Before I detail the many and sundry ways Cuba, and more specifically I personally, am far behind the tech curve, let me be clear: it’s not all bad, this technological disadvantage – knowing how to write and submit via a super slow, unreliable connection for example, helped build skills and instill patience which served me well reporting from post-quake Haiti.
Let me also point out that in some cases my technological handicap is not because the gadgets aren’t available in Cuba, but because they’re out of my financial reach – which is the same thing in the end, and a reality faced by many of the world’s poor. Something to think about the next time you hear someone defending technology as the great leveler (and when you receive text messages from Yoani Sanchez: where does she get the money? I have to wonder).
Taken together, the technical challenges (see note 1) combine with the price of buying and maintaining new technologies to create a digital divide which I’m guessing most HIH readers can’t imagine. Here’s a litmus: have you ever folded laundry, washed dishes, or otherwise had to multi-task while waiting for a page to load? No? Then you probably can’t relate.
Before anyone kicks me to the curb for being a privileged foreigner who’s insensitive to what ‘regular Cubans’ go through (see note 2), let me clarify a couple of things. First, I have access to funds many Cubans don’t and I have the ability to open an internet account as an accredited journalist. So privileged? Yes. Insensitive? No – just ask my friends and family without access of their own.
Furthermore, my livelihood in large measure depends on my ability to research and submit articles, stories, and guidebooks and update my iApp via the internet. Without those gigs, I’d be left with just this blog and empty pockets. Don’t get me wrong: Here is Havana is a great writing tool, motivator, community-builder, outlet for angst and cathartic vent, but without my internet connection, it would go the way of Obama’s campaign promises, fast.
This is the practical effect of the digital divide, but there’s a subtler, more insidious side to the disconnect: it contributes to the outsider status of expats like me. Neither entirely comfortable where we came from or wholly accepted where we’ve moved to, we’re in this limbo that is pointed up every time someone waxes orgasmic about Angry Birds or Google +. Mostly I prefer being behind the tech curve (I’ll take the Flinstones over the Jetsons any day) but when it affects The Work, I bug (see note 3).
For those interested in how a decade living in Cuba translates vis-à-vis tech challenges, here goes:
I have no cell phone. Cubans are incredulous when they discover I’m not celled up, but their disbelief is based on their assumptions that a) I can afford one (see note 4) and b) I want or need to be localizable 24/7. They’re wrong on both counts.
I’ve never used a GPS. I’m a map idiot, I admit, but the GPS concept is just dangerous if you ask me. First, any map skills someone like me may have had (or had the chance of developing), go out the window once you introduce GPS. Second, they’re useless in contexts that don’t fit the traditional mapping mold, like Cuba, Hawaii, the Mosquito Coast, and every medina. Third, they limit one’s likelihood to get lost, thereby curbing new discoveries, spontaneity and flexibility, and chances for fun.
I’ve only played Wii once. Granted it was for three days straight and was a helluva lot fun but…Here in Havana I have a friend with a Wii, who calls it ‘healthier than Playstation’ and limits his daughter’s usage (but not his, I suspect!). Tip for those looking for a gift for Cuban friends: you can’t go wrong with a Wii, (two remotes, please).
Kindle-free. My take on the Kindle is kind of like my take on sexual diversity: to each his (or her) own – as long as it doesn’t infringe on my action. In other words: you can have your Kindle, but let me have my books. This is where my old fashioned ways are a disadvantage, to be sure, since hauling books here is a real pain in the ass (see note 5), plus they require shelf space. Sure, a Kindle would make my life easier, but it would also make it less enjoyable. When someone talks quality of life to me, that involves the look, smell, and heft of books.
Blue Tooth?! About a month ago I saw a Cuban American picking his way among the busted up sidewalks of Centro Habana with one of these gadgets wedged in his ear. I burst out laughing at the newest accessory in the Miami crowd’s insatiable need to ‘especular’ (show off their material goods). I tried to imagine what was so damn pressing on the other side of the Straits that this guy was willing to pay three months average Cuban salary (minimum!) to have it mainlined into his ear. Then I remembered what Cubans do with other signs of apparent wealth like watches and cell phones: they wear them and flash them, but it doesn’t mean they work. But it’s one thing to have a busted watch strapped to your wrist or a bunk cell phone clipped to your belt (that’s how the men do it here; the women tuck them into their cleavage), while it’s quite another to walk around with a pinguita in your ear.
My life goes along happily, swimmingly without these advances. Just don’t bring it up at deadline time or mention Jon Stewart – unless you want to see me cry.
1. Cuba is prohibited by the blockade from connecting to any US satellites or fiber optic cables. At the moment, that leaves Cuba only one choice for connectivity – an Italian satellite which transmits all the data to and from the island.
2. While it’s true Cubans have the lowest connectivity rate in the hemisphere with only 14% of the population connected, these figures don’t reflect the reality since internet accounts are widely and regularly shared here. And the famous underwater cable that has been laid from Venezuela to Cuba and promises to increase our connectivity by 3000%? When it was announced a few years ago, I counseled folks to not hold their breath. Take my advice: keep breathing and continue to file under ‘I’ll Believe It When I See It.’
3. This post was inspired by an ongoing freelance gig that I couldn’t accept because I have no access to Skype.
4. Despite the exorbitant costs (to get a cell account here costs $40, with both incoming and outgoing calls charged at $0.10-$0.45/minute), most Cubans are gaga for cell technology and spend what little money they have to get it.
5. This is also extremely costly: on the direct flights from the USA to Cuba which I’m eligible to take, any luggage over 44 pounds is charged at $1/lb – and that includes carry on.