The Cuban Cloud

This story was originally published on ifCuba.com

A Cuban friend of mine recently lost her laptop on the streets of Havana. This would be a big deal anywhere, but especially so in Cuba. Laptops cost around two year’s salary for the average Cuban, and even if you have the money, you’d still either have to travel to the US to buy one or get it on the black market. I felt pretty bad for my friend, but I felt even worse when her business partner said “Yeah, and it had all of our data on it.”

The thought hadn’t occurred to me. Coming from a world where everything is backed up on Google Drive, Dropbox, iCloud, Box, or contained in an email or on shared social media, the idea that information could be contained in a single copy on a laptop threw me for a moment. I’m probably a bit unusual, as I constantly back up everything to the cloud (even in Cuba — yes, it’s possible, but prohibitively expensive for anyone living on a Cuban salary), but it got me thinking about the ways Cuban transmit and save information.

Beyond simply backing up data, Cubans use a variety of methods to share information with each other. Email is difficult to access and unreliable. The Apple App Store and the Google Play stores don’t do business in Cuba, yet. Services like Google Drive and Dropbox require consistent internet access. As a result, Cubans have adopted many other ways to share information.

In terms of person to person, flash drives are still king. Quick, reliable, efficient. Big enough for a movie or a couple hundred songs. If you’re lucky enough to own a car, you probably installed a third-party sound system and play songs off a USB stick. Seriously, the only CDs I’ve seen here are the ones being pawned by the salsa bands playing in the hotels in Old Havana.

Gaining popularity is the ability to share data over Bluetooth. Most Cubans are on Android, and they get their apps by sharing them over an app called Zapya (of course, you have to get Zapya first…kind of a chicken and egg thing in a world with limited internet access). This also allows the sharing of all sorts of other media, like photos, videos, and music.

Facebook as become an increasingly popular way to share this type of content. Every connected young Cuban is on the social media giant, often accessing the site’s mobile version from their laptops to cut down on bandwidth. Cubans will regularly friend you without ever having met you just to send you a message. It’s also become one of the de facto ways to access information, in a country where the only official media is completely top-down. It could certainly position Facebook’s messenger as the platform of choice here in Cuba.

A lot of information is still shared interpersonally. People and their brains are the real Cuban Cloud: information shared in the collective consciousness. If you need information, you ask someone, who can either give you an answer or knows someone who can. Need to know how to get somewhere? Ask around until someone can tell you or at least point you in the right direction. Not only is Google Maps incomplete and often unreliable in Havana, but it’s only available in wifi hotspots, which are still rare.

When it comes to real-time information, lack of connectivity renders Facebook Events useless. At the same time, text messaging is costly, so information about events and shows is largely shared word-of-mouth. This is a challenge for talented young artists trying to gain a foothold in Havana’s music scene. It’s also to the detriment of bars and music venues. Every so often Cubans will get a mass text about a show they actually want to go to, but usually it’s garbage about drink specials that are still prohibitively expensive for the average Cuban.

And technically, there IS a Cuban cloud. Intranets are common throughout Cuba, especially in the emerging private sectors. Information can be backed up to local “servers” in the form of laptops and hard external hard drives. SNET, the illegal street intranet that spans Havana via Ethernet cables and wifi routers, also provides a way for users to back up information. Some enterprising individuals are trying to set up local “cloud services” for people using this intranet, which is illegal at this time.

When it comes to one-way information distribution, however, El Paquete is king. This one terabyte hard drive is distributed throughout the island on a weekly basis. Offering movies, music, TV shows, websites, news, apps, software — really everything except for porn and politics — it’s one of the main ways that Cuban’s access media. Operating since 2006, the package seems to be tolerated by the government, but it’s unclear what will happen to it as the country opens up. Not only is it illegal in Cuba, the content is all pirated, so once the embargo is lifted, it’s anyone’s guess how US content owners will react to its use and popularity here. Perhaps it will go the direction of Netflix — moving from physical media distribution (in their case, DVDs) to digital distribution and media production.

All of these methods have their strengths, but without a doubt, Cubans need to be better connected. Sure, they’re not hunched over email all day. But if you ask them, they’ll tell you candidly that they feel isolated and uninformed. “I feel like I don’t know what’s going on in the rest of the world,” a friend in design told me. “I don’t know how I can create new things when I can’t see what else is being created right now.”

In the US, we can talk about our “technology detoxes” or and we get excited about going somewhere without cell service, but this is an everyday reality for Cubans. We take for granted all that technology and interconnectivity has done for us.

One potential benefit to all this is the chance for Cuban to leapfrog traditional technologies. Usually when we talk about “leapfrogging” we talk about physical infrastructure; cell phones replacing telephone lines, for example. But what about email? We all admit email sucks, but in the United States we’re just as beholden to it as we are to our telecom infrastructure. What if Cuba leapt past that, avoiding email except when dealing with the international community (like that fax machine in your office you only use when you need to send a notarized document to a government bureaucrat), and skips strait to Slack-style group chat or project-based communication, like with Asana?

It’s an intriguing thought, but years away from the reality that Cubans deal with on a daily basis. It will be interesting to see how the country adapts as internet availability increases in the country, and which of these patchwork solutions will be lost entirely and which will be absorbed. But in the meantime, losing a laptop is still a really, really big deal.

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