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IT's foot soldier

Denis Jaromil is unusual. His possessions: a backpack and a laptop. He writes software, distributes it free, and allows others to edit and sell it too



Denis Jaromil Rojo: `Free software is a good way to not depend on foreign companies.' — Photo: Murali Kumar K.

DENIS `JAROMIL' Rojo is as unconventional as one can get. He is an artist (multi-faceted); free software programmer, a Rastafarian, a social worker, and is a squatter on a vacant plot in Amsterdam. And his ideas are radical. An Italian, Jaromil is a member of the fast-growing tribe that believes the future belongs to free software. He is in India right now to convince NGOs to use free software instead of spending public money to make multinational corporations rich.

"Today, every operating system comes with a free music player; but to produce music, you must buy a producer. This is a consumerist approach that tries to shape society. So, I produce software that is free and comes with producers and players. Free software is a good way to not depend on foreign companies. In NGO work especially, public money can be invested in free software that will contribute to generate local employment," he argues.

Jaromil himself was a victim of big-eat-small when his family's small computer shop in Pescara, Italy, went bankrupt due to stiff competition from multinational chains. "I have been working with computers since I was 12 years old. When our shop closed down, I tried to do some programming myself. But compilers and source codes were too expensive. That's when my friend introduced me to GNU/Linux (free software) and I have been hooked ever since. I realised that I could study freely," he says. He has even gone on to release his own version of GNU/Linux called Dynebolic which features advanced audio and video editing tools, and is completely free. "The beauty of free software is that you can edit it, copy it, and even sell it, and the only thing you need to do is give credit to the developers who have put in work before you," he says.

Programming is not the only thing Jaromil does. He has studied Communication Sciences and Journalism, and earns his living as an Artist in Residence at the National Institute for Media Art, Amsterdam. He is a member of www.net-art.org, a web-based issue portal, and a founding member of Olografix.org, an NGO that teaches people how to use informatics better.

"I keep swinging between programming and social issues. I develop my software under the name Rastasoft because I'm a Rastafarian and I want people to use my software free of cost. People must exchange data freely over a network and also be able to edit source codes. My most memorable experience is when I wrote about Palestinian culture without mentioning war even once. I travelled across the territory documenting everything that was not war," he says.

And why does he squat? "My only possessions in my life are my backpack, the old laptop and the clothes that I wear. Dutch law says if a place is free for a year or more you can occupy it. It is a basic human right. Plus the owner doesn't have to pay taxes if people are squatting on his property. And when you squat, you meet different people. Cultures mix. Our group of squatters runs an organisation called ASCII that recycles old computers that the local community can use," adds Jaromil, who has very strong political views on everything from war to software.

He is especially severe on Richard Stallman, the founder of GNU. "Richard Stallman is a capitalist. He is a very good friend of mine but doesn't take a clear position," he argues.

But the big question remains. Can free software offer Indian programmers the same kind of pay that global companies are now able to offer? "Yes. Probably not a lot of money, but sufficient. But most important thing is that the money stays in the community. You build software that serves your needs and you fix the problems yourself. Local people solve local problems. Indian engineers are immensely talented. Instead of contributing to some corporation in North America, they can contribute to their local needs," he says.

And as a final note of caution, he adds: "We need to be careful because people are playing nasty tricks on free programmers. We are even being infiltrated by people sponsored by the (global) companies. But whatever free software is the future."

For more information on Dynebolic visit www.dyne.org and for any queries on free software email jaromil@dyne.org.

ANAND SANKAR

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