Digital Culture in Santarém

Halfway my research on the appropriation of alternative technology in Santarém, Pará, I realize that something has actually changed here. Over the last eight years, network of social activists has expanded throughout the city. Mainly driven by a group of media activists, they aim at the appropriation of alternative technology and the construction of citizenship throughout the Amazon region.

The catalyst behind all this is Casa Puraqué. The Puraqué is a fish that lives in the Amazon Rivers and causes an electric shock when you touch it. They adopted this name, since they want to wake up people through a shock of knowledge.

Their main goal is social transformation through the appropriation of alternative technology. About eight years ago, when they started their project, they were the first who brought FLOSS to the city. For them, the profound and meta-knowledge on technology enables the new users to actually do something with technology.

“We want to contaminate the people with the ‘Digital Culture virus’ and with the philosophy of FLOSS, because during the knowledge revolution, the computer has become the central tool that centralizes all means of multi-media production. Also, the computer is an incredibly powerful tool for learning, communication, exchanging ideas, and to store information. People need to understand that, otherwise our society will never evolve the way we want. That is what we most accentuate here, since these days we are subject to predatory processes (mining, deforestation, soy), that will bring more and more misery to our region”1.

They are tired of being exploited for the resources the area contains, and they want knowledge to become the main characteristic of the region. Knowledge on technology, but also on the philosophy of FLOSS in a capitalist society and consciousness on electronic waste and the environmental damage it causes. Thus, through contaminating and educating others, knowledge will exponentially increase throughout the region.

On of the things I find particularly interesting is how they maintain themselves without any significant income. That is, they all work voluntary and depend on donations of used technology by companies or the state to continue their projects. That means that a lack of resources would hamper their activities. Therefore, they (often voluntarily) offer workshops and courses on FLOSS and the application of their methodology to public schools with computer labs (not all schools have such labs) and the Infocentros (computer centers implemented and financed by Navegapará, a project by the state government Pará). Thus, they seek top-down projects that are sustainable (especially the public schools, as the elections might jeopardize these existing programs), and hack them to make them adopt their methodology and ideology, thus passing it to their students.

That explains why the Infocentros in Santarém work differently than those in, for instance, the capital Belém. The Puraqueanos assured me that they have already trained over three thousand people over the last eight years. Over the last couple of years the team consisted of about fifty people. Lately, the core group of Casa Puraqué found jobs in the field of ICT for all of them, most of them as monitors in the Infocentros. Obviously, these people have a profound knowledge on technology, as they have learned the principles of programming through using FLOSS, done a lot of MetaReciclagem and have gone through an intensive learning process. Different than the monitors in Belém, they teach the users of the Infocentros the basic principles of open source technology through a course on the basics of informatics. Today, they are planning on giving an advanced course as well. That means that there is little time left for free usage of the Internet, and thus digital inclusion goes beyond using Orkut and MSN.

Instead of visiting the Infocentros to use ICTs, it rather becomes a professional course. During a couple of classes on of the basics and ICT in general for kids and elderly I experienced myself how important it is to have a little knowledge on how to use ICTs, how it works, and what to use it for. Particularly for those that are shy, insecure, and afraid of technology. That is, often in the case of (older) women, people remain staring at their screens without doing anything, as they oftentimes are used to not touch or do anything without permission. They are afraid to do things wrong, or to damage the equipment. Or they are afraid of technology in general, as they don’t know how to cope with it. That means, that without a course, they would not enter an Infocentro or cybercafé, because first, they don’t know how to use the technology, and second, they don’t know what to use it for. Something that seems so natural for us, for example, Google Talk, they have no idea what do with it. They ask me when I showed them how to use it: ‘But what am I supposed to say?’ or ‘Should I be formal, or rather informal?’, even when they chat with their classmates.

Furthermore, most of the teachers in other local digital inclusion initiatives, like Casa Brasil and Pontão de Cultura Digital Tapajós—projects by the Ministry of Culture that have bases in various cities throughout the country—have joined and are trained by Casa Puraqué. Thus, Casa Puraqué both assures these people a job and an income and the expansion of their ideology and methodology throughout the region. Every time a new course starts, the first class will extensively explain why and how to use FLOSS. Only after the first couple of classes introducing the philosophy of FLOSS, they will actually start to learn how to use it. Those that are not interested in this story and just want to use the Internet won´t continue the courses. That means that those that eventually stay and graduate actually embrace the philosophy, and therefore they will most likely spread it. Thus, what is sustainable is not so much the actual project, but their methodology.

Concluding: what struck me most until now is that these people actually undergo a social transformation. Not because they experience access to ICTs, but because learning about and using technology stimulates them to pursue their dreams, or simply to have dreams. As they focus mainly on marginalized groups, most of the children live in very simple and poor circumstances. They are not encouraged to continue studying after high school, and tough physical work is oftentimes (still) valued more than a career in ICTs. Girls are expected to marry soon and have a family. Many don’t finish high school because they get pregnant, and many guys end up in gangs and drugs traffic. Of course they don´t chose such a life, and the courses at Casa Puraqué allows them to realize that they actually can do something, that they have talents, that knowledge is valuable, and that they can use technology in a professional manner. This results in many of the new Puraquéanos studying at the state and federal university, most of the times in an area related to IT. However, the best proof of the effect of this knowledge and consciousness is the difference I perceive in self-esteem between people that have been involved in these projects and people that have not, especially when talking to several Santarenhos about their experiences. One ex-Puraqueana told me that she wouldn´t be talking to me like that before she started to frequent Puraqué, as she would have felt a very big distance between her and me, therefore being too shy. Whereas those without such an experience remain living in ignorance and ‘accept’ social inequality because they don’t have the means to resist, (ex)-Puraqueanos now are (sometimes very young) people who know what they want, who are self-confident, and eager to learn more. They actually realize that they have potential.

1 Interview with Dennie Fabrizio in aRede 08/02/2010. Viewed:12/05/2010


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