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São Paulo motoboy ethnographers (2): Re-making politics June 27, 2007

Posted by François in cameraphones, motoboys, politics, re-make.

Appropriation operates at many levels. In our paper, we highlight three: artifacts, practices and politics. People appropriate technology by re-making artifacts, by re-making individual or collective practices that exploit an artifact’s possibilities, or by re-articulating power relationships around an artifact and its use. As the motoboy project unfolds in São Paulo, it is fascinating to see how the city’s professional motorcyclists (most of them motoboys, but also a few motogirls) are engaging that third level, attempting to re-make local politics through their use of camera phones to chronicle their daily lives.

Eliezer Muniz, one of the project’s coordinators at USP, sends a useful summary of the context within which the project started (pasted below, with permission.) Here are some of the highlights: The first courier enterprises – many of them informal, micro-enterprises – emerged in São Paulo in the early 1980s. Within 10 years, there were 30,000 professional motorcycle messengers. Today, 160,000 of them work in that city of over 20 million people, whose traffic jams make Los Angeles seem almost bucolic. The motoboys are therefore essential to the local economy, shuttling the urgent blueprints, medicine, checks, samples, and hot pizza that keep business humming. Most couriers own their work tools: a motorcycle, a helmet, a cellphone, and a work license from the local authorities. They typically earn about $390 per month (R$760, or 2x Brazil’s minimum salary) and this is dangerous work – every day on average, one motorcyclist dies in São Paulo’s traffic.

Here is one of their videoclips (shot by Viralata on 2007-04-30) showing what it’s like to ride the corredor between traffic lanes at rush hour on Av. Paulista:

(there is a growing sub-genre of corredor-riding DIY videos from Brazil, which are reminiscent of the many stunt videos that can be found around YouTube. For the motoboys however, this isn’t only a thrill-seeking game, but an integral part of the job. How fast they get around the city directly determines how much they get paid.)

In recent years, informal pseudo-enterprises and self-employed individuals have started to compete with the more established courier services, leading to a deterioration of working conditions. In reaction, the local government has passed laws to regulate ‘moto-freight’, including punishing fines for motorcyclists riding the corredor. Motoboys, typically portrayed negatively in the media, have not had a voice in the ensuing political debate – until now. Apparently, their use of cellphones to publicly document their daily lives has allowed them to gain attention, for once yielding some sympathetic coverage in the Folha de São Paulo.