Bugs
Yesterday, I had a meeting with some of the Italian Indymedia community at a squat. In most countries squatters are considered criminals and local law has very little tolerance for them. In Italy, the squat scene is the center of a lot of the sub-culture and alternative media. After years of resistance, many of the squats on property which was owned by the local government have been officially recognized by the municipalities in various degrees. The squats have events including debates and parties. They have kitchens, living quarters, and in the case of the squat I went to last night, a computer lab (called "hacks" this one named "bugs") that teaches people how to switch from Microsoft to Linux and allows free Internet access to anyone who wants to drop by.

After the chat in the bugs hack, we went to dinner at a centro sociale called Casale Podere Rosa. It was similar to a squat except the people don't live there. The place we went to was on the upscale end. The food was excellent and they had lots of posters and pamphlets describing the organic farming methods they used to grow their produce.

Internet penetration in Italy is quite low and the Berlusconi media machine controls most of what people see. On the other hand, the left wing are fighting hand and fist (literally) with the right wing radicals. Free speech was something that people were fighting for, in many cases outside of the law. At a tactical level, my discussion about freedom of expression and our "Infrastructure of Democracy" idea of fighting bad speech with more good speech sounded a bit idealistic. What was interesting to me was the power and the energy of the alternative media movement. It reminds me of my theory on good alternative music. When there is a huge force pressing down on freedoms, sub-cultures with more creativity and power are likely to form.

39 Comments

I remember traveling in Italy as an exchange student in 1998 and thinking, "Gee, my ancestors were so advanced and now we are so far behind?"

Interesting how in Europe there is the same North-South division as in the rest of the world, yet Italy is also an industrialized country...

Non c'e male et va bene, Joi!

I live in Amsterdam, a very wired city, also obsessed with cycle transport, also very tolerant towards squatting. A squatter group named ASCII has come up with a mobile wireless cybercafe which can be deployed instantly from a bicycle ("bakfiets", n.e.) in a squatted location :-)

technically speaking, squatters are considered criminals in Italy too; the main difference is that down there the law is not quite enforced as one would expect ;) I suppose it's something to do with seeing every day the difference between the Catholic Church "rules" (the poor will go to heaven, only etherosexual monogamy is allowed, sainthood, etc etc) and the actual reality (horribly rich churches, homosexual bishops, corrupted heaven-for-money practices) through the ages... still, I found so hard to live in Italy that I moved away.

Yes. The "rule of law" feels more like just another tool, rather than something holy. It's harder to describe Creative Commons in the this context, but focusing on the communication of the intent of the artist at least makes some sense.

" the main difference is that down there the law is not quite enforced as one would expect . . ."

Come to Brazil. I guess us folks in "San Paolo" can blame our Italian heritage for that? :-P

As someone who has organized with Indymedia it is always interesting to watch when the digerati and blog community intersects with social movements. Lessig's trip to the World Social Forum was another good example of this. There is a vibrant community that has been fighting for social change under the information freedom banner for many years. Particaptory journalism, rejection of strong copyright culture, developin world solidarity, structural critique of the mainstream media, etc, etc. Indymedia has been doing it since Seattle in 1999 and yet it barely registers on most digerati's radar. Occassionally Dan Gilmour or Howard Rheingold will hold there noses when mentioning Indymedia but even that is pretty rare.

Its been particularly ironic as some blogging communities have adopted Indymedia's taglines ("Media revolution", "Become the media", "Ourmedia", etc) but without as complete a political media critique. Given how little experience there appears to be with organizing for social change in the blogging / digerati community I find this pretty surprising. To my mind there's a lot that they have to learn from projects like Indymedia. Its good to see that there is some listening going on.

Joi - have you read God Emperor of Dune? The premise is related to what you describe - an emperor who opresses the people in order to induce them to rise up and create a more thriving culture.

Unrelated to Indymedia but related to Italy, another book recommendation: "Midnight in Sicily" by Peter Robb. It was recommended to me by a number of people in Japan who said that there were many parallels between Sicilian and Japanese postwar history. So far it is fascinating...

This oh-so-clever discussion conveniently ignores the Art Historical record, which shows that the last significant art movement to come from Italy was Futurism, a movement which explicitly supported Facism. The movement came to a rather abrupt end when most of the major Futurists joined the Italian Army and got killed in WWI.

Just do not believe their evil/saint stories.
In Italy there is good and bad on both sides and italians tend always to believe in a "complot theory". Being it a government complot or a right wing or a left wing .... or even a parents' complot. This makes life so complicated ans stressed.
Appreciate the energy, but do not waste time in the intent.

BTW I did not leave italy because it is impossible to live there (so far the countries I have been did not prove to be better at all, only different if not less friendly), but because I am chasing my dreams.

Francesco, I didn't get what you're talking about. I don't see any conspiracy theory being discussed here :)

Charles, futurism was a remarkable movement, but it happened beween WWI and WWII :) Official art in Italy has not really been good ever since... the best artists went to do advertising and design for a living, and especially in the latter field I'd dare say Italy is still producing very good stuff.

akb, you make a great point. I'd say this happened because Indymedia didn't manage to really "harness the web power". Look at the various Indymedia sites, to me they look too much like 1995-style Slashdot-ish community news sites. They are not pushing innovation on the web, rather the opposite. Hence, they managed to remain obscure. I know that there are so many nice web people that offered their help, let's hope that this situation will improve.

Well, the point of Futurism is not which war they got killed in (and I was trying to recall which war because the most active Futurist period I recall was in the 1920s and 1930s), but that the Futurist artists all thought war was a grand adventure, and they all got killed in the service of Facism.
The point being, Futurists served State power, while their European counterparts, the Dadaists, fled from State power, Facism and war; becoming stateless expatriates, and served as the model for future generations of uber-hipster artists and squatters who believe the value of an artist's work is proportional to its distance from State power. Too bad that the squatter artists don't realize they are still allowing State power to define their parameters.

My remark was only a worning in relation to the stories that go always around in "centri sociali" or squats.
It did not refer to any of the things metioned in the comments. Sorry for the confusion. It was not a comment in relation to Charles posting.
I have frequented squats while a student ... I just wanted to warn that their message might be a bit "very" italian.


"Free speech was something that people were fighting for, in many cases outside of the law"..."When there is a huge force pressing down on freedoms, sub-cultures with more creativity and power are likely to form."
Crap!
What kind of Italy have you seen? It's the usual one-way bullshit...

ma....

stop saying bullshit please! some peaple may belive you.

Many italian bloggers are expressing disappointment for the "scene" you reported (probably because the reporter was YOU, Joi Ito!). Actually things are different and, believe us, your idea of our country - something like Orwell's 1984 - is not accountable. Hope you do not blame us next time... Italy's not just good food and 4 stars hotels...

Escapista, panka and Leibniz, can you elaborate and explain a bit more? I don't understand "What kind of Italy have you seen? It's the usual one-way bullshit..." Please tell me more about the Italian scene.

I do not represent the Italian people, but I think some of the statements you made are incorrect. I (and probably most Italians) don't think that the "alternative media" movement (meaning the "centri sociali" and Indymedia) has got enough power to impress anyone. They do a lot of appreciable things, but they are too violent to be taken seriously.
And by violent I mean exactly that - gang war against neonazis is no fighting for free speech, it's just needing to beat up someone, on both sides.
I do like their "subculture", but that's probably just because I'm young. I think most leftwingers will agree with me that the way they act will do more harm than good to true free speech.

Thank you for the perspective dementrio. What do you think about my point about media consumption. I suppose bloggers might feel differently about their influence than the main stream media, but the TV people I talked to told me that Internet was not that strong in Italy and that most people were focused on television and that free speech on the Internet did not yet have much impact on the hearts and minds of the Italian people. Is this true?

In my opinion, yes, it's true. I wouldn't be able to find a reason for this though. Therefore it's true that people are focused on TV, but don't be fooled by that: Francesco talked about Italians always believing in some kind of government conspiracy, and that's also true. This means that it's hard for an average Italian to believe something that's said on TV. The problem is that in most cases this is not a critical approach to the mainstream media, which would be great. It's simply refusing any kind of idea that's not your own idea, and worst of all, in a passive manner (not trying to change things). This is the opposite of what happens in the states, where most people will blindly trust the government, and it's equally bad.
Of course, everything I wrote is my own opinion and, as you shouldn't judge Italy by its squats, you shouldn't judge it by this poorly-written opinion as well.

You don't really know what you're talking about Ito, next time you could meet with the local gangs and publish their view on the state of justice in Italy, that would be interesting. At beginning I thought your post was so naive that deserved no comments at all, but I saw a couple of comments that are not only misinformed but offensive other than completly bs. First, let's try to get some numbers straight: according to the latest EU data (February '05), internet penetration rate in Italy is about 49% of population which is not stellar but certainly not "very low", if you compare to 41,5% of France or 32,5 of Spain. UK is at 59%, which I would expect given that 80% of web content is in English.

Free speech: it is true that Berlusconi has an unparalleled media power, which is a problem (even if Berlusconi didn't came from Mars, he was elected and his conflict of interest and economic power in the communication industry was known to the voters well before the last elections), but is also true that our system is far from being limited as far as freedom of speech is concerned. We have a lot of improvement space as a country and get rid of Berlusconi next year will be the first step, but the picture of Italy that comes from your post is just plain ridicolous, a reader with a normal QI (not Paglione above) would think you were in Saigon or maybe Pyongyang, not really in Rome.

Regarding your line "the left wing are fighting hand and fist (literally) with the right wing radicals", maybe I live in another country or planet, but I don't see all this hand and fist activity around. I don't usually meet squatters though. I won't mention other bs I read regarding ars but I'd strongly suggest you to check you facts before writing about matters of which you are totally ignorant.

I agree with Carlo: the image of Italy you gave in your post is false. And some posts of the readers are insulting and totally groundless as well. I lived abroad for a long time and even now I'm not living in Italy (I live in Japan). That experiences made me realize that even if people around the world have often a wrong image of my country (always the stereotype pizza-mafia-mandolino) the reality is much different and much better. I'm not a nationalist and I acknowledge Italy is not perfect (for example we have Berlusconi), but I've never lived in a perfect place. I'd rather say that I've never lived in a better place (and I'm not only talking about the food or the weather).

Thanks for taking time to comment. It is true that I wrote the post out in a situation of great ignorance. The people I talked to in Italy were people involved in Digital Television broadcast, people from the squat scene and the "left", some academics, the art scene and people involved in alternative (traditional) media such as pirate TV/Radio. The sense that I got from the broadcasters when I kept asking about Internet, blogs and citizen media was that they didn't think the Internet had much of a role and that the TV was the key component of media consumption. They cited some figures to back this up. This came after a talk I gave about citizen media and blogging and the sense I got was that they thought it was "an American thing..." which of course was disappointing to me. The sense I got was that they would rather spend money rolling out digital terrestrial broadcast than trying to get more people on the Internet. I realize this is quite political and I was talking to people who had an interest in seeing terrestrial rolled out.

On the other hand, I talked to people from alternative media about Creative Commons. One of the biggest difficulties I faced in trying to convince them about the value of CC was that it was really based on law. When the rights collection agency has so much power, it was unclear what the value of something outside of that regime was worth. At the same time, some of the people told me that their main fear was having the nazis or the far right use their work, which is really a moral right issue. Anyway, the important thing was that many of these people seemed to feel that the Internet was not yet ready to mobilize the people. Also, they seemed to have had physically violent interactions in the past with government and the far right. I can't make a judgement on who started or who was right or wrong, but the conclusion that I came to based on the discussion was that at least for these people, if they are fighting to keep their squat where they were organising their movements and creating their media, it was clearly a different environment than the US where many of use are taking to their courts to fight for freedom and in some cases winning. Where the rule of law is our primary method.

I did see a great deal of interesting culture. The squats seemed to be providing help with people who wanted to learn about computers, creating venues for theater, debate and now even growing organic food and having markets where "normal families" came and enjoyed themselves. Not everyone seemed to be in the sqaut scene, but many normal people seem to think they were just fine. It seemed to me that a lot of the culture, at least in the squat scene, was being created despite government and as part of a sub-culture that was thriving in the process of resisting authority.

I realize that this is a pretty narrow view and I haven't met a scientificially random sample of Italians so can't generalize. I think the only generalization I made which I will happily retract if this is false is "Internet penetration in Italy is quite low and the Berlusconi media machine controls most of what people see." This was the sense I got from talking to the people I met. Is this not generally true?

I don't think I called Italy Orwellian. Is it the point about the lack of "rule of law"? Again, if this isn't true, can you point it out specifically? The general impression I got was that many people tended to ignore the rule of law.

Sorry, but I don't understand your point. What does it mean "to ignore the rule of law". Most of the squats (or "centri sociali") are legal in Italy, they've been assigned unused spaces by local municipalities and sometimes are funded by them. It is difficult to understand what you're referring to, as your writing is so vague, but I have a feeling you might refer to the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa. By the way there is a minority of "centri sociali" people which are violent and criminal and infiltrate anti-globalization demonstrations and, sometimes, there is a disproportionate use of force by police. In the case of G8, police officers who abused of force were prosecuted and condemned.

"Very low internet penetration rate in Italy" is a false statement, as I wrote above. You will easily find the latest data online, here is one of the many sources I found doing a simple search.

Your other propositions about tv and internet are pointless, of course people trust television more than internet, I don't think I should explain why. And, regarding to blogs, criticism I read around is based on the fact that too often bloggers write of matters they don't know at all or that they don't check facts and sources. I don't necessarily agree with this kind of criticism but your post is a perfect example of that attitude: you came in Italy for a couple of days, went in a squat, talked with a couple of activists or maybe criminals and not better identified "academics" and vented a couple of paragraphs about Italy, freedom of speech, low internet penetration, people that "tended to ignore" the rule of the law. Furthermore, which is even worse and confirm you don't have a clue, you're asking us for our facts. Maybe you should get *your* facts straight before writing.

By the way, you should check also your antispam plugin, as my comment was denied a couple of times for "questionable content".

Italy is not a country where we ingnore laws. We are like the chinese ina way. For them, everything is a matter of interpretation. The same can be said for us (even if not exactly in the same way). Actually, we "take things with a grain of salt" (hoping this makes sense in english). To say we do not follow rules, is not correct and expresses a strong judgement that might be based on simply cultural differences.
Apart from this, Italy is the country of the many truths. To get a real picture of what happens you have to talk to many people from the different parties. Everybody will tell a sligtly different story (the more extrememist ... very different like for the squats), but you will figure out the underlying truth in the end. It is like you gotta check a few medias before saying you know what happened.
This is still better than a president-driven media like somewhere else.
As for internet ... penetration is high, but it depends on where in Italy (which is by accident a very long country with still rural places ... luckily as they are wonderful). Internet is used a lot as a communication mean, but I am not sure about blog penetration. For sure we started later (I was still fighting with a modem when there was cable in US), but in the last months it is growing very fast. Other eurpean countries (like benelux) had the luxury of cable TV that helped (plus they are much smaller).
As for Berlusconi controlling the media ... not true, or we are ingnoring quite a few newspapers.
I agree with Andrea that there is a stereotype for Italy (and btw this is true for any country .... think of the italian stereotype for japanese) and that italy is not perfect. But there is not such a place that is perfect.

My advice for next time (as we met and I believe you had the best intentions): just listen to more parties and of different age also. Discussing with some italians abroad might also help (if the are in the 28-38 age range) to get a grip on the country.

Thanks thinkpex. I wasn't trying to say you don't follow laws completely. It just seemed that laws bend a bit more. The problem with that is people lose trust in the rule of law and things like Creative Commons which assumes fairly strict compliance to law are a little harder to use. I'm sorry if it sounded like I was saying you ignore laws. Of course you don't.

How strong is the Internet as a source of information for the average person? In the US, most people now have heard of blogs and a huge number of people read and trust blogs. Blogs, in the last year have been able to question and influence mass media and politics. Do blogs and other Internet media have influence? If so, how much? Do you have any studies? I would be really interested in anything in this area. My sense was the influence of the Internet media on the public was small, but as you say, it may have been biased by who I was talking to.

Do the majority of people ignore Berlusconi media? Is it normal to ignore Berlusconi media? What is the primary non-Berlusconi media and what sort of penetration does it have?

I will try to meet other groups of Italians when I visit next. I also don't like cultural stereotypes. I wasn't trying to reinforce the typical stereotypes in my post. I was merely reflecting on what people in Italy told me. Anyway, thanks for your added perspectives.

Carlo: Let me clarify my point about Internet penetration. The Internet has become strong enough in the US to take down a number of major main stream media journalists and blogs are considered a legitimate source of information by many. I was giving talks about the way that blogs in the US were putting pressure on main stream media and I was told that this was unlikely due to the "lack of Internet penetration" in Italy.

As for "ignore the rule of law..." Some of the people in the squats pointed out that they had to fight against the government who were not following in the rule of law. Now many are "legal" but this was after years of fighting. I do believe it is a matter of degree. Almost all government "bend the law" but when you start to break down the trust in the law by its citizens, you have a problem. Again, apologies for assertions from a small sample set, but several of the people I talked to in Italy didn't have a strong sense of trust in the rule of law.

I just realised the wrong nick came out.
I am sure there must be some studies on the influence of internet in Italy, but my guess would be that this depends on the age. As I mentioned before, I have the feeling that Italy has lagged behind, but it is catching up with the new generation (the now 20s). Mine is fine, but we are still slow in terms of blogs (and I just entered the 30s so I would be in the right generation in US).
As for the media, I did not mean we ignore them but we do not take what they say for granted. We tend to probe around for more sources. In a way, this should bring people to blogs once the trust is built. But as for how much trust in internet media is there, I might be the wrong person to address as I live outside and I have the feeling my trust/use of internet is quite high. Still, I have seen the shift even in my parents who are now buying and seeking news on internet. My bet is that in a year or two we will be there as well (if no strange law like the very strict italian privacy law is not created).
Therefore, I would say that your perception of the influence of internet is probably not too far from current reality. But this is changing rapidily and you might have not being able to perceive it.
As regards bending or mistrusting the rules ... well, it is also there. However, I have experienced a similar thing in other countries even if it is done differently. For example, I laught at the fact that american instructions must contain certain things to avoid being sued. Or the way law is used in Netherlands sometimes or the compromise approach in Belgium. BTW by saying we bend the rules I do not mean we break it. It is a matter of interpretation with "good sense". In the end we respect the rules, even if it might seem we do not to outsiders.

A final note, Italy belongs to that set of societies where people believe revolution (more than compromise or consensus) is the solution ... this is something that is reported in many famous cultural studies. These studies (within their lack of completeness) might also give an help in understanding the issue of bending the rules or enforcing a law or how media is used in interpreted.

Next time you pass by the Netherlands, instead of talking of Napoli we should talk of these things.

Btw if you have got a translation software on your cool powerbook, you wanna try to translate this article:

http://www.repubblica.it/2005/c/sezioni/scienza_e_tecnologia/ito/ito/ito.html

It is about an interview with you... they quote this phrase from you (I would be curious to know if it is true or it is another italian media fiction):

"A nice country even if I have the impression that the meaing of rules is lacking and that there is a sort of shared agreement that violating the law is normal and that law is a secondary thing that goes with the wind"

PS: I hope I got the translation right .... sorry otherwise.

I tried translating, but it is difficult to understand. I think the translation doesn't work that well.

It was a long interview so I'm not sure exactly what I said, but I probably said something similar to what I said in this blog post. On the other hand, the reporter's tape recorder wasn't working so I think it is based on her notes... As you point out, things are probably changing. The funny thing is, almost every Italian made jokes about or talked about how they thought laws had little meaning in Italy. On the other hand, it appears that many Italians are also quite angry with my comment about this.

I will add, that I think Japan also does not believe in the rule of law and in many ways is worse than Italy. I'm not criticizing Italy or trying to make the US look better.

I know. No need to say that, Ito. My post might have sound polemic or strong, but it was not.

What I normally say to people here is ... laught at half of what I say and believe the other half. It is not easy to see when we (italians) are serious when we are not ... this is the comment I received many times.
I am sure that Creative Commons can work in Italy as well. It is a matter of bringing the message in the proper format. Do not worry and enjoy India. Lovely people and lovely food ... depends on from where the chef in the restaurant comes from (at least as I prefer north-west Indian food).

Joi,
I'm not angry with you, I simply think that squatters are not a reliable source on which base an opinion. Many of them routinely violate the law so what should they say?

I have been told that people, at least in the blogosphere, trust your opinion so you more than others have the responsibility to be accurate. Stereotypes exist and there is nothing we can do about it but at the same time if you spread incorrect information based on what you have been told by non reliable sources in just a few days you're not providing a good service to your readers, even if I believe your intentions were fair.

A few notes on this.
While 49% of Italians have access to the Internet, many of them don't do very much with it -- based on my personal experience, e-mail and instant messaging have been AFAIK the killer app here, while the "language barrier" makes it difficult or impossible to browse international Web sites. Also, there are huge differences in connection quality depending on where you live -- in the center of a big town like Milan, you can even get in-house 10mbit optical fiber access, while just outside of it all you might get is 56k dial-up or 36k via cell phone/GPRS. Also "flat" subscriptions are quite costly (30€/month on 640k ADSL, for example), so most people prefer to only pay for the time they spend online, which only leads to limiting online time as much as possible.

While I agree on most commenters that squatters are not a reliable source (in the sense they do not represent average thinking), regarding the rule of law, I wish to point out our attitude at "condono" (I do not know the translation), i.e., when sometimes all people breaking a specific law are made innocent by another law (and by paying a little bit). This, perhaps, could be one meaning for "... law is a secondary thing that goes with the wind".

Also my comment was stopped by your antispam filter. I try again (some line about Berlusconi media):

Regarding the Berlusconi media, he directly controls about 45% of TV (and much more in terms of advertisement market) and eventually 45% as state TV, which could be considered to be influenced by him. By the way, after a law of some year ago, Rete4 is illegal and should pass on satellite, but it is still airing.
Some newspapers are owned by Berlusconi too, but it should be said that the most explicit supporters among them are not the bestsellers on the market.

Well, I isolated the sentence blocked by the filter, and it is one containing "freedom of speech"...

Thanks again for the additional comments. Carlo, the next time I visit Italy, I'll try to meet more people and get a more balanced view. I'll try to write something again about Italy after that. I realize some people are influenced by my blog, but this is really my notebook and diary and I really like having the freedom to write. I try as hard as I can to be fair and careful, but I would rather write something based on what I know, than not write. The comments regarding this post have educated me and taught me more about Italy than I knew before and I believe that people reading the comments will understand more as well.

Vincenzo: that is very funny.

Boris, can you see if "free speech" is in the banned words dictionary... or better yet, do you think we can just get rid of it?

A quickie .... apparently a TV movie is being prepared for stories of bloggers for the Italian TV. I wonder what will come out and what sort of (usual italian) discussions will this raise. Hopefully, something useful for the comunity.

I am afraid this will be the usual italian "boiata" (no way to translate this = read waste of wachters' time)

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