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 Chapter proposal for the book "ICTs and Sustainable Solutions for Global Development: Theory, Practice and the Digital Divide" sent in july 15th, 2008:

MetaReciclagem: brazilian technological appropriation

MetaReciclagem is an open project created in 2002 in Brazil. At first a collective in São Paulo proposing the re-use of donated electronic equipment with free and open source software, soon MetaReciclagem turned into a distributed network of multiple identities working towards the de-construction of technology – taken here in a broad sense: computers, toothbrushes, language - and its re-purposing and re-signification in different contexts, articulating the collective agency of social change.
While opting not to follow a common path in Brazil – closing up a methodology, creating an NGO and earning loads of money from the government by repeating the same practices over and over again-, MetaReciclagem has established deep dialog with projects in the government and civil society, universities and businesses, proposing a participatory approach to collaborative exchange between people and institutions.
During its six years of existence, MetaReciclagem has become a reference in critical appropriation of technology, counting hundreds of collaborators, as well as being used as key methodology for the elaboration and implementation of large-scale projects. More than a technology project, it has aggregated educational perspective, artistic experimentation and the development of alternate economic cycles. Members of MetaReciclagem have been, in an emergent way, an important influence to dozens of projects in fields such as digital inclusion and technological appropriation; free and open source software, knowledge and culture; e-waste; media and technological education; distributed learning, open innovation networks and media arts.
MetaReciclagem has received honorary mentions on Prix Ars Electronica in 2006 (Digital Communities category) and on APC Betinho Communications Prize in 2005, and was listed a finalist for the APC Chris Nicol FOSS prize in 2007.

Brazilian cultures - mutirão and gambiarra

MetaReciclagem has emerged as a typically Brazilian yet globally replicable way to think and do human-centered technology development, supporting ethical principles such as collaborative production and social uses of technology. Two of its main references from brazilian cultures are gambiarra and mutirão.
Gambiarra is a Brazilian expression that defines any informal deviation of technical knowledge. It is a widespread cultural practice, consisting of all kinds of improvised solutions for everyday problems with any available material. It is a good definition for the will to creatively transform whatever one wants or needs to transform by exploring the indetermination of technology. Gambiarra is less a solution than a process: in the boundary of "temporary" and "definitive" solutions, it is always about trying, observing, learning and trying again. That unstable condition, even if sometimes less effective, allows for a great deal of spontaneous innovation. Bringing that understanding to the perspective of information technology and working with the ideas of free software, open hardware, open spectrum and open content, deeply involved with social contexts, has been proving a powerful way to interfere in some contexts in Brazil.
A mutirão is the tropicalized form of the multitude, requested whenever one needs help to accomplish goals bigger than her/his capacities permit: buildind a wall, cleaning a home, fixing street lamps or anything. Whatever the personal differences, people tend to see the mutirão as a collective effort towards a greater good, that temporarily suspends tensions and puts people to work together. A mutirão is usually non-hyerarchical and dynamic. Each one contributes with what s/he wants or can, and the result is often satisfatory. It can be seen as a very productive way for a community to accomplish common goals.

An emergent methodology

The name MetaReciclagem does not define a group of people, but a definition that some people use to identify and refer to an open methodology. It becomes concrete in three distinct but inter-related levels:
1.Esporos (“spora”) are reference centers of MetaReciclagem that receive equipment donations, host talks and events and act as network nodes. Since 2002, at least two dozens of esporos have been created in different parts of Brazil. What characterizes MetaReciclagem as a radically de-centered networkis the fact that any space can define itself as a spore, provided that it follows a short set of principles: working for social change towards a collaborative, participative society; using and developing free software for critical appropriation of technology; informing the network and releasing documentation with free licensing in the infralógica (see below).
2.Infralógica (“logical infrastructure”) are all the online environments in which conversations and documentation about MetaReciclagem take place. It is responsible for keeping a strong sense of community among all the diverse nodes of the network. All the online environments are developed with free and open source software. The infralógica is in itself object of constant research and reinvention. Among the next steps of its development are resources for distributed logistics and the creation of sub-groups.
3.ConecTAZes (“connected temporary autonomous zones”) are any collective actions that benefit from MetaReciclagem, both presentially or online. They range from lowtech paper-and-pencil collaboration workshops to Linux InstallFests, seminars, public interventions, hotsites or plain meetings. ConecTAZes often (but not always) become or build independent multimedia telecenters.

Background: Projeto Metáfora

The mailing list Projeto Metáfora (metaphor project) was created in June 2002. In less than three months, there were tens of active members and at least a dozen projects in areas such as education, art and media, from a series of public interventions to discussions of (what turned out to be) the Brazilian tactical media lab, MidiaTaticaBrasil. Hernani Dimantas, one of its members, describes it as a free incubator for collaborative projects. Its members came from different areas: journalists, artists, designers, software developers, social scientists and others.
Nearly 25 projects have been created, structured and developed collectively. Among them, the first brasilian conference on tactical media (prov0s, 2002), a collaborative website about nonprofits and entrepreneurship (, an online publication on technology, economy and society (buzzine), research related to a de-centralized laboratory of language, narratives and art experimentation (memelab), public interventions during the elections (recicle1politico), webradio experiences and multimedia celebrations, like neuromob :: book xchange, a party / bookcrossing. All the projects followed a few principles:

  • They emphasized the idea of collaborative development, inspired by the free software movement. By publishing the knowledge created during the process, it would be easier to replicate the projects; therefore, they were all based on copyleft and free knowledge concepts;
  • A different perspective from other projects that deal with technology. We did not want to train people to become accustomed to computers, but transform technology to change their lives;
  • An effort to keep the conversations free from specialist jargon, so that anyone could understand, and open to anyone willing to participate. There was also a concern to fight the notion that technology is something apart from everyday life and that online and offline activities are opposite.

To develop the project, technological infrastructure was needed. MetaReciclagem was created to face that need:
“In a given point, we realized we would need computers to get those projects running. Someone sent the group a link to website, an American organization that delivers used computers to NGOs. A member suggested we ask for donations. Other pointed out that transportation would be too expensive, and a lot of Brazilian companies and people also had old computers. What if we asked them? We were not an organization, how could we formally justify and process the donations? A draft of what we then called MetaReciclagem was created on our wiki site.
Who was the author? Everyone, I guess. Then I met Agente Cidadão, a NGO working with what they call ‘Social Logistics’: they pick up donations all around São Paulo and deliver them to charities. At that point, they had some computers and didn't know what to do with them. I talked about our project and in less than one month we started working together. They offered us exactly what we needed – space, old computers, internet access and energy, but, furthermore, the most important: a goal. We would transform technology using free software to help people in need.”
Felipe Fonseca to Bia Rinaldi, 2004

Digital inclusion?

The basic idea was to restore computers which were broken or considered obsolete, configure them with free and open source software, and then donate them to social organizations. Hernani Dimantas notes that, although MetaReciclagem was supposed to be a pragmatic project of computer recycling, its members started developing a conceptual approach that went far beyond that. To Hernani, the group’s work is characteristic of a “third phase” of digital inclusion. Restoring computers and passing this ability to others is more than what other “digital inclusion actions” usually do, he observes. Simply providing access to the internet and access to information was something done at the first stages of the movement. What MetaReciclagem does is provide people with the means to produce their own knowledge. It fosters the appropriation of technology, bringing a critical approach to the use of communication tools. It’s not about mere inclusion or exclusion, but a conscious and creative use of technologies instead.
Over the years, concepts such as collaboration, collective knowledge production, re-signification of technology and critical appropriation became central for other levels of experimentation and creativity. MetaReciclagem has transformed the way of defining itself plenty of times, and that is one of the factors that allows it to survive scale and still be creative and productive.
Following the strong support of the idea of free knowledge, at some point MetaReciclagem was perceived not as a group of people in São Paulo anymore, but instead a de-centered methodology that could and should be appropriated, replicated and re-created everywhere, by whoever wanted to. Since then, MetaReciclagem has got many different faces: from a one-man spore with no computer in the coast of Bahia to an educational approach adopted strategically by government projects.

MetaReciclagem is…

As an open and diverse network, MetaReciclagem has almost as many definitions as it has members. Some of them follow:

“MetaReciclagem is a project that tries (and miraculously achieves) to make computers that were considered obsolete work with free software, and to introduce people in need to the idea of digital inclusion. To me, it’s also a chance to learn and teach others how free software works.”

“It’s a pirate operation. People get together when they want to, and use MetaReciclagem as a form of expression. That’s why the voluntary side of our work is so big. The connection between us follows the logic of our individual projects.”

“It’s construction of technologic independence to political and social actions”

“Garbage is only garbage because it’s in the wrong place. Things at their right places have value. To some, it’s nothing, to others… it’s an inversion of values.”

“It’s a great school, a place to look for help, where we can create.”

“To recycle ideas, minds and hearts. To raise blue flowers in dry land.”

“It’s a family with freedom of expression; although it is work, there is autonomy to come and go.”

“It’s a collaborative methodology of technological appropriation to social change.”

“MetaReciclagem successfully influenced thousands of people about how to handle technology in a more human way and made them aware that technology is not a black magic box (or else, it can be a black magic box of which anyone can become a wizard). It is all about fostering a closer relationship between people and technology.”