I am beginning the writing of the article in arboreal shade in the botanical gardens of Curitiba (pronounced Kur-ih-CHEE-bah), in southern Brazil.
Like many Yukoners, I am in temporary retreat from the cold realities of winter; but, unlike most Yukoners, my seasonal retreats have, for the most part, been to the same country, Brazil.
One reason for this is personal: My wife currently lives in Sao Paulo, where she works in a university library and completes a course of study in library science.
The other reason is techno-social. Since I first travelled to Brazil, almost eight years ago, I have been fascinated with its social and technological problems and accomplishments, and drawn back again and again to see what is changing and what is staying the same.
For me to say I have seen and comprehended all the changes in a country as huge as Brazil (more than 190 million people, occupying a land area almost as big is the continental USA) would of course be silly.
But the small store of observations I have accumulated from the place over these years has served me well, at times, when I think about how technology, economics and sociology interact in the world in ways beyond the comfortable ken of so many Canadians.
There is a famous, self-deprecating saying in Brazil: “Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be.”
Both the humour and the disillusionment of that little joke are characteristically Brazilian.
Blessed with an enormous range of natural and human resources, the country has also been cursed with an economic and social history of alternating highs and lows.
To say its national fortunes have bounced like a rubber ball is more than a cliche, in this case, since Brazil was the original source of rubber in the world.
The rubber boom was the country’s main source of wealth from around the time of the Yukon’s gold rush until the early decades of the 20th century, when competitors appeared and that rubber-based economy collapsed – this in spite of the fact that it was the era of burgeoning automobile production and demand for the pneumatic tire.
Nevertheless, in the period following the Second World War, there was a general feeling that both Brazil and Argentina were slated to become powerful world economies.
Both prophecies proved false, as the two countries, with their crippling social divisions, collapsed into social chaos, followed by severe military authoritarianism for many decades.
Simplistically speaking, both countries had relied excessively on foreign export markets for their products – beef for Argentina, sugar and coffee for Brazil – which left them dependent on the vagaries of the international economy, and also on the availability of the cheap labour, and, hence, a large class of working poor.
While Argentina continues to welter in this problem (it has a smaller population and therefore a smaller internal economy), Brazil, over the past 20
years, has consistently focused on developing technological industries – avionics, petrochemicals and the like.
Jobs in these sectors demand skilled, educated workers, and pay much better than the sugar cane and coffee industries.
The outcome of this, despite the ongoing problems with crime, poverty, and political corruption, has been a consistent rise in the general standard of living, an increase in the size and affluence of the middle class, and, as a consequence of those two things, a more functional internal economy.
Brazil is now in a position to weather out economic storms like the recent Great American Meltdown, because it has an internal market and local relative prosperity that make it less dependent on raw commodity exports.
These changes have been visible on the street to me with repeated visits over the past eight years.
When I first arrived, in the summer of 2003, Brazil was a much cheaper place to travel in, because the local currency was worth around 40 cents Canadian.
Today, the “real” stands at around 63 cents on the dollar (after factoring in service charges at the money exchange) – a better than 50 per cent increase.
In Sao Paulo, the underground metro system has been greatly expanded, and the city bus system vastly improved from the blurry, crowded chaos I encountered on my first visit.
It is commonplace, now, to see people walking around with cell phones (which were visible, but not anything like commonplace, on my first visit); teenagers there, as here, are oblivious to their surroundings as the compulsively text each other.
(An interesting side-observation, here. I noticed—and which my wife confirms it – that, in Brazil, Apple’s iPod and iTunes do not reign supreme in the cell or MP3 player market. Apple’s product prices are too high for the frugal Brazilians; and Brazilians have too free-booting a spirit to become enslaved to the iTunes buck-a-song larceny.)
Brazil continues to be a chaotic, unpredictable, sometimes enervating place, but that is part of its fascination.
Like the London of Charles Dickens’ time, Sao Paulo is a crowded, unkempt, sometimes dangerous place.
But, again like the London of Dickens’ time, it is, at least potentially, the seed ground for a more equitable, prosperous and peaceful country in the future.
I wouldn’t bet all my Brazilian “reals” on it, but it is just possible that, out of this current flux of events, the words “order and progress,” which are featured on the Brazilian flag, might one day be a description of a current condition, not the mendacious flap-doodle it has too often been to date.
It is possible, just possible, the future may, one day soon, arrive in Brazil.
Rick Steele is a technology
junkie who lives in Whitehorse.