June 8, 2008

Anthropologocial Wonders and Myopias North and South

Category: Academic,Anthropology,F/OSS,IP Law,Tech — Biella @ 2:28 am

Four years ago, the last time I was in Brazil, I came as an anthropologist-in-training to attend and give a talk at Debconf4 held in Porto Alegre. I have returned to this city in the south, again in the winter, but this time I have come back as an anthropologist who is giving a talk at the department of anthropology at the UFRGS, based on my research conducted many years ago. This time, thanks to my (really friendly and energetic) hosts, I am seeing far more of the actual city, its beautiful and aaaamaazing sunsets, its outlying neighborhoods, and even its subcultures.

This has been my first foreign trip where I am interacting primarily with anthropologists and this has been really interesting for me. On the one hand, because of the language difference, there is a lot that is strange and hard for me to follow and I am acutely aware of the general and particular economic gulf between north and south and its impact on students (books are expensive, traveling for conferences is very difficult, and even applying to graduate schools in the north can be impossible because it costs so much to apply to each school!) On the other hand, the methods and subjects of study, the style of analysis, and the teaching are all very familiar, making me feel like I am part of a discipline that (thankfully) transcends national borders. Many of the projects I learned about–the tensions between free software advocacy and development, the role of memory among fan’s of a “corny” country/Gaucho singer from this area and the “surgical management” of intersex (hermaphrodite) newborns were some of the most interesting projects I have come across and gobbled as much information about them as I could.

I was also struck, yet again, by the deep myopias of anthropology, north and south. My own project, which focuses mostly on white, American and European hackers, often does not strike as culturally authentic enough because, well, the people I study are white, American and European (and I am slowly coming to see that if you study the so-called white and male or the North American/European elements of technology and the Internet and the law, you are probably white and male yourself and anything having to do with ethnicity/gender is usually the province of female academics, which I find really problematic).

If I had carried out my first project in Brazil, where there is a foreign language, where there is a long tradition of studying various groups, then my project would have been stamped by that mysterious aura of authenticity/approval. On the other hand, two of the students here (those that worked on free software and the country singer) complained that their papers have yet to be accepted by the Brazilian Anthropological Association for being too strange, non-traditional, and it seems in their case, the problem is that they are studying urban Brazilian, popular culture (which for me would have just been “just” the thing to study). We are located far apart but find ourselves in similar positions by virtue of studying something geographically close to where we live, which is confused and misperceived as being culturally close to our world. But if there is something I wish to hammer into my students and other anthropologists is that there is tremendous plurality and multiplicity within our own societies. We can travel far, in the cultural sense, just by staying home and opening our eyes a little wider.

Another nice experience is that I am learning a tremendous amount about free software politics and development from the graduate student, Luis Felipe, who is really responsible for getting me down here. He found me on IRC many moons ago and finally we have been able to compare notes and have long conversations about free software, the differences in how we can gather data due to gender, and a topic close to me, which is the tension between the political and apolitical in free software.

Our relationship is at once based on friendship and also one of mentoring. And it reminds me of others who have also mentored me and how crucial this mentoring was to the development of my own work. One of my most important mentors, Chris Kelty, just published his book on Free Software (and I will soon write an entry about the book but the WHOLE THING IS ONLINE) and so it felt quite nice that we were discussing what I think his one of his most amazing chapters on the creation of the copyleft in our class on Friday. Not only was the topic about the genesis of the first free software license appropriate for a class on IP, but in many ways, because of his mentoring, I have gotten to where I am and so it felt also appropriate to honor and recognize that genealogy in my own work.

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