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Gift Giving in the Net
By María Suárez, FIRE
It was sometime in the very beginning of the 60's. They came together in a university lab to do an experiment. No one paid them to do it and they did not have to pay anyone either. They were not calculating, they just wanted to make one computer be able to communicate with another, thus passing and sharing information back and forth. Free and open distribution of information.
At the time computer technology was hardly accessible to people in general, because computers were not very compatible then, and also because personalized computers had not emerged the way they have today.
They did have access to computers because they were university students and scientists, struggling to share information faster, and what they wanted to share was nowhere to be found in print. They were trying to share new developments and discoveries they were producing in physics.
But beyond the pragmatism behind their motivations, lay a philosophical and political conviction: the free exchange of information would have to be embedded in the internet culture that would emerge, otherwise it made no sense! They developed it quietly because they knew what they were up to. Such communications systems were secretly being used by the military alone.
They were determined to make it work, for the sake of free sharing of information by civilians. And they did. No one remembers what the first words were, but when they appeared in the second computer, connected to the first via phone line, the joy was out of this world.
The day was November 21s, 1961. They did it at the UCLA science department computer
which communicated with the computer at the Stanford Research Institute near
Palo Alto, also in California. They developed it into was what known as ARPANET,
a network that joined four university sites, which became twelve and then grew
to sixty two and to 200 by 1981. ARPANET was discontinued in 1990. The World
Wide Web was created in 1991 by Tim Berners Lee in Switzerand, also for research
sharing by scientists and students, which soon became open to others. (Kaku 1997:
Along another line of purpose and use, the Pentagon had created its own parallel internet communications for military purposes, keeping it in secrecy for their warfare purposes. Once the Cold War was over, they opened it up, and the corporations came in to make it a profit-oriented business. But the spirit, objectives and strategies of that first experiment not only survive, but thrive in the hands of peoples and social movements across the world today.
Gift giving is one of the names under which the development of 'open' (for some) or 'free' (for others) software for the use of the internet and World Wide Web has emerged and developed alongside the commodified corporate way and the warfare actions of the military.
Gift giving has been defined by many, but the definitions that FIRE will use here come from feminist activist Genevieve Vaughan and from the Transaction Network, in terms of internet gift giving.
Vaughan's definition is as follows:
...the direct satisfaction of the needs of one person by another is perhaps the basic human interaction. This interaction constitutes the fundamental logical pattern of mothering and of many other aspects of life in which it has not been recognized. Human interactions of unilateral gift giving create relations of communication and community, as giver and receiver relate themselves to each other, to the items given and the needs satisfied.... gift giving is the basis of communication, and ... signs and especially the signs of language can be understood as gift constructions at different levels of abstraction. The market, which denies and cancels gift giving through exchange, is thus a mechanism of distorted and contradictory communication which models and provides a niche for adversarial patriarchal relations. By seeing language and communication as gift giving we can revise the self image of our species so that we can consider our humanity as based on nurturing not on domination, and act accordingly. We can alter our collective self-fulfilling prophecy. (2003)
The Transaction Network defines it like this in "Countless Exchanges in the
Gift Economy: Toward a New Understanding of Transactions" in their web page.
Over the last two decades, the resurgence in non-competitive money systems have
demonstrated that money need not store value (in the form of accrued interest),
and in fact works better when its sole function is to facilitate exchanges. This
definition of money - as Bernard Lietaer puts it, "an agreementwithin a community
to use something as a medium of exchange" - allows us to envision a new type
of "gift economy" in which money need never be hoarded and members of a community
are therefore free to exchange all their gifts and services. The "gift economy" model
might be extended if each individual exchange or transaction were likewise redefined.
As it stands now, even in interest-free money systems, each exchange must be
quantified in hours, Green Dollars, or some other form of unit. But if we understood "transactions" to
include unilateral goodwill gifts from an individual to an entire community,
we might encourage community members to focus not on counting hours or Green
Dollars or other units, but instead on weaving together a network of reciprocal
These definitions differ in that the feminist definition does not consider that
everything has to include exchange. What they have in common is that both recognize
that exchange is not the only way to interact!
The Internet and its free and open software are examples of gift giving, so strong, that in the evolution of the internet and the WWW, movements have rejected time after time every intent to control and fully commercialize it or impose overall copyrights. The way in which the flow of information in the web happens remains pretty much the same as that first civil society experiment: computer to computer communication, so that information can flow freely and openly since the cost of copies and of distribution is open and oftentimes free.
That is the structure, despite governmental and corporate efforts to control, commercialize and copyright it. As Tim Berners-Lee points out: "Concepts of intellectual property, central to our culture, are not expressed in a way which maps onto the abstract information space. In an information space, we can consider the authorship of materials, and their perception; but ... there is a need for the underlying infrastructure to be able to make copies simply for reasons of [technical] efficiency and reliability. The concept of 'copyright' as expressed in terms of copies made makes little sense." (Burners-Lee 1996: 11)
Much water has run under the bridge of ciberspace in the time between 1961 and 2004. In 1998, there were 95.4 million households worldwide with personal computers, about half of which (45.2 million) were online. At the time, the prediction was that by 2000, there would be 113.6 million PC households, of which 66.6 million would be online. In 2003, Google reported 2 million searches per day (1/3 from the US, the remainder in 88 other languages). VeriSign, a company that operates much of the Internet infrastructure worldwide, reported in 2000 that they had processed 600 million requests per day (to go to websites of .com, .net, etc.). By 2003, there were 9 billion requests daily. (Thompson & FIRE 2004:7)
New compatible technologies have emerged that make old time computers seem like the equivalent of a dinosaur, seen by a lizard. Alongside the hardware came software for all kinds of activities and possibilities. Most of it as we know it has been comercialized(...)but not all.
Despite the commercialisation of a lot of activites and software in cyberspace, the users ensure that the gift economy that exisits and flows through the internet continues to flourish. Tim Berners-Lee, in "Realising the Full Potential of the Web" says that the structure of the WWW has been developed to encourage open cooperation among its participants, as the users are the ones who are constructing the system together when they send e-mails, participate in listserves, post their information in web sites and newsgroups, participate in electronic conferences and produce Web sites. (Bernes Lee 1997: 5)
The vast wealth that software corporations amassed in the eighties and nineties was largely due to an interesting phenomenon linked directly to the very nature of software. It is possible to create a software application and then reproduce it any number of times with very little additional cost. This aspect of software has allowed corporations like Microsoft to achieve revenues surpassing the gross national product of most countries while employing hardly more than 15,000 employees world-wide. Open software is not only a lot more cost-effective but it distributes technical power democratically. While many leaders of the open source community reside in the US, the power is very well distributed internationally. In fact the most famous open source programmer of all, Linus Torvalds, is from Finland.
People in the South who have been utilizing open source software benefit in many ways. Firstly, the actual cost of open source software is usually zero. Hundreds of billions of dollars can be saved yearly by using open source software. Secondly, the implementation of open source projects requires in-depth knowledge. Technicians in the developing world are no longer reduced to following instructions handed down to them, they can work shoulder to shoulder with their peers in the open source community.Thirdly, the majority of money that is spent on implementing software projects stays in the community and is not concentrated in the hands of a few. Fourthly, local technologists implementing the solutions are far more in-tune to their own local needs than foreign corporations are. They no longer have to adapt their organizations to fit software designed for others; they can create solutions appropriate for themselves, which greatly increases the effectiveness of the technology. . (FIRE & Nomadic Solutions 2003: 10)Due to the fact that knowledge and brainpower is the true mover of open source there is a great opportunity for women who have basic Internet access to learn and to adjust programs to their own needs and strategies.
New movements and new technologies have emerged in this context. They struggle to keep the structure and flow open, despite corporate effort to revert this gift giving trend. The open source movement and the free software movement are part of the social movements that have been able to become global, precisely because of they use open and free access to the internet.
Open-source software (OSS) is software for which the source code is freely and publicly available, though the specific licensing agreements vary as to what one is allowed to do with that code. Free Software is a movement that stems out of an ethical and politcal stance to mean freedom from corporate control in order to give information as a gift.
The concept of Open Source Software (OSS) has become a true technological- and political - revolution. The basic idea is very simple: Computer programmers create these software programs and share them at no cost with others, who in turn are able to add or change the characteristics and codes of the programs according to their own needs, and share them further with the user community (who are also free to change them) of OSS users around the world. Thus, the open source programs are constantly evolving through an open and shared development process. Open source technology is considered to be more stable, secure and creative than its commercial counterparts from Microsoft.
One example is the issue of instant messaging, one of the most popular services on the Internet. Unfortunately, there are several issues facing Instant Messaging in its current form.
1. Proprietary, standalone systems. Popular systems such as Microsoft's MS Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger are separate, incompatible systems. No intercommunication is permitted between any of these different networks.
2. Instant Messaging is insecure. There are many security concerns regarding the current Instant Messaging systems. Firstly, it should be known that all the chat traffic has to go first to a main Instant Messaging server before getting transmitted to its final destination. All conversations in any of these corporate-run Instant Messaging systems can be monitored at will. Perhaps of greater concern is the fact that the majority of these systems still send the chat traffic in plain text over the Internet. Not only is it feasible for an entity to monitor chat traffic, it is easy. In many countries the number of Internet connections to the world is minimal and usually concentrated in one place. A government that wants to monitor Internet traffic can easily do it. This is not science fiction, it is done daily in the US in a widely-known FBI project known as Carnivore - the Internet's equivalent of a phone tap. People working on social justice issues in unfriendly environments may be at risk if certain parties are able to eavesdrop on their conversations.
3. The most popular Instant Messenger services are owned by large corporations. For now, most Instant Messaging systems do not charge although several companies are starting to look for ways to take advantage of their captive clients. In the near future this phenomenon of "free" messaging may all but disappear. It is important for Instant Messaging services to be taken back from corporate control.
Jabber is an open source project that offers a standard, interoperable, extensible, and secure protocol for creating an Instant Messaging system. There are many free versions of the client software that run on Microsoft Windows, Apple Macintosh, and Linux based computers. Setting up a server that supports several tens of thousands of users is feasible with very little resources. The Jabber protocol also supports decentralization and interoperability between various Jabber networks. While the project may start out with all women using the main server in Costa Rica to access the system (see graphic) it is possible to have several servers around that world that maintain local traffic local and pass messages as needed to their final destinations. The Jabber system also supports secure encrypted traffic which maybe desirable under many circumstances. (FIRE & Nomadic Solutions 2003: 10)
The APACHE server, which today is the most popular worldwide, was originally created and is currently used by many people in the open source community. Its operating system of open source is called GNU/Linux and is used not only for Internet computers but also for creating special effects in Hollywood, as well as for administrative systems in hospitals, for example. It is very popular among activists, including those struggling against monopolistic corporate power, because it represents a concrete alternative example both technically and socio-economically.
As such, open source technology redistributes the power of technology, enabling users to copy the programs at no cost, and adapt them to their needs. Thus any of the users who have even some knowledge of computer programming can produce and create open source programs, and so they are not merely acting as commercial servants to the mass technology monopolies. Thus, gift giving in the Net is about democratizing and it is about a paradigm shift in economics.
The case of FIRE: Open source technology in the hands of women
One example among thousands worldwide is the case of FIRE - Feminist International Radio Endeavour and its use of free or open source technology.
Last November in Costa Rica, FIRE held a workshop that shared such gift giving. An Internet server called APACHE, using LINUX, an Open Source operating system, was created during their workshop entitled, "Internet Technologies for Our Political Action." The server had two functions: To share a non-corporate Internet operating system with the 32 workshop participants from throughout the Latin American and Caribbean region, and to offer these same participants a local server to use for practice during the workshop.
For the experimental server used in the FIRE workshop, each participant had her own website, access to e-mail, and a link to the internal server network for the workshop, all in a free form that was created and designed for the event itself and the participants. The participants were be able to use a free version of FTP to create and modify their websites.
By adding their own presence to the internet, every user contributed to the collective knowledge accessible to those already on-line, another dimension of gift giving. As a result of the training workshop, "New Technologies for Political Activism," female activists from 15 grassroots organizations designed and published web pages for their organizations. The "first time" for each of them opened a Pandora's box: a new window to the world that taught them that the Internet is a tool, not only for gathering information, but for making their own voices heard worldwide.
An activist for Honduran Afro-descendent black women's rights, Nedelka Lacayo of the Enlace de Mujeres Negras (Honduran Black Women's Network), along with a Mayan Guatemalan indigenous women's rights activist, Marta Misa of "Kaqla" (Mayan word for rainbow), had used e-mail before attending the workshop and had surfed the Web for information. Likewise, a maquila women's rights activist and Salvadoran activist, Dina Salas of Centro de Orientaión Radial para Mujeres (Center for Training of Women in Radio) had experience with e-mail, as had a Nicaraguan rural community organizer, Maria of the Asociación de Mujeres de Jalapa (Association of Women of Jalapa) "OYANKA" (Indigenous word for new road), among others.
Surrounded by a closed circle of 24 computers in the conference room of the Hotel Comfort Inn in Santa Ana, Honduran Nedelka Lacayo clutched the computer keyboard as her new "key" to the world wide web. "I even learned how to put my own voice in the page. Come and see...oops... come and hear, as you open the page, I welcome people to the site of my organization. It's almost like magic!" exclaimed Nedelka.
Some women's organizations already had web pages when they came to the workshop. Guatemalan Laura Asturias, producer of a regional feminist electronic bulletin, La Tertulia, and co-producer the monthly women's newspaper, La Cuerda, shared her extensive internet experience and skills at the worskhop. She trained other participants in making feminist electronic bulletins, as did Margarita Salas of Fundación Acceso (Access Foundation) in Costa Rica, who conducted a worskhop on the design of forums and discussion lists. Katerina Anfossi of FIRE and Jackie Siles of the International World Conservation Union (UICN) trained others in the use of chat rooms for activism. As the participants opened their first "AMLAT Women" chat session, the first online message someone typed said, "Is this a private meeting or can others come in?" Of course all were welcome.
Voice as a right, voice as a gift
"Cibersives" was the name adopted by one of the working groups who shared with others their experiences in the use of the internet for political activism in the region. Guatemalan radio producer Ana Silvia Monsón of the radio program "Voces de Mujer" (Women's Voices) explained that through e-mail her organization was able to generate international solidarity and pressure when the administration of the radio station wanted to cut airtime for her program. The women radio producers were able to stop the threat. Ana Silvia noted, "They (the administration) learned that we were not alone, that we are part of a global movement of women doing radio and that this movement was not going to allow this to happen. We learned that we have stronger negotiating capacity when we have the support of others."
One after the other, all participants in the group shared similar experiences that speak to the fact that access to the internet allows for their voices to be hard in the midst of big media control. "Cibersives" declared that there is a relationship between claiming a media of our own and the right to self determination and bodily integrity. "We are our bodies" was the topic selected by the group for the production of a collective web page. Upon opening this unique web page, what appears is a carefully designed collage of different parts of the bodies of participants. At the center is AWID's (Association of Women in Development) T-shirt which calls for globalizing women's rights, saying "globalizalos."
The issue of Internet policy was also discussed in the workshop, resulting in a final resolution which was developed and approved by the 25 participants. The ownership structure and flow of global information and communications technologies was addressed by Katerina Anfossi of FIRE in a panel presentation at the workshop. "Today, the power of the media is concentrated in the hands of 10 companies who define who and what are socially and politically relevant, rendering invisible many sectors of the population, especially women." Katerina continued,
The human right of all people to communicate for themselves is a cornerstone of a democratic media. But the road to democratic communications faces many challenges: the concentration of media ownership in ever fewer national and international monopolies; the unidirectional flow of information from North to South; and the pre-established ideological content of media that are overwhelmingly sexist, violent and that alienate many. The rapid development of new communication technologies with access to the Internet, challenges us to ensure that these trends will not duplicate the fate of traditional broadcast and print media. Will these new technologies deprive us of the voices of the majority of the world's inhabitants or will they instead benefit those who in the past were excluded?
FIRE among others, is addressing the digital divide, both because it is an international
channel of communications based in the Global South, but also because it is in
the hands of women. Recent research has made it evident that although the world
is ever more globalized, the development and use of new technologies have not
been made accessible to all, and instead have deepened the divide between the
'haves' and 'have-nots' in terms of access to infomation, or a voice in media,
and to other kinds of connections. FIRE is working to ensure that women are given
access to new technologies and that their voices are heard in the world's media.
Only by creating international communications venues, appropriating new media
venues for diverse voices and connecting multiple voices, strategies and technologies,
will a truly democratic media become a reality.
FIRE's experimental open source server during the workshop served to showcase
that women's ownership of servers is possible and furthermore, that it can make
the use of the internet a lot cheaper and more accesible to more women. Spanish
feminist activist, Monserat Boix of Mujeres en Red in Internet (Women's Internet
Network) in her country said
It is good to know that there is a confluence of feminist proposals about democratization of media and the creation of internet tools such as open source. It would be great if we could organize an international meeting were we can discuss all of those issues and coordinate strategies so that we can do much more together.
Interactivity: A neccesary component for gift giving in the internet
Although interactivity is assumed to be a "natural" component of new communication technologies, FIRE feels it is urgent to develop a feminist conceptualization of this term, as part of the ongoing rapid development of computers, programs and resources. Otherwise women run the risk of being only users of information, and marginalized as creators of information and the power that brings, as built and articulated through the Internet.
Most often in virtual ideology, interactivity of the Internet is defined more as a technical term, rather than one with political or social meaning. As such, it generally refers to the two-way interface of communication and information flows in the Internet. However, the Internet is a system of communication and information flow based on the capacity of computers to enable users to "speak" to each other as with a telephone system, radio waves, etc. Web resources that allow such interactivity include chat rooms, electronic forums, bulletin boards, and other interactive mechanisms built into web pages.
But this marvelous technical process which never ceases to amaze particularly those of older generations who had in the past relied only on one-way flows of media, information and communication, also has a socio-political dimension. As Internet users are able to interact technically, those who are communicating or producing the information are also developing relationships with each other. And this is rarely acknowledged much less analyzed in depth.
Women can interact in the Internet by channeling information flows, and communicate with others by transmitting their productions, art, writing, actions, identity, programs and operating systems, etc. Women who are often employed in a technical capacity as workers in the information industry play a critical role as facilitators of these processes, but all too often remain invisible, and even transparent!
Based on this perspective, the RIF/FIRE workshop was comprised of a series of activities involving training in technical capacities, including how to download and upload information from the Internet, using technical resources and programs for creating web pages, and maximizing the use of search engines. Women participants also learned to use chat rooms, electronic forums, listserves, and bulletin boards in Internet, considered by many the key elements in gift giving in the Internet.
But beyond the technical training, a socio-political dynamic underlaid the workshop from beginning to end. Women participants collaborated in groups to design political and social action campaigns on issues of their choice, and had the option to upload that information to the Internet, along with biographical information and photos of themselves as Web authors. They also produced live webcasts in which they launched these campaigns, and also were able to design specific political actions from the results of the workshop based on their experiences and in order to promote their own rights and needs.
Gift giving in the Internet happens because people's movements keep using it for the same purposes and with the same framework that the originators of civil society cyberspace created it: a way to freely and openly share information.
Its evolution as gift giving has meant both creating the necessary alternative software and technology, but also the political activism to expose and counteract corporate Internet trends.
Both will probably continue to exist, but civil society's best bet is to contribute to its free and open flow. For that to happen, people, especially women have to empower themselves collectively and personally to develop such an alternative paradigm.
FIRE has been a pioneer in providing written and audio content on the Internet for several years. Only a small percentage of the population has access to Internet Radio directly, however it has been shown that FIRE's content is being downloaded and re-transmitted in many forms around the globe. Therefore the people that need the content have the resources to access it. In the future Internet Radio will be a medium for the masses and FIRE will be ready when the technology advances.
The case of FIRE is but one example of the way in which women and people do this on a day to day basis. Millions more experiences exist, that make up the world wide movement to democratize and socialize the voices, hopes, dreams and struggles for a better world, free of corporate greed and full of people's sharing and gift giving. Another world is possible. It is happening in the Internet and elsewhere.
FIRE & Nomadic Solutions (2003) FIRE's Feasibility Study for a Feminist Open Source Server, unpublished document.
Kaku, Michio (1997). Visions: How Science will
Revolutionize the 21st Century, Anchor Books, New York.
Thompson, Margaret and FIRE (2004) FIRE's Interactive strategy in the Internet, ISIS Manila, Phillipines.
Vaughan, Genevieve (2003). "Semiotics for Social Change, the Mother or the Market?" in Mimesis, Susan Petrilli and Augusto Ponzio eds.
Transaction Network (2003) at www.transaction.net/biz/models/opensource/
Berners-Lee, Tim (1996) The World Wide Web: Past, Present and Future at http://www.w3.org/Peop le/Berners-Lee/1996/ppf.html)
________ (1997) Realising the Full Potential of the Web at http://www.w3.org/1998/02/Potent ial.html