We entered the youth camp that morning by passing down a long, white gravel road and under a wooden gate. Spread to one side, and for as far as you could see, were rows and rows of tents. In front were scores of showers, with hundreds of kids in swimsuits milling about, waiting to rinse. It felt like a refugee camp.
In a sense, it was. More than a hundred thousand had descended upon Porto Alegre, Brazil, to attend the World Social Forum, a conference intended to offer a progressive alternative to the much smaller, and much more famous, World Economic Forum meeting at Davos, Switzerland (see “Letter from Davos,” April 2005).
Just past the showers was a sprawling collection of wooden huts, connected by a canvas spread across their roofs. This was the free-software lab. To the right, there was a training room, with more than 50 PCs arranged along long tables. At the far end was a large screen, where 20 to 30 kids were watching an instructor explain the workings of some video-editing software. Every machine was running free software only – GNU/Linux as the operating system, Mozilla as the browser, and a suite of media production software, most of which I had never seen on any machine anywhere.
The room was being prepared for what seemed like a disco. Three DJ-like characters were huddled over a table full of machines, testing sound and twiddling fantastically elaborate controls. They were not DJs, however, but VJs: video jockeys who were preparing a demonstration of the tools they had built (as they described it) for “recycling culture.” The music would, for all I know, not have been out of place in the coolest New York dance club; but the images were a collage of television and color presented in a way that I had never seen before, anywhere. As the music played, video samples were scratched across the screen. The VJ operated a turntable-like controller, which drove powerful digital video equipment designed to mix images, not records.
In another room, the yellow light filtering through the canvas roof bathed another 50 machines. John Perry Barlow, former lyricist for the Grateful Dead and cofounder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, sat stooped over his PowerBook chatting with someone. He looked up with a smile. “It’s [New York Times writer John] Markoff at Davos.” Obviously, Wi-Fi bathed the room as well.
Inside the room, a group of five or six Brazilians was waiting there to meet us. A film crew waited as well. They were shooting a documentary. The Brazilians were our guides, and I was there to understand what a “free software lab” was all about.