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andrea alvarado vargas and marÌa su·rez toro
Gift Giving and New Communication Technologies

The use of new communication technologies has become a growing need for thousands and thousands of people worldwide. The expansion of these technolo- gies into the multiple activities in daily life and the undeniable way in which they make our lives easier, has created this need. However, the satisfaction of this need is a reality only for those who, in making use of the instruments of the market economy, can afford to buy them. It is no secret that it is the poor, especially women, the poorest of the poor, who are at a disadvantage in the increasingly globalized market of new communication technologies.

The possibilities that are opened with the use of new communication technolo- gies are many. Among the most important is the communication process. Another is the capability of interacting with other people from around the world, and expanding our knowledge base. Third, is the way in which new communication technologies facilitate the process of production of knowledge itself. But global corporations produce this technology and these technologies are located in the developed countries. They are framed in the neoliberal economic model, and thus are designed to further develop capital and capitalism, whose aim is the production and sale of commercial goods.

These corporations are not concerned with the fact that the majority of the population, for example the so-called “Third World,” cannot afford the price of their products. And they are not interested in developing forms of uses based on solidarity and cooperation among people that would satisfy the needs of those who have less opportunities and less access to these technologies.

Gift giving is an alternative paradigm that seeks precisely the opposite of corporate globalization. Currently, there are many social movements that are struggling to revert the corporate neoliberal reality by using and developing new communication technologies, that are freely shared to challenge the market paradigm. The gift economy is being applied practically in the use and sharing of these free technologies.

The ways that women are using and sharing new communication technologies are very different from those of corporatization and commercialization. These women’s political objectives are focused on sharing information, interacting among like-minded people and building movements for social change within a human rights framework. In the words of Nedelka Lacayo of the Honduran Black Women’s Network who participated in a Feminist International Radio Endeavour (FIRE) training workshop: “A web page is not an end in itself. It is an instrument for our objectives, which go beyond instruments themselves, because they are political. The Internet is a multiplier of our political actions. It is also a means to create and recreate our own knowledge. The Internet, especially for us black women, has to allow us to speak with our own voices, to share our experiences and voices or perspectives, instead of waiting for others to do so for us”.

Three examples of gift giving in new communication technologies are the open source movement, the community radio movement in Latin America, and third, the experience of FIRE in sharing communication technologies benefiting women.

Open Source Software and Freeware

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. The free software movement stems from an ethical and political stance that advocates freedom from corporate control, and aims to disseminate information freely, giving the gift of knowledge.

The concept of open source software has become a true technological—and political—revolution. The premise is very simple: computer programmers create and share these software programs at no cost to 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 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. Open source software is not only much more cost-effective but it distributes technical power democratically. While many leaders of the open source community reside in the U.S., the power that comes with the use of open source technology is very well distributed internationally. In fact, the most famous open source programmer is from Finland, Linus Torvalds.

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 or very inexpensive. Hundreds of billions of dollars can be saved yearly by using open source software. Secondly, the implementation of open source projects does not require in-depth knowledge. Technicians in the developing world are no longer reduced to following instructions handed down to them by global corporations, they can work shoulder to shoulder with their peers in the open source com- munity. 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. Fourth, with local technologists implementing the solutions, these solutions are far more in-tune to local needs than are their foreign corporations. The users of this technology no longer must adapt their organizations to fit software designed for others; they can have solutions that are appropriate for them and which thus greatly increases the effectiveness of the technology (FIRE and Nomadic Solu- tions 2003: 10).

Due to the fact that knowledge and brainpower are the true movers of open source technology, there are great opportunities for women with basic Internet access, while learning, to be able to adjust software programs to meet their own needs and strategies for action.

New technologies and new movements have emerged in this context. They struggle to keep the structure and flow of information open, despite corporate efforts 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 their use of open source software and free access to the Internet.

Open source software is one of the ways gift giving can be evidenced in the use of communication technology, as a common wealth rather than a commercial product. Thus, gift giving on the Internet is democratizing and signals a paradigm shift in market economics.

Community Radio in Latin AmÈrica

In Latin AmÈrica, community radio was conceived as a means of communication whose goals was not to achieve profits. Community radio is a form of media with scarce economic resources and, in most cases, is restricted by legislation that not only impedes the sale of publicity, but also limits the scope of its range to one kilometer around, which is the case in Brasil.

But community radio benefits communities, vindicating the human right to freedom of expression, and promoting the ownership of media in the hands of communities of people, rather than in the hands of of entrepreneurs and/or corporations, which is the case in most countries.

What differentiates community radio from commercial radio is not only the popular nature that characterizes one, versus the commercial motivation of the other, but rather the logic of sharing communication as a human right and not as a commercial product which aims to generate profits.

Community radio is incorporating new technologies in its work, not only in terms of basic digital equipment, like tape recorders, but also by using the computer as an instrument of communication, using email to disseminate information, and as a system for the automization of radio programming. Many use open source technology to do this.

Many experiences in community radio in Central AmÈrica show gift giving in the form of volunteer work, and the sharing of the microphone with people in the communities who do not expect anything in return. Community radio stations satisfy the communication needs of their audiences, without seeking profits, but rather for the sake of growing and sharing, not gaining, which in essence is gift giving.

FIRE: Open Source Technology and Radio in the Hands of women

One example of gift giving through community radio, among thousands world- wide, is FIRE, or, Feminist International Radio Endeavour, which exists because of its use of free or open source technology.

In November 2003 in Costa Rica, FIRE held a training workshop to share the gift of communication. An Internet server called Apache, using Linux, an open source operating system, was created during the 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.

On this experimental server, each participant had their own website, access to e-mail, and a link to the internal server network for the workshop, all free and in a form created and designed for the event itself and the participants. The participants were also able to use a free version of File Transfer Protocol (FTP) to create and modify their websites. By adding their own presence in the Internet, every user in the workshop contributed to the collective knowledge accessible to those already online, another dimension of gift giving.

As a result of the training workshop, female activists from 15 grassroots orga- nizations were able to design and POST web pages for their organizations. The “first time” 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.

Surrounded by a circle of 24 computers in the conference room of the Com- fort Inn Hotel in Santa Ana, Honduran Nedelka Lacayo clutched the computer keyboard as her new “key” to the worldwide web. “I even learned how to put my own voice in the page. Come and see.... Come and hear, as you open the page, I welcome people to the site of my organization. It almost like magic!” exclaimed Nedelka.

As Katerina Anfossi (2003), Co-Director of FIRE, explained in a panel presen- tation during the training workshop:

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. 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 show- case that women’s ownership of computer servers is possible and furthermore, it can make the use of the Internet much less expensive and accessible to more women.

These three experiences: one, the movement of free open source technology; two, the gift of community radios; and three, initiatives like FIRE to empower women though community radio, have a lot in common. They show us that technology as such is not an end in itself, but rather an instrument through which we can broadcast and disseminate thoughts, ideas, experiences, and most of all, make the voices of women, and marginalized communities, be heard.

Free and democratic access to new communication technologies is a human right we should promote constantly, instead of the corporate agenda that deepens the digital divide, the breach between rich and poor, and between men and women. One way to further these efforts is to articulate different initiatives to strengthen the search for new paradigms. Voices cannot be bought or sold when in the hands of those who believe that another world is possible.

Andrea Alvarado Vargas is a Costarican journalist, radio producer and audio tech- nician. She has worked as a trainer in radio production, digital edition, and new technologies courses for some years for different social communication organizations. She is an advocate for non-profit communication and communication rights and a feminist activist. She has a strong relationship with community radios in Central America, and is part of strengthening projects for these radios. She works as a producer for Radio Internacional Feminista/FIRE.

MarÌa Suarez Toro is a Puertorican and Costarican feminist, women¥s human rights activist, and communicator. She has been co founder, co director and now producer of Feminist International Radio Endeavour (FIRE) since its birth in 1991. She has also worked as a human rights activist in the Central American Human Rights Com- mission in the past and also in adult literacy in the region.


Anfossi, Katerina. 2003. FIRE¥s Workshop: New Technologies for Political Activism. Online: www.fire.or.cr

FIRE and Nomadic Solutions. 2003. FIRE¥s Feasibility Study for a Feminist Open Source Server. Unpublished document.

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