Digital Culture, Brazil and the Virtual Pistolâo

[Partial] Review of The Throes of Democracy: Brazil since 1989 – Brian McCann

Studies of internet use in the South rarely come from outside a small circle, so it is worth examining The Throes of Democracy. Written by Latin American historian Brian McCann, it analyses Brazil’s emerging digital culture as one strand within processes of democratisation in Brazil. In line with the book’s wider argument, McCann presents two views of digital culture, celebrating it as a force for democracy, whilst examining the “corroding forces” which limit the potential of this new media channel.

McCann argues that ICTs and digital culture can be seen to have “reconfigured Brazil’s market” and this has led to a new vibrant network of active citizens. Nor is this happening only within the middle classes, thanks to the government’s support for telecentros which link the peripheries and favelas. Emerging from this digital culture, McCann sees promising examples of citizenship and democratic practice such as the popular interactive crime blogging of Jorge Antonio Barros, and the regional cultural sharing on the site Overmundo. In a wider context, online spaces like Orkut and LAN games, break real-life social barriers for the poorest through participating in online networks.

However, McCann also sees trends that connect this new media into less positive histories. For example, Overmundo is rightly lauded as an “innovative cultural endeavour that draws participation”. But when digging deeper things are not so black and white. The site founder Hermano Vianna is a consultant for the Brazilian TV programme Central da Periferia shown on the much maligned Globo chain, and McCann sees Overmundo as essentially part of the conveyor to produce talent for this show. Additionally Overmundo cannot be seen in the purely entrepreneurial model of new media: it received a $1m grant from Brazillian oil giant Petrobas, as part of the Rouanet Law, a way for corporations to reduce taxes through cultural sponsorship.

McCann uses the Brazilian figure, the pistolâo to explain his critique. In the job market the pistolâo is a powerful figure, who through recommendation can open up paths for those unemployed. The virtual pistolâo operates the same way, for those less connected in the new media world. Often from a family within the upper echelons of society or celebrity, the virtual pistolâo is an eminently conservative figure, with an eye on reputation and retaining cultural sponsorship. The control and nepotism that plague other sectors of Brazilian society can be seen to be seeping into digital culture through the virtual pistolâo. For a hip-hop group like Cidinho e Doca this means moving away from proibidão, the controversial (but one could argue genuine) voice born in the favelas, in order to maintain the support of the virtual pistolâo, placate the sponsors and remain within the system.

In the rest of his book McCann highlights the importance to democracy of outsiders who break through such hierarchical structures; whether that be the left-wing leaders who eventually came to power, the rise of the landless movements and even the drug gangs. So it is surprising that he seems to underplay the importance of such groups within digital culture, in particular the less hierarchical and vibrant activist networks. These groups have been voicing similar critiques for a number of years and their work seems to offer a basis to move beyond McCann’s virtual pistolâo.

In sum, McCann’s work is very useful in that it tries to understand technology use within a local historical domain, something not often considered within ICT4D. From such a vantage point it is easier to analyse the effects of ICTs, and in particular to see if the introduction of ICTs simply reinforces societal norms or brings genuine change.

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