What I learned going (mostly) without the Internet for a month

I just got back from a month in Cuba, where Internet access is rare, slow and expensive.

The Cuban government sees Internet access as a racket. They ban it in homes, restaurants and small hotels, thereby creating artificial scarcity. Then they charge a fortune for people to use public WiFi hotspots, which the government owns.

In order to use the Internet, you wait in line, then buy a one-hour or five-hour WiFi card, which costs around $2.19 per hour per person (that means when my wife, son and I all used the Internet for an hour, it cost nearly $7. For the month, we spent about $300 on WiFi.

My wife, Amira, buying WiFi cards in Havana.
Once you buy a card, you have to scratch to reveal the password.

And the connection was slow. Video in either direction was out of the question. Posting a simple photo on Facebook might take ten minutes to upload.

The small number of WiFi hotspots in the country required you to stand on the sidewalk, or sit on a cement curb.

Most cubans have to stand or sit on the sidewalk to use the government’s expensive WiFi.

Needless to say, I was not connected to the Internet most of the time — not in our apartment, not in restaurants, not while walking around.

It reminded me of — oh, I don’t know — the 1980s?

The weirdest thing was the emergence of random questions — “hey, what’s this Santeria thing all about?” Instead of reflexively Googling it, the only response was, “well, I guess that’s unknowable” and accepting ignorance.

It also changed my use of the camera. Instead of snapping pictures of everything, and taking lots of video, I became much less promiscuous about using the camera (knowing that most photos and all videos couldn’t be uploaded or backed up until I left the country).

More to the point, most of us to some degree or another change our behavior for social media. It changes our vacations. It even drives some to plastic surgery.

Even if you don’t change your behavior with an eye toward what you’ll post on social media, you probably do change your thought process.

We used maps to get around, which was weird.

To get information about some places, we had to physically go there or ask strangers. For example, we wanted to visit a museum called the Museo Orgánico Romerillo. It was difficult over the slow connection to find an actual address online, so we asked hotel people, cab drivers and others. Finally, a cab driver told us he knew where it was. But he was unable to take us. But he told us enough about its location for us to describe it vaguely to another driver.

Cubans using the government’s expensive government WiFi

In general, we got by.

At this point, you might expect me to engage in the reflexive contrarianism that is so rampant with Internet commentary, and tell you that being mostly disconnected for a month was a good thing, and that it change my perspective for the better.

But the truth is that what I learned more than anything else in going mostly without the Internet for a month sucks.

Being connected is a massively beneficial privilege that we all take for granted, and I’m super happy to be online again.

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