Argentina's wired city

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — In Jorge Luis Borges' “The Aleph” — arguably the Argentine writer's most celebrated work of fiction — the author imagines a Buenos Aires basement, home to a magical globe in which all things in the universe are seen at once. The Aleph is a microcosm in which all macrocosms are contained, a portal to infinite knowledge and vision.

Borges might have been more prescient than he knew. Many critics have read the story as a premonition of the internet. And now Buenos Aires, Borges' stomping ground, is fulfilling his prophecy to become a sort of Aleph in Latin America. It's become a destination for information technology companies big and small and an incubator for start-ups, a place with Wi-Fi on every corner and homegrown networks popping up in between.

One need only take a stroll down a Buenos Aires street to smell the connectivity. The Wi-Fi logo, signaling a wireless internet connection, is everywhere: in the windows of coffeeshops and bars, the glass doors of hotel lobbies and gymnasiums — even on hair salons — and virtually all of the connections are free. There is Wi-Fi at gas stations, and Wi-Fi in the subway (and it actually works).

At the Obelisk, the Washington-esque monument marking the center of the city, a recent Wi-Fi sniff found 19 stray signals — and those are just the ones that made it across the 10 lanes of traffic on each side of one of the world's widest boulevards. And it's not just in Buenos Aires. Argentina's next-largest town, Rosario, wants to cover every city block with free wireless internet, using a combination of Wi-Fi and long-range WiMax technologies. The mayor bragged last year that he expected Rosario to become a “digital city” before San Francisco, Calif.

The Wikimedia Foundation — which runs Wikipedia, the website that perhaps best instantiates the panorama of Borges's Aleph — validated Argentina as a world tech hub last month when it chose Buenos Aires as the site of its annual Wikimania conference. The top brass and Wikipedians from all over the world took in the atmosphere of innovation in Argentina, which is home to the only official Wikimedia bureau on the continent.

“We have a country that is not afraid of technology, so as soon as internet started becoming available people jumped into it,” said Mariano Amartino, general manager of Hipertextual, the largest blog network in Latin America. “We as Argentine people love these new concepts.”

Amartino says that during the first information technology boom in the 1990s, 68 percent of all Spanish-speaking startups came from Argentina. This is still one of the only countries in Latin America with a tech company on the NASDAQ: Mercado Libre, the region's answer to eBay.

Not all of the tech companies in Argentina are homegrown. Drawn by the tech-friendly atmosphere and low operating costs after the peso collapsed in 2001, large foreign companies have flocked to make Argentina a home away from home. Microsoft has a regional office here, and so does Google.

Some say that this influx of Wi-Fi-hungry foreigners drawn by the cheap peso was the catalyst for the proliferation of public Wi-Fi in the city, but business owners and trade groups agree that now it has become a standard demand among locals and expats alike.

Enrique Chaparro, a mathematician and technology activist in Buenos Aires, calls the proliferation of connectivity here “an avalanche phenomenon, a landslide.” Chaparro is a member of Buenos Aires Libre, allegedly the largest community computer network in Latin America, which consists of dozens of individual terminals linked together via rooftop antennae. It is completely independent of the rest of the internet — showing that it's not just expats and big online companies that sustain Argentina's tech culture.

“Communications in Argentina have forever been difficult,” said Chaparro. “So that created some kind of do-it-yourself culture. If you can have a network, you get one.”

By statistics, Argentina doesn't have quite the internet penetration that neighbor Chile does, or the sheer numbers of the giant on the other frontier, Brazil; and Colombia has been the continent's rising star by connectivity measures in recent years. But Argentina beats them all by a longshot on the number of internet servers per capita — an indication that there is a disproportionately large community of true techies, cyber-producers rather than just cyber-consumers. Argentina is one of only a few countries in the world whose government offers residents free internet domain names. But neither that fact, nor the cheap peso, nor the abundance of free Wi-Fi can fully explain the proliferation of local internet hosts and networks. After all, as Chaparro notes, when a computer can cost several months of a middle-class Argentine's salary, connectivity is not quite as accessible as it might at first look. It's a question of values and priorities: faced with the choice of buying a computer or a car, Chaparro says, many Buenos Aires residents will go for the computer.

Almost everyone involved, though, ultimately traces the vibrancy of the Argentine tech scene to socio-cultural factors that go beyond prices or technologies.

“I think the base of everything is that there's a great spirit of collaboration, of participation, and very active communities,” said Beatriz Busaniche, a professor at the University of Buenos Aires and a member of the Free Way Foundation, an Argentine organization dedicated to open-source software.

“Argentines have a tradition to get to know each other face-to-face,” said Patricio Lorento, president of Wikimedia's local Argentina chapter. “The possibility of having a chapter here really arose naturally because we were already having meet-ups with 30 or 40 active Wikipedistas, where we'd have a barbeque and share some wine.”

And in the internet age, a Buenos Aires barbeque can quickly sprawl out to connect to the whole world — at least if Borges is to be believed.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct a reference to Jorge Luis Borges. The writer was not in fact a Nobel laureate.