Babylon by Bus - Jaromil, the lyrical programmer activist
Denis 'Jaromil' Roio is the main author of the GNU/Linux Live CD Dyne:bolic as well as of a number of audiovisual tools. He is also an artist who has been part of international exhibitions such as CODeDOC II by the Whitney Museum Artport and speaker on conferences such as Ars Electronica. Inspired by Richard Stallman's "free as in free speech" approach as well as liberatory politics, Jaromil seeks to transgress borders between art and code, social activism and research and development. This text is an introduction and overview about Jaromil's life and ideas, based on an interview conducted in June 2006 in Amsterdam. At the taxi-to-praxi research workshop on 21st of April he talked about Solid Knowledge.
Denis 'Jaromil' Roio grew up in Pescara in Italy. His family roots go back to Napoli and he is happy to explain everybody how to dance the Tarantella. His parents had a computer shop and he started his career, like so many, by playing games, and then by trying to remove the copy protection from games and last not least by trying to write his own games. At a quite early age he acquired significant computer skills and was participating in the Italian anarchist BBS scene through Cybernet which was particularly active in the early nineties, before the Italian mailbox crackdown1. Although not personally affected by the police raids which shut down dozens of BBS's, this incident may have been of an early formative quality. A newly introduced copyright law made public domain software illegal and gave the pretext for shutting down BBS systems which often circulated absolutely legitimate information -- concerns of civil society about violence against migrants for instance - things which were supressed in the right wing Italian media landscape which was already in the grip of Berlusconi.2
Audio Link: Jaromil: My Parents had a computer shop
Through a friend, Tony Mobily, a very colourful character, programmer, novelist and classic dancer, he was introduced to the GNU/Linux operating system at a time when GNU/Linux was still very difficult to install and run on computers. Like in similar instances3, his first impression was of an aesthetic quality4: he noticed the "funky fonts" which you could not have with DOS. Jaromil switched to GNU/Linux and enjoyed, amongst other things, the networking functions of GNU/Linux which were by far superior to Windows at the time when frequent error messages about "Winsock.dll" made networking life a misery for everybody. Jaromil went to a Lyceum which taught classical literature. He got interested in antique philosophers and authors and is generally a quite well read person with influences ranging from Pynchon to Debord and Ovid. At the same time he was politicised early on. His 'slightly hippie' politics, he said, were developed before he got deeper into computers. At that time, somehow between end of school and university, there may have been a kind of double crisis, a financial situation affecting his parents, as well as a personal crisis, so that he spent some time on the countryside with a Commune. Then, to solve his financial problems he got a programming job at a bank. Through this job he realised that his computing skills were 'worth something' and he began to put them to a social use.5
Audio Link: Jaromil: This is not DOS
Audio Link: Jaromil: Programming for a political purpose
"Injustice is the country of the rebel"
Audio Link: Jaromil I am a revolutionary
Jaromil is driven by a deep egalitarian ethos. His motivation to start a programming project is triggered often by the perception of social injustice: "I see an injustice and I feel the need to do something". From the very early days onwards his goal was to develop tools for people to express themselves. This is also explicitely motivated by the distortions which according to Jaromil media "czars" such as Berlusconi cause to the democratic system. As is well established in normative literature about the functioning of democracy, media freedom is important for democracy in a number of ways; it allows citizens to form an opinion based on facts about the social political systems and it allows, in principle, everybody to have a voice and contribute to the public debate. Through the concentration of media ownership in a few hands in liberal democracies, the multitude gets excluded from the public debate and only the voice of a very few gets heard, amplified through a thousand channels (cf. Chomsky, etc.).
When Jaromil got involved in programming, he wanted to create tools for people to express themselves. Through his adoption of GNU/Linux he learned about the particular notion of free software as proposed by Richard Stallman who says that the "free" in free software is not about the software being made available gratis but about "freedom of speech".
At that time, in the mid to late nineties the internet offered already many good ways of communicating by text - services such as listserv, usenet, web pages and web based forums -, but the possibilities for audiovisual expression were still quite minimal. The main software for live streaming of audio at the time was Real Audio. While the client software for the user was free, the server software had to be paid for according to a licence system which charged higher fees for higher numbers of users, which effectively put a cost barrier on live internet audio for financially weak individuals and institutions. Jaromil started to work on a software that would allow everybody to create a radio station on the internet, which would become MuSE (http://muse.dyne.org/). He also created a command line VJ tool called FreeJ (http://freej.dyne.org/); and he wrote a software which transcoded live video into ascii-video, called Hasciicam (http://ascii.dyne.org/). The Hasciicam became an instant hit in GNU/Linux circles and was integrated in standard GNU/Linux distributions. Then Jaromil had to leave Italy because he got a draft letter from the military and as a conscientious objector he did not want to serve. He found a home and support in Austria for a number of years, first in Linz through Servus.at, later in Vienna.
Dyne:bolic or "A rose is a rose is a rose"
There, at about the turn of the millennium, he started to develop Dyne:bolic (http://dynebolic.org/). The website "dyne.org" (http://dyne.org/) started initially as a way to stay in contact with an international network of hacker friends. "It showed a changing Moebius strip and an animated text banner saying a rose is a rose is a rose". At a hackmeeting in Italy he had learned about the Bolic1 software, one of the first GNU/Linux Live CD's created by LOA, a hacker group from Milan . A Live CD is a bootable disk - a whole operating system on a compact disk. When inserted into a computer and the computer gets restarted, it will run the GNU/Linux based operating system without the need to install it. This is an excellent way for people to get in contact with GNU/Linux. For a long time GNU/Linux had the image (and probably not just that) of being really difficult to install. To start working with GNU/Linux people needed to embark on a very steep learning curve because the biggest problems offered themeselves right at the start. Live CD's such as Dnye:bolic or the more widely known Knoppix (http://www.knoppix.org/) remove this barrier, there is no need to install anything and people can still enjoy the advantages of GNU/Linux. Jaromil started to develop a Live CD which would have all his audiovisual production tools pre-installed. He called it Dyne:bolic combining the name of his website (which was inspired by his love of ancient Greek philosophy in general and Heraclitus in particular) and the name of the Bolic1 Live CD which had inspired his project. Any standard PC could be turned into an audiovisual production suite within minutes by slotting Dyne:bolic into the disk drive and rebooting the machine.
A particular feature of Dyne:bolic is that it has been created to work well on old computers. By avoiding the usual GNU/Linux Desktops such as Gnome or KDE Dyne:bolic is very fast and efficient and can devote all the resources to rendering a live signal, for instance. It also uses available network bandwidth very effectively and can adapt to poor connectivity and still send a stream. Last not least Dyne:bolic is capable of clustering to combine the computing power of a number of machines. On a local network segment it detects other machines running Dyne:bolic and connects to them to effectively combine processor power. The weaker machines will then more or less just serve as 'thin clients' while the better machines do the audiovisual rendering jobs. Since Dyne:bolic 1.0 came out it has seen a complete rewrite over one and a half year. One of the most important improvements since version 2.0 ist that it now contains the production tools, so that other people can make versions of Dyne:bolic. This has actually happened through, amongst others, the Puredyne distribution (https://devel.goto10.org/puredyne), which, if one wants to say so, is a clone based one Dyne:bolic which is even more "audiovisual" by including tools such as Pure Data and other specialist producer and composer software.
Audio Link, Jaromil: the making of dyne 2
Creative Strategies: Trains in India
Jaromil at NID in Ahmedabad
Audio Link, Jaromil: Trains in India
Features of Dyne:bolic such as those described above are the result of Jaromil's political and creative development philosophy. Jaromil's explicit goal when writing a software such as Dyne:bolic can be summarised by the term "empowerment" although he himself would probably not use such a strong term which originally was connected in a very particular way with the Black American civil rights movement but has now been hijacked by much less noble causes. In order to be able to give people the chance to empower themselves Jaromil needs to find out their actual needs. The philosophy and concept behind Dyne:bolic has been developed through extensive travelling in India and Palestine. "Crossing borders" and allowing himself to be thrown off balance by actual events in real life are an important source of inspiration for Jaromil. As much as anybody else he would like to be surrounded by beautiful country side and nothing else to be able to fully concentrate on the creative task, he recognises that this would not necessarily bring the best results. Therefore he goes to zones of urban struggle and decides to live in an active squat in Amsterdam (there are squats which are just places to live cheaply and other squats which participate actively in a politicised squatter scene). This goes right to the heart of Jaromil's political philosophy. He sees the need to find out about "the dirty fights in Babylon". Although he devotes a significant time of his life to writing code, he always thinks outside the box and is equally concerned with real spaces, real situations, real people. As this keeps his sensibility sharp he is aware that "software" first and foremost, "changes the world of software." Thus, while it is his explicit goal to write software which in the long term changes the world, he is aware of the limitations of what software can do. For those reasons he also opposes the notion of the 'lab'. "There are already enough labs in the world," according to Jaromil. He takes his inspiration from those people whom he would like to see use his software and he tries to develop it and make it available in such a way that he can give something back to those communities. There is also a particular economics involved in this. As Jaromil lives in a squat he needs very little money to survive. By being an active squatter he seeks to make free living spaces available for other people as well. And by writing free software he seeks to create free spaces for expression, spaces in which a gift economy can blossom.6,7
GCC saved my life - The Political Economy
Audio Link, Jaromil GCC Saved my Life
The creative philosophy is also underpinned by an explicit political thinking informed by Marx. Jaromil links free software with Marx' concept of the ownership of the means of production. He defines himself as "an artisan, who is not paid but who is free to do what he thinks is right," and who is also "free to give away his intellectual production." His breakthrough moment came when he realised that with GNU/Linux he had not only a free operating system but also a free compiler. Up until then he had to use cracked versions of commercial compiler software. Programming languages such as C need to be 'compiled' into machine readable zeros and ones in order to work on a machine. Having had to use a pirated copy of the expensive industry standard C compilers of the past was a serious impediment for the dissemination of his software. Even though the software was one hundred percent his brainchild, he could not distribute it because of the compiler bottleneck. Richard Stallmans GNU project had created the GNU C Compiler, GCC, a formidable tool which was a real breakthrough for free software. From that moment onward artisan programmers such as Jaromil are able to own as individuals everything that they need to do their work.
Another important aspect of that is also the availability of cheap or free internet bandwidth and free server hosting facilities. Creative hacker communities and sometimes also partly publicly funded small netculture initiatives have since the early nineties worked hard to keep free and independent hosting facilities open which are neither under corporate nor government control. On such small server farms free software projects can run their version control systems, repositories for code which allow programmers to share development tasks and keep the development threads in an orderly manner. GNU/Linux, the gcc compiler and free hosting platforms give independent developers 100% control over their projects.
Audio Link, Jaromil I am an Artisan
Historically, the development of significant new technologies was only possible by huge initial investments. In the world of software a real "revolution" has happened insofar as those entry barriers have been removed and through free software a free space for creativity has been established. This free space is constantly threatened through the misguided policies of governments whose only aim is to protect the oligarchy of industry incumbents. The sad irony is that while most governments will publicly proclaim that it is their highest goal to support the "creative industry" they stick to restrictive intellectual property policies which threaten the creative freedom which has already been established through free software and the internet.
The political 'program' which is inscribed in Jaromil's development philosophy devolves power from dominant market forces and creates new non-markets in which a creative gift economy can happen. Insofar Jaromil is exemplary for many politicised free software programmers who do not just write any software - for instance also the US military supports 'open source' software - but who explicitely engage in software projects which increase the freedom of creative nonmarket spaces (cf. Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks). Significant projects of a similar kind are for example the content management systems Drupal and Joomla. Written collectively by thousands of programmers, they give work to tens of thousands of internet developers who make hundreds of thousands of websites for small businesses, arts organisations, civil society organisations. The code itself is free also as in gratis but it is the basis for a significant economy to evolve which gives many people paid work. While the 'poetics' of Jaromils free software projects may reach and be fully understandable and usable only to a free software elite (at least that is a criticism which I often hear but do not actually share), he is in the process of becoming an iconic figure who inspires many others who set out on a similar path.
Interestingly, from a theoretic point, while industrialisation killed the jobs of many free artisans in the phase of primitive accummulation (when small artisanal production was turned into large scale industrial production) the new mode of commons based peer production on the nonmarket allows artisans such as Jaromil to be independent and yet create works which are of cultural and industrial significance. This may signal a true paradigm shift in the political economy of highly developed (or rather "newly de-industrialised"?) countries. A further important point in that regard is that while in the past the direction of future technological development was taken behind closed doors by the Power Elites (cf. C.W. Mills) now independent developers without any significant financial capital base can decide which turn technological development can take in a key economic area such as ITC. While the speed of development in this area is unprecedent - software projects such as Drupal or the GNU/Linux based operating system Ubuntu have 6 monthly update cycle - it may also hint that the strong intellectual property protection policies adapted across other industries are in fact crippling and only help to stay old fashioned business models and a compromised system of non-representational pseudo democracy in power.
- 1. Peter Ludlow, 1996. High Noon on the Electronic Frontier: Conceptual Issues in Cyberspace.MIT Press
- 2. A detailed account of the Italian BBS and hacker scene can be found in Phrack Magazine and in the book Italian Crackdown by Carlo Gubitoso
- 3. With similar instances I refer to interviews with other free software developers which I have been recording since spring 2006, where this aesthetic side of love-at-first-sight with GNU/Linux was also mentioned by the interviewees
- 4. cf. Interview with Ian Morrison, unpublished, part of the same series of interviews
- 5. Both Tony Mobily and Jaromil were part of Metro Olografix; Jaromil later joined Freaknet. The Italian hacker scene, similar to the Spanish scene, is very differently configured than the Northern and Western European scene with a much closer proximity between hackers and social movements and issues ranging from migration to queer and gender politics. The Italian book, Spaghetti Hacker, by Stefano Chiccarelli gives detailed insight into the subject area.
- 6. cf. my essay Roots Culture (2004) deals already with some of the political and cultural issues which Jaromil links with free software writing.
- 7. .
2005. Roots Culture: Free Software Vibrations "inna Babylon". How Open is the Future? Economic, Social & Cultural Scenarios inspired by Free and Open Source Software..