search algorithms, placing them, therefore, in a condition of certain passivity. And even if the user is able to produce and post content according to his or her own interests, the reach and target audience are delimited by the platform.
Added to all this is the condition that the web platforms are mostly free, so in order to support themselves financially, they resort to advertising tactics that interfere in the privacy of their users, such as personalized advertising, which, from the collection of personal data – such as localization, age, gender, friendship circles, personal tastes, employment etc – direct their users to publicity content that is to be of interest to the user:
The only way for platforms to increase the price they are paid for ads is to create tailored ads that target particular users who are likely to buy specific products. The vast amounts of data that platforms collect about users are what allow this tailoring to be performed. These pressures to achieve huge scale and to minutely monitor users promote the centralization and surveillance tendency of platforms like Facebook and Google and their interests in monopolizing both ad dollars and users. (TUFEKCI, 2017, 136)
Thus, today we witness a kind of hangover resulting from the initial glimpse provided by self-communication media. Tools that previously had instigated the rise up of counter-power now have turned against their users in the form of invasion of privacy, surveillance and data manipulation:
One of the deepest ironies of our current situation is that the modes of communication that enable today’s authoritarians were first dreamed up to defeat them. The same technologies that were meant to level the political playing field have brought troll farms and Russian bots to corrupt our elections. The same platforms of self-expression that we thought would let us empathize with one another and build a more harmonious society have been co-opted by figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos and, for that matter, Donald Trump, to turn white supremacy into a topic of dinner-table conversation. And the same networked methods of organizing that so many thought would bring down malevolent states have not only failed to do so – think of the Arab Spring – but have instead empowered autocrats to more closely monitor protest and dissent. (TURNER, 2019, 26)
Regarding such critiques, two points should be raised. In the case studies we carried out, the adoption of a digital infrastructure by a community takes place within a prior struggle organization. These are communities that boast a history of participation in social movements and that make use of certain digital infrastructures as a tool able to potentiate the fulfillment of their agendas. Thus, despite articulating in the context of mass self-communication, they feature the organicity and the sense of community not present in the movements critiqued by Tufekci and Gladwell.
Another point is that, apparently, the best antidote against the traps created by the big web platforms – which for many are seen as the internet itself48 – consists in diving deep into cyberculture’s internet legacy, which involves the characteristics of a global community, of autonomy and of egalitarian and horizontal participation. This takes place in the strengthening of the open source communities, in the opening of source codes, and, consequently, in the transparency of the digital infrastructures we use. Besides, one should not diminish the fact that this legacy has reached well beyond the virtual world. This takes place when the digital infrastructure is not a mere tool but morphs with the very action mode of those using it.
1. Cf. (JURIS, 2004, 342). (Back.)
2. Social actors are subjects of the action, who can be individuals, collectives, organizations, institutions or networks (CASTELLS, 2009, 10). (Back.)
3. We detail this concept below. (Back.)
4. It is interesting that the very presentation of The climate story lab Amazônia featured the demand for autonomous and plural participation in the field of communication: “We are facing a climate emergency. We believe that impact climate communication is more important than ever. Our challenge is to reach beyond the unified climate narratives of the past, identifying and widening a biodiversity of stories and narratives as diverse as the ecosystem we seek to heal” (amazonia.climatestorylabs.org. Accessed on May 26 2022). (Back.)
5. Cf. (CASTELLS, 2019, 88-90) and (CASTELLS, 2009, 55). (Back.)
6. For a discussion about whether the media in itself exerts power or if it is only an intermediate element in power relations, cf. (COULDRY; CURRAN, 2003). (Back.)
8. brasil.mongabay.com/2021/06/povo-uru-eu-wau-wau-documenta-sua-vitoria-contra-a-covid-19-em-video. Accessed on June 1 2022. (Back.)
9. Mídia Índia: https://midiaindia.org/; Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil: https://apiboficial.org/; Coordenação das Organizações Indígenas da Amazônia Brasileira: https://coiab.org.br/. (Back.)
10. The fact that she mentions youth supports Castells’ thesis that the conflict between generations, between young and adult, is sharp in our present day, especially because youth is a major enthusiast of digital culture, which implies a different way of thinking, because the space of communication in which we live and the way in which we communicate reflect the way we think. With new technological tools, the young self-communicate and inform themselves, and “since they have the capacity of being open to the world, they live in a world of global culture. The youth is really living globally at the same time they’re living locally. While the adult world lives on local villages, on the important ones, on the ones they can survive, they can control” (cf. Castells – O poder da juventude é a autocomunicação (3:36), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0L9c2h0TTLo. Accessed on June 2 2022). (Back.)
11. Cf. definition of hacker given by Himanen (2001). (Back.)
12. Cf. https://www.diariodocentrodo
mundo.com.br/essencial/bolsonaristas-atacam-indigenas/. Accessed on June 8 2022. (Back.)
13. Excerpt of the interview with Viveiros de Castro to the editing team of the book Povos Indígenas no Brasil, on April 26 2006. Available at: https://pib.socioambiental.org/files
_todo_mundo_%C3%A9_%C3%ADndio.pdf, sob o título “No Brasil, todo mundo é índio, exceto quem não é”. Accessed on June 9 2022. Cf. also the article: Identidade brasileira, Available at: https://www.academia.edu/84021322/
Identidade_brasileira?email_work_ card=thumbnail. Accessed on May 9 2022. (Back.)
15. For more information about Movimento Passe Livre, check https://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Movimento
16. Taken from https://transforma.fbb.org.br/tecnologia-social/coolab. More information about the collective at: https://www.coolab.org/. Both links accessed on May 9 2022. (Back.)
17. The primer is available at https://www.marialab.org/infraestruturas-feministas/. Accessed on May 12 2022. (Back.)
world-first-workshop-spatial-monitoring-reporting-tool-smart-portuguese-takes-place. Accessed on June 18 2022. (Back.)
22. O SMART has also been used in the monitoring of the conservation units of the Amazon region, the Sustainable Development Units of Uatumã and Uacari, plus the State Parks of Matupiri and Sumaúma. Cf.: https://plenamata.eco/2022/01/13/smart-ferramenta-apoio-gestao-areas-protegidas/. Accessed on June 14 2022. (Back.)
26. We talked to Rafel in two occasions: on the same day we interviewed Felipe of WWF-Brasil/SMART, and in the online dialogue rounds, on December 16 2021, when were also present Silvio Carlos (Instituto Socioambiental/Alertas+) and Rafael Naka (Centro de Trabalho Indigenista/Mapa Guarani Digital). (Back.)
29. The Amazon region is one of the places where HF radio is most employed for civil communication in the world (DINIZ; FARIAS, 2021, 2). (Back.)
33. This point is very important regarding a good user experience. Users accept more easily an app when it resembles the apps most used by the communities. An example is the Proteja Amazônia application (object of one of my case studies), whose interface had to be reformulated so that it looked like WhatsApp.
34. Amazônia Legal (Legal Amazon Region) encompasses the totality of the states of Acre, Amapá, Amazonas, Mato Grosso, Pará, Rondônia, Roraima and Tocantins; and part of the state of Maranhão. Its area corresponds to 61% of the Brazilian territory (5.217. 423 square kilometers), despite only featuring 12,31% Brazil’s inhabitants (AMAZÔNIA LEGAL. In: WIKIPÉDIA, a enciclopédia livre. Flórida: Wikimedia Foundation, 2022. Available at: https://pt.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Amaz%C3%B4nia_Legal& oldid=63836771. Accessed on July 14 2022). (Back.)
35. Like DETER and PRODES, both of the INPE (http://www.obt.inpe.br/OBT/assuntos/
programas/amazonia/prodes), the SAD, of IMAZON (https://imazon.org.br/publicacoes/faq-sad/), and MODIS, of NASA (https://modis.gsfc.nasa.gov/). (Back.)
43. On the August 19 2019, at three in the afternoon, the city of São Paulo (sited over 2500 km away from the Amazon region) got as dark as if it was night. This took place due to the smoke from the forest fires in the Amazon region, which peaked – an increase of 1.923% in the number of spots in relation to the same period last year – between the 10th and the 1th of August, especially in the municipalities of Novo Progresso, Altamira and São Félix do Xingu. Such fires are attributed to criminal coordinate action by the region’s rural producers. Cf. https://www.greenpeace.org/brasil/
florestas/dia-do-fogo-completa-um-ano-com-legado-de-impunidade/ e https://g1.globo.com/sp/sao-paulo/noticia/2019/08/19/dia-vira-noite-em-sao-paulo-com-chegada-de-frente-fria-nesta-segunda.ghtml. Accessed on 21.7.22. (Back.)
47. Cf. (TUFEKCI, 2017); See also the video: “Zeynep Tufekci: How the internet has made social change easy to organize, hard to win”. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mo2Ai7ESNL8. Accessed on July 7 2022. (Back.)
48. Cf. The article “Internautas brasileiros acham que a internet se resume ao Facebook”. Available at: https://www.cartacapital.com.br/blogs
/intervozes/internautas-brasileiros-acham-que-a-internet-se-resume-ao-facebook/. Accessed on 11.09.2022. (Back.)
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