On seeds, software, and social movements: Conversation between a Hacker and a Peasant

*by Cristina Carnevali, and Germana Fratello

**The dialogue was transcribed and edited by Mimmo Perrotta; later translated into English by Pietro Autorino. It was originally published in the Italian journal “Gli Asini”, issue 99, May 2022.

***The radical hacker movement and that for peasant agriculture have many things in common; delving into these analogies can be useful both to better understand what hacking means and to imagine what kinds of tools hackers can build for and with other social movements. We discussed this with programmer and hacker Cristina Carnevali, and Germana Fratello, a peasant, starting from the experience of Campi Aperti (tr. Open Fields), an association of peasants and co-producers that organizes eight weekly markets in the city of Bologna.

Hacker logics and peasant logics

iDece, ph by P. Autorino

Cristina: The term hacker is marked by the curiosity and aptitude for figuring out how things work and getting your hands on/into them, repurposing, reusing, and repairing them as long as they move forward. I am fond of this use of the term, which perhaps comes from academia: programmers in the early days had technologies that they used for work and then were able to reuse for recreation, fun or other purposes, sometimes even enhancing and changing them. In mainstream imageries, the word hacker is very often associated with purposes that can be harmful toward some systems. Yet, I stick to that meaning of hacking, even though indeed in the 1970s-1980s there was an obsession for opening systems, closing systems, and hence about breaking certain boundaries, which, however, is nothing more than a part of computer work: as locksmiths know how to close doors, they also know how to open doors, and that is undeniably and simply part of knowing how to do their craft.

Since the 1970s, the hacker movement has given rise to an international community, which was formed on the basis of political intentions, being able to communicate remotely, and radicalized over the possibility of reusing what others had discovered, thus from the perspective of anti-copyright and free software. The political journey of hackmeeting and free software are among the things that brought me to Bologna, to the XM24 social center, where I met Campi Aperti and where we tried together to put technology at the service of our social objectives. We use technology because it speeds up certain actions while though making us dependent on it.

Between the hacker movement and the peasant movement – for example, with the Via Campesina global network and claims of food sovereignty – I find convergence points, namely passing on knowledge that is not enclosed, but remains available over time to others, and the curiosity to understand how to transform the present. In both environments – agriculture and IT – you find macroscopic, cannibalistic, omnivorous entities with no sense of limits, which tend to centralize and grab territories, as well as network’s interactions. And they are a political problem, because they are different models of understanding territory, politics: on one side, those who try to get to economic monopolies; on the other, keeping themselves federated in harmony with communities that know they are different, but that recognize each other in their principles.

Germana: The value you attribute to community and shared knowledge is definitely an analogy to the project of peasant networks. When you start a project in agriculture, you realize your weakness with respect to the big dynamics related to food production, territorial organization, and so on. And you realize that what makes for the chance to change things, to do what seems most right to do, both with respect to food production and with respect to land management – to produce healthy food, in harmony with the land – is to be within a community that shares the same project as you. A peasant project requires both a broad sharing, a network, of farmers and co-producers. Then there is the issue of self-organisation: in your project you need to make decisions in a network with a community of reference, whereas decisions that are imposed on you from above necessarily take you far. We always remark that our markets are not based on competition but on collaboration, not out of a matter of generosity but just as a matter of realizing that this is your only strength, your chance to move forward.

Of course, compared instead to the lightning-speed connections of the hacker world, the practices of farmers and with co-producers are very local; what has connected though are the ideas, because in any case even at the peasant level a lot of stimulation came from knowing what was going on in other parts of the world, for example with La Via Campesina. But the communities that we build are very local.

It is not by chance that we crossed paths at the occupied and self-organised social centre Xm24: that place had specific characteristics, it was a place where powers were, as far as possible, kept at the margins and where people could invent different things by having a space. Many intersections took place at Xm24. It was no coincidence that we peasants didn’t have a place to run a self-managed market in Bologna and found it there. We had been in Genoa, 2001: at that time there was perhaps the greatest awareness that the big powers were compacting globally and therefore that people who had an idea of an alternative had to create their own networks. Maybe a similar thing happened with IT.

Cristina: Yes, in those years it happened in a similar way with Indymedia, in the field of communication and information.

It is important to point out that programmers, the IT people, also cannot do without the physical relationship with other similar people. In hacklabs, those in the area who have specializations can see each other and exchange with each other, there is a willingness to share and support each other’s projects: writing software is hard, maintaining it is hard, getting computers to hold it up and giving it to users is work, and so to set up a technological infrastructure takes a lot of effort. You know you can’t do it yourself, although IT easily fools you, giving you the illusory power of being able to take software that magically works. In reality it is very demanding, and unless you are a group – or a company – you cannot do such a thing. There is also a human aspect: after spending eight hours in front of a computer you want to meet up, compare, exchange and create. It is priceless to consult another human compared to reading a manual. Sure, it takes a lot of attention, that it all be documented and handed down, but it’s much quicker if another person instructs you about possible mistakes. I also find similarities, for example, between organizing Hackmeetings and “Genuino Clandestino” meetings as networks [Genuino Clandestino is a network of grassroots peasant organizations, based in different Italian regions, which organize general meetings twice a year; Hackmeetings are the yearly encounters of the network of hacklabs of various Italian cities].

Responding to the needs of communities

popolazione di zucchine cc campi aperti, image from campiaperti.org

Cristina: This way of building information technology can help address all the needs that arise. Even before being online, when offline you have needs to write documents, edit images, use a scanner and so on. And here you have everything that has been rewritten, in free software, for Linux and the thousands of distributions of Linux available. That effort, which gives us the chance to use a computer, comes free to us, but it’s an effort of millions of hours of work, of people who have decided to offer it to a worldwide community, to all human beings. Then there are the networked services: you need to exchange files, and there are file exchange services in free software; even before that, the various self-managed servers were born with very strong political instances of self-organization – for example, autistici.org, sindominio.net in the Iberian area, Ccc in Germany – in short, all groups of political-IT giving email services as a necessity for self-organizing, all the way to federated social networks, such as Mastodon, for the needs of basic communication, or even spreadsheets or documents to be shared or edited collaboratively, video-calls.

There are several reasons why to use these collaboratively built tools instead of proprietary software. First, because it is good to have a choice, whereas if you stay within Windows, for example, you are unlikely to get out of that one solution that is already there and that company has chosen for you (lock-in). In IT it is very easy to build fiefdoms: at the commercial level Windows and Apple have built fiefdoms, closed entities: it is difficult to export data from there, so they have control over you. It is a consequence of using their software. Secondly, because free software allows you to modify and extend it: it’s a collaborative endeavour, an operating system on which everyone who could write code could add a little piece to it and thus fulfill needs. A third reason is economic and lies in the very fact that they sell you Windows: the cost of that operating system lies in the fact that it was written, whereas duplicating it and distributing it to people would cost nothing. Windows, and even Apple, at the software level are selling you immaterial goods as if they were material. In IT, if I share ideas, they will enrich me, they multiply. Whereas, if I have an apple and I give you an apple, I don’t have it anymore and you have one more. But if I have an idea and I give you an idea, it is an addition. This is the power of collaborative discourse: the effort of writing code you can share among many, and then distribution is cheap.

The other important reason is solidarity: a resource that is owned by someone can be denied to you (including your data); a resource that is collectively crafted and protected can’t.

Germana: There is a very similar difference between a self-organized farmers’ market and the “normal” food market. In the beginning, we used to sell our produce (even if it was organic) at the wholesale market. They used to tell us the features of the products they wanted and we could only try to adjust ourselves to it; they weren’t interested in our production costs, they only would tell us “this year we are paying this much for this product.” End. Building self-organized markets has meant going from being a series of agricultural projects that had to try to adapt themselves to the interests of others, to becoming farms that together with co-producers seek ways to carry out a project that is of benefit to all. Also, you have other producers suggesting you how to do it, with whom you exchange know-hows. The market, the distribution network, regulations, we create them for ourselves according to our needs: it’s as if, as Cristina says, we make our own software according to our needs. The needs of the whole community, those who live there, those who want to eat those products and those who want to grow them. We created a market that is tailored to the project of that community, and we stopped using something that took us by force in a certain direction.

Cristina: Similarly, in IT there is this pattern: Windows and Apple base their business and their income on “the software is mine and I decide” – which is the same thing as “the seeds are mine and I decide,” as some gigantic corporations try to do in agriculture – while the small collaborative computer applications I was talking about earlier are serving people and the communities: the software is no longer someone’s jewel, but the knowledge is shared, both via donations, and at the level of small companies that can offer services for a small income, based on their labor, on the time required to take care of an infrastructure or a territory. In the case of IT, if you maintain services – the cloud, video calls, e-mail, people’s spreadsheets – you get paid for the work you put into maintaining them, not for the software you produced. The software is something extra, which in this logic can expand according to each need, because everyone is different. It is a practical implication, but also a political struggle.

Germana: The issue of seeds from this point of view is important, although very complex: over the last 50-70 years, regulations have been made that have resulted into the fact that seed production is no longer in the hands of farmers and peasants, and we have ended up with a biodiversity reduction of catastrophic proportions. Farmers have been prohibited from selling produce grown from another farmer’s seed, imposing a dependence on seed companies. But seed diversity has been based for millennia precisely on exchange. Seeds did not evolve on their own: peasants and farmers evolved them. In nature there are wild tomatoes, but everything else peasants and farmers did, and they did it through exchange. Peasants were not the owners of seeds: I had this little pile of seeds, I would sow my tomatoes in it, I would sell you a tomato and you would find the seeds inside. That’s the way it has always worked, seeds were collective, widespread property, commons, whereas today they have become the private property of companies, which has therefore resulted in the loss of biodiversity and autonomy. The other problem is that people over these decades have lost the ability to reproduce seeds; companies deliver hybrid seeds, which function well, even better than self-reproduced seeds, and gradually people have lost this ability. With Campi Aperti we are working on a “seed bank” not only to recover seeds, but also to recover skills.

Cristina: a similar dynamic happens with IT: if that of collaborative programming is not knowledge that we have lost, it is knowledge that we have yet to refine. Even in computing, private corporations have taken pieces of free software and used them or made them private property. It happened, for example, with Apple and Bsd (Berkeley Software Distribution), before the Gnu/Linux world refined the techniques and included in the licenses the fact that you can use the software but it must continue to be free and distributable. Then there are the two aspects, the generative aspect and the refinement aspect. Sometimes free software is harder to use than proprietary software, and there are software that we develop from scratch because they are necessities that no company has developed and brought to market, but instead your communities need them. For example, Openki, a libertarian education platform. What we write from scratch sometimes has snags, though; collaborative platforms are always in the process of being refined. The art to be learned is collaborative design between dev and user. Otherwise, commercial platforms base everything on the secondary goal of profit from data, so what they offer us is aimed at making us use it and be pervasive in the Internet or in our PCs, in the environment they have colonized and are colonizing.

Hacker tools for social movements

antennine on rooftop, ph. from antennine.noblogs.org

Cristina: since years I have been supporting Campi Aperti with various tools. First for the website, which met the first communicative needs. Then, when Campi Aperti grew to over one hundred farms, we had to automate the forms of the production units, the presence of these forms on the site, and so on. After that, I worked on facilitating the documentation’s management, also based on the fact that the two people who do admin work for Campi Aperti are dislocated throughout the territory and so we use a cloud and file-sharing managed by us, whose data is in the place where we want it to be, either locally or online in collaboration with Tetaneutral, a French group that also works with the French Amap (i.e., peasant agriculture support groups). During the lockdown we found ourselves having to build and run an online shop – an epic that we went through and then divested from because that’s not what we were interested in, as we think the exchange relationship in the markets in the square is preferable.

And then we are leading a surprising experiment. In several realities in Italy and South America, a peculiar need of small communities is to get an Internet network: a bit of “telecommunications from below.” When you move to the countryside to start a farm, the settlements are scattered over the territory and long-distance communication is very important, but you’re in an area where you often lack Internet connection. So you are disadvantaged also in that respect. It’s the digital divide. But if you have IT people with certain ideas, you find yourself getting a DIY line.

Germana: The problem is that the connections don’t cover the whole territory, so Cristina connected a number of houses by radio, with antennas on the roofs bouncing the signal. She networked about 30 homes, for about 50 people, over four valleys.

Cristina: I draw heavily on an international community for the software we use on the antennas. There are dozens of IT guys who have done this thing, who have found themselves in the inlands in the jungle of Brazil, in the middle of Argentina, in the reeds of Mexico. And they wrote themselves some software, they studied a way to solve this problem to a community of solidarity, which we also apply. There are international meetings about the management of this project and on how we can continue to exist. This software is developed by an international non-commercial community, because no one commercially had any interest in doing it with that design.

Our next goal is to become Internet Service Providers ourselves. The telephone companies have a big role in deciding on the transformation of the territory – on the placement of antennas, the type of technology and network topology — but also in censorship. Our source for the moment are still “traditional” communication entities, however, we have a self-managed, shared infrastructure; if we became Internet Service Providers we would have direct connection to the backbone. These projects are often derided by saying “whatever but you are hobbyists anyway.” Even Bill Gates said that about Linux (and Big Ag says it about peasants), then today you have 77% of Internet servers, 100% of supercomputers and 70% of smartphones with a Linux-based operating system, so Gates has been proven wrong. True, our technology is also made in leisure time. It is robust, though, because it is documented, has widespread ownership and maintenance, and a modular constitution.

No one is indispensable

“Umbertino” small scale DIY cereal thresher – ph. from manomettere.noblogs.org

Cristina: One thing we have been working on for years is that the IT technician should not become indispensable, should not be the “single point of failure.” This is an IT term: if you have a centralized point, you create fragility for everyone; if a system can have a single point where you determine the failure of a strategy, it is definitely weak. We have to work on this at the cultural level. The necessary specialization forces us to make a big effort in accessibility. We strive, for example, to have seasonal meetings to maintain and update the software we use for the website and the cloud. This maintenance is essential for the stability and security of the software but it is obviously very delicate. That is why it is always necessary to document what you do, to have testing platforms that allow those who are learning to try without fear of making mistakes. These are all attentions that are not easy to have, because the whole software production environment instead takes people out of universities, hyper-specialized and already oriented to commercial offerings, and this falls back on the culture of free software, which is very male and quite competitive anyway.

Now, this maintenance is clearly a service thing, a slam, a reproductive job, but one that affects us all. The nice thing is that in the association Campi Aperti there are now three or four people who can do it independently.

It is important to remember that if you start using these tools, they are addictive. A widespread awareness and know-how are necessary, otherwise you don’t know where these tools are taking you.