It’s a good time to ask what relationship there is between the small, very poor business that was born ten years ago and today’s Indies.
October second of this year will be the tenth anniversary of the Sociedad de las Indias Electrónicas, the founding business of the Grupo Cooperativo de las Indias. Even though it only had three members back then — Natalia Fernández, Juan Urrutia, and me — “the Indies,” as it soon became known, was the result of a long evolutionary process in the cyberpunk movement in Spanish. In fact, in 2002, Nat and I refounded Cyberpunk itself as an association in defense of civil rights on the net. We knew that, especially in the beginning, we would need a broad intellectual environment. The objective of the business was never to get rich, but rather to gain autonomy experiencing and living the new possibilities we perceived and theorized about on the network in a new field: the market.
A bit earlier
It wasn’t an idealistic objective. It was result of our experience: just one month earlier, the three of us had closed Piensa en Red! [Think in Networks!], our first business. It had more than a few successes: it was the first European business that did programming for PDAs and smartphones, it created the first programs and structures for the distributed management of hospitals, and even for a satellite connection between doctors in hospitals and wounded on the battlefield. We also created the first blog written on a mobile device, installed the first wi-fi network on the peninsula (which was also public and open), and founded the second largest Iberian hosting business. But we closed. External problems with the investors revealed that not all of the twenty workers — who were also shareholders — nor the biggest investors had enough commitment to the project. We were — and still are — friends, but we weren’t a community. When it came time to make the hard choices, the majority in both groups preferred to divide up the capital and close the business. In fact, the project leaders preferred to work at other businesses with the advantage of the experience they’d earned with us. And we learned an important lesson: internal democracy doesn’t work without a true community. But three of us decided to give up our part to the less qualified workers and start over… from zero.
The Electronic Indies
In 2001, Juan Urrutia had published his well-known essay “Networks of people, the Internet, and the Logic of Abundance” in the theoretical magazine Ekonomiaz. Distributed networks appeared as the basis of new P2P relationships and an ever-growing diversity. We cyberpunks recognized in this essay the basics of of the new economic theory we needed to be able to “export” the new freedoms we were experiencing on the network to new parts of life. That was when we started calling the Internet “the Electronic Indies.”
In Iberian history, “the Indies” was the name of the new territories, of the New World discovered by Columbus and soon conceived of, because of its abundance, as the “original paradise.” But precisely because it was a paradise, because it was a country that knew nothing of “original sin,” the king soon prohibited “new Christians,” who were 70% of the population, from travelling there. To be able to take a boat to the Indies, one had to demonstrate “purity of blood.” This time, we thought, we’ll find the abundance first, and not remained locked up in old borders designed by the powers-that-be.
But even though the dream was abundance, the new beginning wasn’t easy. Our three thousand and seven euros in capital weren’t even enough to pay our incorporation costs and the first month’s rent on a micro-office. The solutions we choose then were important, and gave shape to the nature of the project itself, changing our life right up to today.
The most urgent short term objective was to find clients. But we didn’t have money to buy ads, or social relationships in the corporate world. We needed new tools to talk about our experience, to show, in the darkest days of the dot-com crash, that our small business was viable, and that we had real contributions to make to traditional businesses. We looked online for business blogs all over the world… and we didn’t find a single one. There was no model to follow. We began to write, and on the seventh of October, 2002, el Correo de las Indias [the Indies Mail] was born, with Bitácora de las Indias [Log of the Indies] in the masthead. It was the first business blog in the world, and later would also be the first whose posts, thanks to a well-known publisher, would be published as a book. The blog was the way we found our clients, but, more importantly over time, the current indianos.
On the other hand, during the time when we had no clients or we had few sales, the two worker-members, Nat and I, recieved no salary. We didn’t have enough money for that. I slept in the office, Nat worked some hours outside of the Indies, and we had just enough to eat each day and pay the rent on the office and a room in a shared apartment where Nat lived. Later, when clients started coming in, we decided to take the minimum amount of money neccesary to support a normal level of consumption and comfort.
The business would be the economic structure of the community we were creating, and as such, would have all of the the sources of wealth and income; we would not have — and still don’t have — savings, properties, or personal clients. The cooperative is our community savings and the only owner of all that we enjoy. With the passage of time and the growth of the Indies’ community and economy, the first Indies headquarters appeared with the same spirit: wide-open common facilities, with accomodations and offices, personal and common spaces all as property shared among everyone. In short: economically, we’re closer to a kibbutz than to the big cooperatives at Mondragon.
Of course, the new cooperatives and businesses in the group choose their own economic system, but even now, the members of the Indias community, los indianos, are only those in the cooperatives that are part of the original system and who apply it internally as well as between themselves.
Like the cyberpunks we were, we knew that “under every communication architecture, there hides a power structure.” Understanding the power of network topologies was our principal point of differentiation, both in theory –in dialogue or as cyberactivists — and also in the market. We were conscious that the things we offered were “carriers of worlds, social projects, and moral values.” Producing and selling is also a way of changing the world. As a consultancy, we have the opportunity to bring businesses new business models, forms of internal organization and a new work ethic that really makes the difference, and then, as activists, we can apply the generated knowledge to social projects.
Later, each cooperative in the group strengthened the model. Today, the consulting business is the group’s main source of financing. And creating and organizing new cooperatives and businesses constitutes our principal activity.
This September, we’ll found two new businesses in Bilbao called Gaman and Fondaki. Gaman will make free software. Fondaki will be the first Public Intelligence business in Europe. Both will create jobs — based on a new values system, with products designed to strengthen the fabric of small businesses — for a dozen people, in the middle of the most important crisis, with the highest unemployment rates, in all of Iberian economic history.
Both foundings are the best demonstration of what “the Indies” are and what we indianos do. But above all, they will be the best possible commemoration of our tenth anniversary.
(Translator’s note: the Spanish word indianos translates literally as “Indians,” but I worry that readers in the US (and perhaps India) might find it distracting. I’ve opted to leave it untranslated. Over time, and in discussion with the indianos themselves, it’s possible we’ll find an agreeable translation. Your thoughts are welcome in the comments.)