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

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

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.
(more…)

Baroquize this! June 25, 2007

Posted by François in baroque, cultural references, language, re-make, writing process.
4 comments

Suppliers yearn for user appropriation, but not just any kind of appropriation. Designers lay out careful scripts for users to re-make the products they adopt into something that is uniquely theirs. Phone makers want customers not simply to adopt a handset, but to personalize it with distinctive covers and straps, to program its short-cut keys, to inscribe its memory with their own address-book or calendar. Take Boost mobile, abaporu’s favorite MVNO: once you have bought their phone, the Boost brochure invites you to “make it your own” with call-tones, ring-tones, and wallpapers (yet omits to mention that you can personalize it further by installing mologogo, a free alternative to Boost’s own fee-based location service.) Suppliers thus intentionally carve out blank spaces within their designs, then invite users to infiltrate these spaces with their own data and decorations.

This particular appropriation mode, in which users follow the script laid out for them by suppliers, echoes a well-trodden cultural appropriation practice: baroque infiltration. During the colonization of Latin America, the Roman Catholic church was eager for local people to make the Catholic religion their own. To nurture the process, repeating a strategy used in Europe during the counter-reformation, Rome left spaces open on its monuments and in its ceremonies. Thus, the invaders set forth opportunities for the invaded to state their presence, infiltrate their messages, suggest their cosmovisions. Such “baroque infiltration”, Rome reasoned, would allow indigenous people to appropriate European culture and religion, but to do so safely, according to Rome’s own blueprint. In The Buried Mirror, Carlos Fuentes describes the results of this appropriation practice in the creations of José Kondori, the Quechua architect who built “the magnificent churches of Potosí, undoubtedly the most brilliant illustration of the meaning of the baroque in Latin America”.

“Among the angels and the vines of the façade of San Lorenzo, an Indian princess appears, and all the symbols of the defeated Incan culture are given a new lease on life. The Indian half-moon disturbs the traditional serenity of the Corinthian vine. American jungle leaves and Mediterranean clover intertwine. The sirens of Ulysses play the Peruvian guitar. And the flora, the fauna, the music, and even the sun of the ancient Indian world are forcefully asserted. There shall be no European culture in the New World unless all of these, our native symbols, are admitted on an equal footing.”
Carlos Fuentes (1999) The Buried Mirror – Reflections on Spain and the New World, Houghton Mifflin. p.196 (*)

Of course, Rome was perhaps naïve to think the locals would remain docile and stop there. Fuentes, along with others such as José Lezama Lima, go on to describe how baroque practices can overtake the very objects they infiltrate. Natives, Africans and criollos in Latin America learned to create a baroque within the baroque, appropriating the process itself into an art of contraconquista. This is a story for another day…

For the moment, we simply want to point out the striking parallel between “baroque infiltration” and the business strategies through which technology suppliers lay out a script for users to re-make their products. There is no good verb in English to describe the resulting user practice – personalize, fill-in, infiltrate, decorate, layer… each captures a dimension of the process but not its essence. So, we need to coin a new verb:

to baroquize (v.t.) = to re-make into one’s own, following an appropriation script proposed by the provider.

While “baroquize” doesn’t yet exist in English, we feel encouraged to proceed by our readers’ comments, who point out that barroquisar, barroquizar, and baroquiser do exist in Portuguese, Spanish and French. It must have been an oversight.

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(*) “Pues entre los ángeles y las viñas de la fachada de San Lorenzo, aparece una princesa incásica, con todos los símbolos de su cultura derrotada animados por una nueva promesa de vida. La media luna indígena agota la tradicional serenidad de la viña corintia, el follaje de la selva americana y el trébol mediterráneo se entrelazan. Las sirenas de Ulises tocan la guitarra peruana. Y la flora, la fauna, la música e incluso el sol del antiguo mundo indígena, se reafirman con fuerza. No habría cultura europea en el Nuevo Mundo a menos que éstos, nuestros símbolos nativos, sean admitidos en pie de igualdad.” (Carlos Fuentes, El Espejo Enterrado p. 282)

Creative destruction: izi killed the public phones June 15, 2007

Posted by François in africa, appropriation, co-opt, cycle, re-make.
13 comments

Senegal’s télécentres are disappearing and it seems “izi” and “seddo”, the new micro-recharge services from operators Tigo and Orange, are to blame. These télécentres are not what we typically think of as “telecenters” –roomfulls of public access computers. In fact, “the majority of them would more rightly be described as telephone kiosks or phone shops.” This unfolding story of creative destruction is very significant because over the past 10 years, such public phones have been key to economic development and information access throughout the developing world (recall Grameen’s village phones.) The disappearance of Sénégal’s télécentres fits a broader pattern currently emerging in several parts of Africa. It also maps very nicely onto our appropriation cycle and illustrates the related tug-of-war between suppliers and users, that drives innovation.

The often-told story goes like this:

  • Step 1 (roll-out): mobile phones were introduced, but were too expensive for many people to afford.
  • Step 2 (re-make): entreprising individuals get a phone and offer ‘fractional phone service’ to others by reselling their minutes on street corners. These ‘public phones’ come in many flavors: some are just individuals looking for extra cash, others may be informal micro-enterprises or more substantial ventures.
  • Step 3 (re-claim): phone companies (and others, like Grameen) co-opt this practice with micro-loans, enhanced public phone booths, accounting features to help manage the public phones, etc.
  • Step 4 (new roll-out): a changed business ecology supports multiple avenues for the provision of phone service: personal or shared, bought directly from the phone company or re-sold through intermediaries.

But now comes this new African twist:

Step 3-bis (“assertive” re-claim): Phone companies (like Tigo in Senegal), seeing that there is a market for small increments of phone credit and shared phones, introduce much more granular offers. For example in Senegal, Tigo offers billing-by-the-second (10 seconds for 20 Francs CFA, or $0.02), electronic recharges (“izi”, in Tigo’s Senegalese franglais) as low as 100FCFA ($0.20), and free unit transfers between consumers (available on the “Tigo Jeune” plan).

All of a sudden, users don’t need the ‘public phones’ any more. In Senegal most of these télécentres have gone out of business. Bassirou Cissé, the general secretary of Unetts(*) says that “In 2000, there were 18,000 télécentres in Sénégal, accounting for 33% of the Senegalese operators’ revenues and 30,000 jobs. Today, most of them have closed down.”

Any guesses as to what “Step 4” will now look like?

(*) Unetts is the Union nationale des exploitants de télécentres et des téléservices du Sénégal. The ‘public phone’ business may be informal at times, but certainly not dis-organized.

Recommended reading: Olivier Sagna’s Batik newsletter, a great source of information on African ICTs (in French.) I ran into this article while poking around OSIRIS (Observatoire sur les Systèmes d’Information, les Réseaux, et les Inforoutes au Sénégal), where Batik is hosted. No RSS yet, but Olivier tells me this is coming soon.