Reflections on Rural Wireless: Sarantaporo

Mt. Olympus in clear view, for free and without a penthouse.

The Area Around Mt. Olympus

When the unMonastery visited Sarantaporo and the surrounding villages during the eponymous Symposium, it became clear that the overall population of the area of is in decline. There are very few children since many young families are moving to the cities for work. People who originate from these villages often return in the summer, but there seems to be a disproportionate amount of pensioners who actually remain in the area as permanent residents.

Some writers claim there is a trend of young people moving “back to the countryside” all over Greece, but the numbers are still too insignificant to really call it an exodus as many news sources would have it. And there is a good reason why that exodus hasn’t begun…

The Wireless Testbed

The project in Sarantaporo presents an interesting situation. The main narrative is that this commons based Internet infrastructure is creating community, but that is not the reason why the non-profit received funding from the CONFINE consortium. If you read the call that won, it was to create a testbed. And that is what is there: a testbed nestled in foothills of Mount Olympus.

Now what is meant to happen in this testbed? That is the experiment. The network is supposed to be like FUBU: “for us, by us”, but the fact is that the tech-guys from (who live in major cities in Greece and elsewhere in the world) can only go so far in providing services to the local residents. The village inhabitants need to meet them halfway.

The main node of the network, connecting Sarantaporo to the the Internet.

During a “round table” discussion with some of the local residents (literally around a table laden with local delicacies), we heard their impressions of this network. The things they were saying were not promising. Many saw the network as a way of simply providing Internet. To check FB, etc. Others did not take the “commons” approach very seriously, stating that they are ready to cut off Internet from people who don’t participate enough, or even if they are disliked by someone else in the village.

Towards the end of the discussion I heard something very promising: “One of the farmers wants to use the network to install video cameras to monitor his animals.” -and that is when everything clicked. That sounds like an experiment, like something you would deploy in a testbed, that also sounds like it came from the community and not from the technologists. It sounds like they might just possibly be answering the call of CONFINE and that sounds like success. Why?

The meeting with the locals, far outnumbered by the curious visitors.

Misconceptions about Country Life

The problem with the so-called exodus “back” to the countryside is that not many people (especially young ones) can hack it. Many return to the city, go abroad, or just give up within months of their “escape”. Very few are actually successful at running a farm. If running a farm was easy, why are so many experienced farmers worldwide abandoning their land and heading to urban environments?

Many of the people associated with unMonastery dream of spending more time in the country. But being in the country means even less free time than you have now. Being in the country is oppressive, even if you have high speed Internet. But what if it was easier?

The farmers in Sarantaporo complain of not having enough time to learn the intricacies of their own network. Their lives are hard, they would like to understand networking better, but they barely have time to finish all their work. What if the network could give them more time?

The Network of IoT Farm Apparatus

The testbed could be developed further toward this end. Just that little idea of the farmer monitoring his sheep could be the beginning of everything. An Open Source IoT farm, running on the testbed, could alleviate some of the time constraints of agricultural work. It starts with an animal monitoring system. Now the people tending the animals doesn’t have to wake up at 3:30 in the morning to check, they can sleep in.

From there you go to telemetry to manage water resources communally. Then you can have automated feeding and irrigation systems, again running on the testbed, again freeing more time. Data can be collected about these activities, not by Facebook, but by the community, and that “data commons can make all the farms in the area more efficient. They can see what crops are best to plant and where to plant them.

Corporate farming companies are already working on this technology for large scale industrial farms. Why are so few people working on open source solutions that can fight global hunger in a distributed, decentralized way that profits people instead of shareholders?

One man from an ecovillage in the neighboring region rattled off a list of needs as soon as he heard of the Sarantaporo network:

“We could use this technology to coordinate harvests, coordinate with local markets to see what to produce, and at what price. To coordinate with mills for pressing and for processing facilities. To manage the canning facilities, to create a collective brand, to crowdfund instead of using banks. To share tractors! Every farmer has their own tractor and can barely afford it.”

Technology like Origin could also be deployed to make the best use of meteorological conditions in order to produce renewable energy (very windy on Mt. Olympus). You can monitor rainfall and sunshine more precisely with a sensor network, you can share that data with all the members of the community and optimize resource allocation based on changing local needs. Isn’t this the kind of data that derivatives traders would kill for?

Commodities exchange trading floor, where profits on agricultural products are determined.

Community data can be open while creating autonomy and value for the producers of the data. But all that data is useless unless the right filter is applied to it, and only the locals can create that filter.

Local and Global Commons

And that is the commons part of the project. The network initially started as a conduit for learning and exploration which was deployed by external experts. If the the local users can maintain a steady investment of time in order to better understand their system, then they might be able to govern and develop the network without outside help and create their own IT solutions that we can’t even imagine yet. But that seems to be the sticking point for progress. Locals need more time to learn the system in order to improve it, but an improved system is needed before locals will have time to invest in learning it. This is what Dante called a contrapasso.

If tangible progress is eventually made, then it could be exported. Using open source hardware and software means that Sarantaporo’s approach can be replicated in other rural areas quite cheaply. The whole network infrastructure for Sarantaporo was around €20,000. Divided by all the users it comes out to a few Euros per person per year.

There is a developing market for this technology as well. Individuals around Europe are increasingly designing their own hardware that’s suited to their specific needs. The online marketplace Tehnoetic, which aims to be the “Amazon” of open source, specializes in selling items that “respect user freedoms.”

Semi-Detached Farmers

Now some people from unMon I’ve talked to say, “That’s awful, you’re just going to have the farmers sitting in front of their computers all day.” This is an interesting point, especially since early consumerists were sold household appliances throughout the 50’s and 60’s because they were convinced it would give them more free time. Where did all that time go? They had to get jobs to pay for the appliances!

The nerve center of Sarantaporo, located in Achilles basement.

Perhaps making such “improvements” to independent farms could result in an over abundance of couch potatoes hitting the market. People might find themselves with more free time as their farms increase in productivity. They might spend more of that free time on FB, but I think people should be able to choose how to spend their time. If they want to sit in front of a computer, that’s their prerogative. If you spend most of your day sitting in front of a computer, why can’t a farmer? There is also a big difference between slacktivists in the city and in the country: the latter isn’t dependent on anyone else for their food.

Global Agriculture Under Threat

The point is that if we zoom out and look at what’s happening in global agribusiness, we see that all available arable land around the world is being snapped up by investors. If you are worried about GMO crops, industrial farming, indigenous seed extinction, and all that jazz then this should be of concern to you.

Why is this land for sale in the first place? because all the farmers are leaving it! Why are investors buying it? because it’s dirt cheap and no one else wants it. Why buy all this land? how else will you produce food for exploding urban populations? How will you keep so many people dependent on this industrial grade hog slop? By owning all the land and keeping autonomous humans off it!

So we are back to the original problem: everyone wants natural, organic, locally grown food, but no one wants to actually produce it. People prefer to abandon the countryside, and that is the exodus that’s really happening.

It’s like a continuation of the enclosures except now there’s no more land to be kicked off of; we’ll simply to be herded into the cities.

The people in Sarantaporo kept saying to us, “We need more people to come here.” They don’t realize it yet, but they might have some of the tools in their hands to make that happen. If people start playing around with the network and making their farms a bit more automated, then farming might appear more attractive to those fleeing their fields.

It’s already happening in other places. In Japan the world’s first fully automated farm plans to open soon. It is projected to more than double production for the vegetable producer Spread. Another dairy farm in France got international attention when it announced it was fully automated.

Standing Their Ground

However there needs to be a balance between automation and job security, too much innovation can lead to job losses. That’s exactly what happened during the Industrial Revolution in Italy when the introduction of farm machinery created mass unemployment. It is also considered to be one of the contributing factors to the rise of fascism.

However it’s also been shown that automation increases employment, and if people can live in the countryside, have healthy food, and also have time to spend with their families and kids, then why should they leave? And with all the IT work there is to do, there might be positions opening up for new people to move in. Maybe the Open Source Ecology people might be interested as well.

But let’s ask another question: how will independent farmers compete with automated industrial farms in the future? Will they be forced to buy patented seeds, pesticides, machinery and software at extortionate rates rates in order to survive? Or will they too leave their land like so many in the developing world have already done?

In Syria, people living in cities under siege have used gardening, food sovereignty, and heritage seeds to resist domination by the Assad Regime. The 15th Garden enables people to resist by producing their own food.

Abdallah Al Shaar from the 15th Garden in Syria presents the project abroad. The 15th Garden uses any available land to produce food for people starving in cities under siege by Assad. Depriving people of food should not be a weapon.

The wireless network in Sarantaporo could be quite revolutionary as a form of resistance to global capital’s land grabbing and industrial agriculture: if by using open source hardware and software independent farming can be made to be less oppressive and incite more people make the “exodus to the countryside” (or just not leave in the first place), then you might be able maintain some autonomy within the global food chain. Hell, maybe the pensioners can even run the farms remotely from their tablets using FarmBots. Either way, it’s just the beginning, especially since just qualified for the Ashoka Impact Program in Greece.

Coincidentally, for anyone who might be interested in helping to hack away at these solutions, there happens to be an abandoned schoolhouse (no kids = no school) in one of the villages. Please see the pictures for inspiration. Maybe there is an unMonastery hiding in there.