The samba and the sauna

What do Brazil's cultural cannibals and Finland's loremasters have in common?

Published May 9, 2006 11:26PM (EDT)

In our incessant search for the unforeseen interconnection, today How the World Works brings you the the story of Brazil and Finland, two countries whose names one rarely sees paired together. And why should they be? Could the two nations be more different? Finland is the home of the archetypical dour Northern European. Brazil, the land of tropical passion. Hot vs. cold; samba vs. sauna; Carnaval vs. reindeer.

But there's a link between Helsinki and Sao Paulo. Both nations thrive in the digital domain. Finns and Brazilians alike flourish in the interstices of the Internet. Both see great value in the hacker ethic, the sharing of information.

This is not merely about the prevalence of Brazilians on social networks like Orkut, or Finnish expertise at cryptography. Nor is it the odd historical fact that Finland is the birthplace of the free software operating system Linux and Brazil's government is one of free software's biggest international supporters. It goes deeper: One can make an argument that both countries are at home in the realm of digital culture for unique historical and cultural reasons. The reasons are different -- grounded in utterly dissimilar material circumstances -- but the results are fascinating, predisposing two nations that could not be less alike to swim like one school of fish in the information technology seas.

Finland, the home of Nokia and Linus Torvalds, has received quite a bit of attention for its info-tech prowess. When I visited Helsinki six years ago, doing research for a chapter on Finland in my book on free software, one I.T. entrepreneur explained his theory as to why this was so by reaching deep into Finland's prehistory.

(Here I quote from my previously published work): The key to surviving Finland's long, dark winters was the efficient optimization of information, or "survival lore." How many cows do you intend to keep alive through the long dark months? At what point do you kill the cows you won't keep alive in order to maximize your remaining food stocks? How will you then keep the meat from spoiling? How much time do you devote to chopping wood? What are the most energy efficient techniques for insulation and cooking?

The interesting thing is that survival lore doesn't automatically lend itself to a proprietary model of information acquisition. In other words survival lore does not diminish in value if other people acquire it. You might want to keep a better design for a longbow or sword to yourself or your clan, hoping to gain an arms-race advantage over your competitors. But you gain relatively little by keeping to yourself a better food preparation technique or algorithm for calculating the proper ratio of wood chopping to hay gathering to livestock slaughtering. Quite the contrary: If you share your winter survival optimization techniques with others, they may well be more likely to share their information with you.

So, voilà, it's no surprise that Linus Torvalds came up with Linux, or that Finns embraced the free software ethos of Richard Stallman. Sharing information is built into the deep structure of Finnish civilization, a product of the struggle to survive the endless cold. Or so the theory goes!

But what about Brazil? Brazil has no brutal winters to explain why it is one of the developing world's leading critics of ever more restrictive global intellectual property laws. There is no similar tradition of "survival lore." I started wondering about Brazil again today when I read a report that the growing cost of Brazil's pledge to provide AIDS drugs free of charge to all its citizens was leading some government officials to renew threats to manufacture generic versions of Big Pharma drugs. What explains Brazil's bulldog approach?

A few idle hyperlink jumps later, and I was reading a brilliant speech given at New York University in September 2004 by Brazil's minister of culture, the famous "tropicalismo" musician Gilberto Gil. Gil was explaining why he was releasing a song that he owned the rights to under the Creative Commons license popularized by Stanford law professor Larry Lessig. The speech is a phenomenally articulate and poetic manifesto for the social value of copying and sampling and mixing cultural expression.

"I decided on 'Oslodum,'" said Gil, "whose lyrics celebrate and encourage the appropriation of Brazilian culture by all the worlds peoples, praising the beauty of an Afro-Brazilian Bahia street-carnival group that parades every year on the streets of Oslo, on Mardi Gras, even when it snows. If I have fed so much on the cultures of others and it has been so important for my art, why shouldnt others also propose new uses for what we create in Brazil? I know that this ravenousness, what poet Oswald de Andrade so cheerily and violently termed cultural cannibalism, or anthropophagism, is not only a Brazilian characteristic, but something we share with all other Latin-American peoples, which includes our foundational enthusiasm for miscegenation, for what is hybrid, trans-cultural, Creole, mestizo, and so many other terms we minted to speak of this aptitude of ours for mixture."

The reference to the poet Andrade is key. In his satirical modernist essay "Cultural Cannibalism," published in the 1920s, Andrade made reference to the encounter of the Tupi Indians with an evangelizing bishop from across the Pacific. As Julian Dibbell explains in an excellent article in Wired magazine about Brazil, Gil and free software, the Tupi listened to the bishop's preaching with enthusiasm. And then they ate him.

"I am only interested in what is not mine," says the narrator of Andrade's poem. This is not to be seen as greedy, but as an invitation to merge, to explore what is different from oneself. Brazil, more than any other post-colonial country, joined together the bloodlines of the invader and the indigenous. According to Gil and many other commentators, this mestizo sensibility has manifested itself in Brazilian culture in a thousand ways; in a syncretist approach to music, in a passion for integrating many disparate things into one potent brew.

And nothing, says Gil, makes things easier to mix together than digital tools, the language of code, the endless morphability of software. Brazil, argues Gil, understands that the new information age is defined by its mutability, by the ease with which things can now be copied and shared. The old regime of the West is trying to resist this intrinsic aspect of new technology. Brazil chooses a different tack -- to embrace.

Gil's manifesto is not shy. He finished his speech with a blazing call to arms, declaring that an openness to sharing and mixing could lead the way to a profoundly different approach to development:

"A Latin-American continent concerned with the issues of development and diversity (in other words, concerned with the invention of other possible developments) can decisively contribute to this process by getting involved with the economic dimension of culture and with the cultural dimension of the global economy. We can turn our Continent into a factory of cultural creativity. The production of knowledge, of comprehensive knowledge, of complex knowledge, able to deal with the multiplicity, the fragmentation and the inconsistencies of reality, this is the basis on which to climb to a new threshold, to elaborate a plan for the world that incorporates both traditional planning and management through flow, the management of demands, of what is imponderable, of surprises, what the great samba writer Cartola would call 'the sudden turns life takes' or what Cafi Tacuba call El Ciclsn, things that are often intangible, often impossible to plan, yet fundamental. For I am optimistic: no matter how hard fascisms try to make the World square, life comes along and rounds everything up once again. The world keeps going around, taking its turns, just as the circle of the Chinese yin and yang teaches us."

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Brazil Globalization How The World Works Latin America