July 26, 2017

INFORMATION WANTS TO BE FREE:

INSIDE CUBA'S D.I.Y. INTERNET REVOLUTION (Antonio García Martínez, 07.26.17, Wired)

In Cuba, where Wi-Fi is both slow and terrible, you will be an emissary from the future, a hint of the degeneracy to come. You're a full-on mainlining internet junkie with the world's uproar piped into your head 24/7, your emotional landscape terraformed and buffeted by whatever some narcissist just posted on Instagram or some windbag on Twitter. But like the "not even once" warnings around drugs like meth, you know that after the internet is in Cubans' pockets, it's over. Even backward, bitter-ender communist Cuba will become part of the vast data Borg, tied via arterial fiber-­optic cables and Wi-Fi to the same pandemonium that gave us cat videos, live­streamed murders, and President Donald J. Trump. The real irony is that if the internet does topple the government and bring democracy to this democracy-starved island, it'll happen just as democracy itself is being undone by Facebook and every other filter-bubble-­creating, political-polarization-amplifying, algorithm-optimized feed. But we're getting ahead of ourselves, and also oversimplifying, because the Cubans--the very resourceful Cubans--haven't exactly been sitting around sipping mojitos as the digital revolución passed them by. They have workarounds. Oh, do they have workarounds.

BEFORE MY VISIT earlier this year, I'd never been to Cuba, though Cuba had certainly been to me. The Miami of my '80s childhood was a suburban reboot of prerevo­lutionary Cuba, filled with people who still toasted El año próximo en La Habana ("next year in Havana") at important occasions. Everything from family letters to fresh-off-the-raft waiters kept us apprised of the increasingly desperate conditions. In Miami, even the dogcatcher had to have a foreign policy toward the island, and Cuba was all anyone ever really talked about.

In Silicon Valley, where I worked at companies like Facebook and Twitter for the earlier part of this decade, Cuba was generally regarded, when it was regarded at all, as a technological curiosity. This socialist worker's paradise was a time capsule where techno­capitalism's "Make the world more open and connected" idealism hadn't yet delivered its liberal-democratic fruit. The underlying assumption held that, whether it was Facebook pages for Cuban businesses or Airbnb tourists from Texas, the internet's arrival would lead to a near-instantaneous transformation of Cuban society from Soviet-era holdout to just another part of the globe requiring a dedicated user support team.

It seemed like only a matter of time. Yet other than a few rumored experiments beginning in the '90s, the Cuban government had a highly restrictive internet policy until 2015, when ETECSA's first Wi-Fi hot spots started popping up throughout the capital. Walk down a street in Old Havana and you'll note a flock of smartphone-­clutching loiterers either standing or squatting in a park as they try to get on ETECSA Wi-Fi. This is Cuban internet, where access to non-state-sanctioned websites is blocked, the government snoops on anything unencrypted, and the service is grindingly slow, when it exists at all. (I'm told that fast internet access is the exclusive domain of state institutions like universities and very large, mostly foreign corporations like hotels. Short of a few government professionals, nobody can check their email or surf the web, legally, at home without permission from the government.) There are even some startups capitalizing on the rarity, shoddiness, and expense of Cuban internet: Knales, a mobile messaging platform cofounded by Diana Elianne Benitez Perera, packages online weather reports, horoscopes, sports scores, foreign exchange rates, and other basic news into text messages that Cubans can read on their phones.

Given the rickety and expensive nature of Cuban connectivity, nobody wastes time or bandwidth trying to stream an episode of Game of Thrones or a YouTube instructional video. ETECSA Wi-Fi, when you can get it, is purely social and communicative: chatting with the uncle in Miami who sends you $200 every month via a remittance company, the nephew who moved to Spain, the cousin outside the capital--that's what the ETECSA hot spot is for.

Which brings us to the first workaround. Every week, more than a terabyte of data is packaged into external hard drives known as el paquete semanal ("the weekly package"). It is the internet distilled down to its purest, most consumable, and least interactive form: its content. This collection of video, song, photo, and text files from the outside world is cobbled together by various media smugglers known as paqueteros, and it travels around the island from person to person, percolating quickly from Havana to the furthest reaches in less than a day and constituting what would be known in techie lingo as a sneaker­net: a network that transmits data via shoe rubber, bus, horseback, or anything else.

Oddly, it works. 

Posted by at July 26, 2017 7:29 AM

  

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