Monday, August 21, 2006

INTERNET ACTIVISM IN CHILE . . . . Part 5: My Meeting with Fernando

Around here, Fernando is a legend. Like Cher or Bono, no last name is needed. He is not a Fernando, he is the Fernando. He is Fernando Flores. To the rest of the world his bio would include holding three position the government of President Salvador Allende, including heading two ministries. Then, following Pinochet's coup, he spend three years in prison before achieving his freedom through the help of Amnesty International. He subsequently moved with his family to Palo Alto, California, where he worked as a researcher in Stanford's computer science department and received an interdisciplinary doctorate from Berkeley. (His research touched upon linguistics, philosophy, and business theory.) He wrote several books on negotiation, computer science, trust-building, and social entrepreneuralism and founded four companies. Oh yes, and he is currently a Senator.

This, however, is all just background to what he is most recognized for among internet folk here in Chile: that is, re-defining the internet as a tool for citizen empowerment. He is the driving force behind Atina Chile and many of its most successful projects, including a series a blogging workshops credited with popularizing blogging in Chile and Salamanca, a pilot project to create the "first city of the 21st century," with WiFi, digital literacy, and blogging for all.

In the politically-active internet community here in Chile, all roads lead to Fernando. Journalists, bloggers, and internet activists alike bring up his name casually in conversation. He is universally admired. Thus, the idea of interviewing him made me rather anxious, not to mention skeptical. I am by nature an atheist and deification makes me nervous.

So I prepared. I read some of his book on social entrpreneurialism, didn't understand it, and got my boyfriend to explain it to me. I also learned a bit about speech acts, the area of linguistic philosophy that Fernando specializes in. I prepped my questions with Rosario, my research partner. I received lots of advice about what to expect, that Fernando would not allow himself to be hemmed in by the questions I presented him, that the smarter I thought my question was, the more thoroughly he would rip it to shreds, that I should listen carefully to every word and expect to appreciate their meaning only after being able to absorb them completely.

This advice was basically correct. Fernando was a little more merciless than I expected (he denounced my research question and my interest in promoting the internet as a tool for social change as "bullshit"), but he also did say some interesting things that focused on maintaining a human version of the internet. Here were some of his most interesting points, paraphrased:

1. Internet activism does not start with activism itself. People must first create a community around a shared concern. The first step is to express, discuss, and share the concern. It is only after this has occurred that people can decide to do something about this concern - to act. Also, theses communities are a way for people to form their identity.

>>>Why I like this idea: It underlines the importance of community in activism regardless of the means of activism (through the internet, in a community center, in a jungle hide-out). I also like the idea of people building their identity through an activist community, because it is an incentive to increase peoples' commitment to that community.

2. Don't seek to be on the leading edge of technology. Seek to be on the leading edge of practice.

>>>Why I like this idea: It's not the tool that's important. The tool will always change. The important thing is how people use the tool (practice). Practice is the bridge between the tool (like blogging) and a person (the blogger). If there is no practice to connect the two, like the practice of blogging every day, the tool will have no impact. Because tools are constantly changing (version 1.0, 2.0... 17.o), practices must also constantly be changing (buying a music album in a store to buying a music album online to downloading individual MP3's). If you want people to change the world with technology you need to help them feel comfortable using these technologies. You need to help them develop practices.

3. Focus on people, not objects around people.

>>>Why I like this idea: Objects in this case being computers.

4. Technology is only an instrument.

>>>Why I like this idea: Keep it human.

5. Define your care. This will help you define what community you should be a part of, what work you should do, and why you should do it. However, your care should be loose. Always be willing to change your perspective, and be open to the unexpected. Let caring be a path towards seeking knowledge, not an excuse to close others out from your concern.

>>>Why I like this idea: This is a nice way for me to focus my work. I care about every person having control over their own life and having the ability to change his society. For this reason I care about technology, because technology can help people realize this goal. I don't care about technology in and of itself.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

INTERNET ACTIVISM IN CHILE...Part 4: How the Chilean Internet was Born

Yesterday my research partner, Rosario Lizana, and I interviewed Florencio Utrera, the Father of the Chilean Internet. It was very interesting to hear how a technological revolution occurred for the person who was the driving force behind it.

Prof. Utrera is a trained mathematician who came to the United States in the 1980s's as a visiting professor at the time when computer networks were just catching on. This was long before the internet as we know it today. Back then networks were based at universities and were primarily used for transferring academic resources within the university. Univerity networks were local and were not necessarily even connected to each other. Prof. Utrera was working as a visiting associate professor at Texas A&M when he learned from a colleague at the University of Wisconsin about a thing called "e-mail." It sounded neat, but Texas A&M didn't have a network yet, or e-mail. Prof. Utrera went up to Wisconsin, talked to Larry Landweber, a pioneer of the internet, and brought e-mail and a network back to Texas A&M. Soon he would perform the same feat for the country of Chile.

In 1985, Prof. Utrera returned to Chile to become Director of the Department of Mathematical Engineering at the University of Chile. Pretty soon, he got a new title. He started poking around, asking why the university didn't have a network or e-mail. Finally the Dean gave in. He created an Academic Computing Center and made Prof. Utrera its Director.

In 1987, Prof. Utrera went to a meeting at Princeton University. The goal of the meeting was to determine a platform on which to connect the different university computer networks in the United States to NSFNet, a
n open network funded by the National Science Foundation allowing academic researchers access to five supercomputers located at different universities around the country. NSFNet became the "backbone" to which isolated regional and academic networks connected. The result was a unified academic computer network that soon became international.

In 1988, Prof. Utera created the first Chilean computer network, a TCP/IP network based at the University of Chile, which connected twenty Chilean universities to eachother and to the rest of the world through NSFNet. The network, which still exists, is called REUNA (National University Network). It went online (became open for general use) at 7:30 pm on January 2nd, 1992, a very memorable moment for Prof. Utrera. No wonder, it marks the beginning of the internet in Chile.

Pretty soon, REUNA began to take on clients outside the University system in order to cover some of its costs. This was a little dicey, because technically for-profit enterprises were not allowed to use NSFNet. However, traditional multimedia companies in Chile were not ready to invest in the internet yet. Finally in 1995 the first real commercial internet providers, like Entel and CTC Mundo, moved onto the market. For-profit companies bought REUNA's internet provider business (and also that of its competitor network, RDC).

The Chilean internet also got a boost in 1996 from the creation of Enlaces, which connected Chilean schools to one another, and from the 1998 decision by the IRS that all tax forms should be submitted online. The first decision meant all Chilean school children had some limited awareness of the internet. The second made the internet credible. Businesses decided that if the IRS trusted the internet, they should trust the internet too. In 1998, major Chilean businesse began to create websites. And now Chile has such a vibrant web and blog culture that people like me come from other countries to study it! A revolution indeed!

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