What is the internet?
I’ve been asking myself (and others) this question a lot lately. I’ve found that, especially in highly-connected contexts, people often conflate the internet with the world wide web (WWW), with an emphasis on the technological components that make up this system.
However, in Cuba, the internet “looks” very different than the networks that many of us may interact with on a regular basis. Up until recently, only 5% of Cuba’s population had access to the WWW. During the past couple of years, access has been increasing, mainly through the introduction of several public wifi hotspots. This access is slow and expensive, and users prioritize their time by using it mainly to communicate with family members living outside of Cuba. Despite prohibitive access, there is a proliferation of variously procured multimedia content across the country.
Millions of Cubans are engaging with digital content on a regular basis through an informal, pervasive, offline internet known as El Paquete Semanal (EP), or “the Weekly Package.” EP is a one terabyte collection of digital content compiled by individuals that is released on a weekly basis. This content is distributed by hand across Cuba via external hard drives, USBs, and CDs. EP includes a variety of local and international television shows, music, movies, apps, educational programs, YouTube videos, magazines, and news, and costs USD 2–5 for the entire terabyte worth of material.
Our recent CHI paper asked — how does EP facilitate offline access to local and international content regularly and affordably while also not being formally sanctioned by the government?
We explored this question through ethnographic work in the city of Havana between 2015 and 2017. Through our fieldwork, we encountered a sociotechnical system that is heavily dependent on the human infrastructure to support this offline internet in a technologically constrained environment. Human infrastructure consists of the people, relationships, and organizations that underlie the foundations of a system or network (Lee et al. 2006, Sambasivan & Smyth 2010). In our paper, we highlight three groups of people who undertake the labor required to hold this system together. These include: Los Maestros (the masters), who compile the original terabyte of content each week, Los Paqueteros (the packagers), who deliver, edit, and produce additional content, and La Gente (the people), who consume, share, and create their own content, as well.
In our paper, we unpack a variety of cases that illustrate the work undertaken by the actors who make up this system, highlighting how human infrastructure plays a central role in sustaining and growing El Paquete, offering a unique version of the internet where it would otherwise not exist.
Specifically, the human infrastructure of this network mobilizes a personalized and negotiated kind of internet for its consumers. Our participants described how they customized EP for others (like Ricardo who charges his customers differently) and how they preferred to engage with EP so it was customized for them (like Alexis, whose neighbor puts together a version of EP that will suit his tastes). As systems move towards becoming increasingly automated, our study illuminates aspects of the human infrastructure (such as personalization) that are not always replaceable by technology. This visibility is just as important in places where internet access is not constrained, such as in the case of Amazon Mechanical Turkers and Gig Workers, whose contributions are frequently made invisible. Through this enhanced visibility, we see that actors of EP not only engage with the material, tangible elements of the network, but are in constant negotiations with personal preferences and legal boundaries. These negotiations are continually feeding into a system that remains responsive and adaptive to a variety of use cases.
EP provides an internet that is both entertaining and informative. Similar to other informal, media sharing networks, like those previously studied in India (among other locations), entertainment is a major driving factor of EP. However, EP also provides users with a variety of additional information needs, such as educational content. It also connects individuals with critical resources by facilitating a means to buy, sell, and trade with other people around the city.
We find that EP also serves as a relevant, participatory internet. We see a thriving example of an established, pervasive information network that is locally relevant in terms of content and delivery. For example, access to the WWW in Cuba is prohibitively expensive, whereas EP is affordable for many, especially with price adjustments for certain individuals. This network also contains locally sourced content, and consumers of EP do not engage with content passively — they also produce content that finds its way back into the network, like Maria who publishes her magazine through EP.
Although there are many perceived assets to this system, it is not without its limitations. For example, the lack of automation may facilitate personalization, but this also means that individuals have to undertake significant labor to support the network. Additionally, as with most sociotechnical systems, there are power structures at play within EP as well as the power structures acting upon it. A human process of selecting content means that certain individuals are in a position to decide what others have access to. The content in EP is also shaped by government regulations (such as no pornography or anti-government talk). Thus, while EP is relevant and participatory in ways that benefit many Cuban people, it remains subject to the politics of information. It also does not provide people with everything they want from the internet, like the ability to communicate in real time with individuals outside of Cuba.
Although the internet in Cuba may appear different than the one we engage with on a regular basis, it’s important to note that the World Wide Web also relies on a human infrastructure. El Paquete provides a critical opportunity to understand the human labor that constitutes this sociotechnical system and emerges as a provocative example of an information network that challenges our notions of what the internet “should” look like across disparate geographies and sociopolitical terrains.
Michaelanne Dye, David Nemer, Josiah Mangiameli, Amy S. Bruckman, and Neha Kumar. 2018. El Paquete Semanal: The Week’s Internet in Havana. In Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ‘18). ACM, New York, NY, USA, Paper 639, 12 pages. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/3173574.3174213