never (lilmissnever) wrote,

We Stood Beneath an Amber Moon

Rio is a party town. It's beaches and tourists and don't-look-at-the-favelas. Rio is not a place where anyone works, presumably because all of the work in Brazil is done in the considerably less picturesque city of Sao Paolo. There are 18 million people in Sao Paolo, living in a sort of endless maze of high-rise buildings--downtown without end. Sao Paolo is warm and cheap and smoggy and grey. The traffic is a thing of legend. I was warned to set aside an hour and a half to get to the airport. Sao Paolo is Brazil's Los Angeles.

I am there to talk about threat modeling to a group of mostly young, most Portuguese-speaking proto-geeks, and the occasional privacy policy nerd from Germany in a cultural center with a rooftop garden that reminds me of the High Line in New York. My jokes about the profound inconvenience of privacy veganism go over well in Sao Paolo. It is almost impossible to get a meal here that does not include steak. We spend a lot of time talking about how to disarm the "If I've done nothing wrong, I have nothing to hide" argument. I talk a lot about the history of my Mysterious Workplace. We have animated conversations about how to do impact litigation in Brazil, which is alive and well in the land-protection and environmental movements, but hasn't quite caught on in tech law.

Brazil has a lot of government support for open source projects. They have historically opposed US efforts to shove the worst aspects of American copyright law down other countries' throats. The Dilma administration has also been vocal in its opposition to the NSA's mass surveillance programs, forming a sort of axis with Germany, where Angela Merkel is equally unamused. We are not in complete agreement on all issues. Brazil's constitution has some alarming limits on anonymous speech. Many of the activists speaking at the event are more concerned with getting people to stop using Facebook and Google products than they are with fighting unchecked government surveillance. I politely refrain from having these arguments with my hosts, though I do introduce them to the theory of harm reduction, which I have blatantly stolen from sex and drug education. You can tell people to stop using Facebook. You can even try to build non-centralized, open source alternatives to Facebook. But what the hell are you going to do when people just keep on using Facebook anyway--give up on them?

This being Carmen San Diego.

At night, we go to house parties. We go clubbing. The Paulistas take us to a samba club that doesn't even open until midnight. The DJ plays songs from the North and everyone sings along with their hands in the air. I suspect this is the local equivalent of everyone singing along to Journey. At 4 am the dance floor is still completely packed. I am covered in sweat. In Brazil, people make eye contact with strangers on the dance floor. They will reach out and touch you and smile and dance with you even if you don't speak the same language. The Germans dance like they're about to invade Poland.

On my day off, one of the conference organizers takes me around the city, mostly around Libertad, which is the Asian immigrant neighborhood--originally Japanese but now increasingly Chinese. We walk through Japanese tea gardens and a Sunday market and an indoor market linked by endless escalators, where the stalls sell bootleg anime, tee-shirts with the names of metal bands, and custom-made cosplay costumes. My host informs me that on the weekends, you can find cosplayers all up and down the escalators. We walk through the Italian immigrant neighborhood and see some of the very last old houses that hadn't been torn down and replaced with high rises. We walk down Paulista Ave., Sao Paulo's grandest boulevard, past stalls selling antiques and vendors selling fresh corn and protestors who want better pay for teachers (they've been protesting for a month, at least) and an "art intervention" that consists of women in multi-colored masks, carrying signs and marching in slow motion, like butoh dancers. He tells me about traveling around Brazil, hitching rides on army helicopters and about wanting to see Scotland and about being jailed and having his arm broken in a dozen places for protesting. You see these fingers? I cannot feel anything.

No one has ever thrown me in jail for protesting. Police have never mangled my body for standing up to the government. I'm glad he likes Information Society and sushi and has opinions about Game of Thrones and can sing all of the words to Bohemian Rhapsody, but my life suddenly feels very small. The trouble with Sao Paolo is that it feels like Los Angeles. It feels familiar and comfortable, if a bit vast. But it's only a trick, a pleasant trick for rich tourists. This isn't Los Angeles at all.
Tags: brazil, carmen san diego, mysterious workplace, sao paolo

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