Gilberto Gil and the Digital Commons

Yesterday I went to Gilberto Gil’s talk on what the Brazilian Ministry of Culture has been doing about digital and cultural inclusion lately, and I was quite impressed - even despite being somewhat familiar about it from the last few months’ mentions on BoingBoing and a few other blogs. Plus, the talk took place in one of my favourite venues in London, Guanabara - where a table football championship took place (I lost on the first round), and the caipirinhas are quite decent.

Mainly, his project is about creating digital culture hotspots all over the country using whatever resources are available - recycled or donated computers, mobile phones and multimedia equipment, giving them a broadband connection (DSL or satellite) and getting those groups talking to eachother using open wikis and bulletin boards, offering some technical support and encouragement on the first few weeks or months, and then sitting back and watching what happens.

One of the fascinating things is that the hotspots quickly become self-sustainable: after a few workshops on computer recycling and some help setting them up on the net, users of those hotspots start adding more machines as they become available and more people join it. Of course, there’s a central server somewhere with good infrastructure and bandwidth supporting the forums, wikis and picture galleries, but all the rest is mostly just a huge scrapheap-built mesh, managed by people who had never even seen a computer, and much less thought they were allowed to do so or would manage to learn how to use them.

Those groups are becoming more and more organic, and they’re growing in fascinating and unforeseen ways. Examples are many, and some of the most amusing ones include people in distant regions of Brazil finally being able to immortalise local rhythms as digital recordings - Creative Commons licensed, freely distributable, widely accessible recordings, no less. Some of those were remixed and blended with other rhythms from other places and are playing on the radio, although most don’t really find out about where the samples used actually came from. This certainly encourages more and more artists to produce music, so my opinion is that there’s a boom just waiting to happen here - or maybe it is happening already and we just haven’t noticed.

Actually, Gilberto Gil himself pioneered the whole thing and offered a few of his songs on a CC-based license. But this is not just limited to music: many contributions to the Portuguese version of Wikipedia come from people hanging around those cultural hotspots. There are also video producers, self-taught electronic engineers, poets, writers and all that sort of stuff. Quite fascinating, really, and most importantly, an irreversible process: these early adopters are hackers, probably ones that will never be interested in coding or low-level computer stuff, but people who find ways of doing new amazing things or to share the amazing things they already do with a much wider audience.

Oh, and speaking of hackers, have I mentioned this is all built exclusively on top of free software?

Stuff worth keeping an eye on, surely. If you want to know what hotspots are like, have a look at the picture galleries - even though the descriptions are in Portuguese, I think the images speak for themselves.
Update: see also Patrick Kua and The Guardian for more.