Duplicity, Access and Digital Inequality

This week in Civic Media we discussed readings about digital inequality and blogospheres in Cuba and had the privilege of hearing from Paloma Duong who looks at digital media, youth culture, and the public sphere in contemporary Havana.

We began by unpacking Eszter Hargittai’s The Digital Reproduction of Inequality through a group mapping exercise where we visualized the concepts put forth on a long whiteboard. An introductory premise of the article is to challenge a traditional and binary understanding of the “digital divide” which simplifies the access gap to those who have access and those who don’t. Hargittai suggests that the layers of digital inequality are more nuanced and calls for a different approach: “A more refined approach considers different aspects of the divide, focusing on such details as quality of equipment, autonomy of use, the presence of social support networks, experience and user skills.” Working in pairs, we had a handful of minutes to draw our diagram before rotating to add to another pair’s. The production continued until we had collectively added to each pair’s drawing, exquisite corpse style.

Katie and I ended on an image that looked like a football field and ran with the metaphor. We crafted characters based on geographic location and social position (a businessman in China or a middle-class American youth, for example) and imagined relative heights of hurdles different characters would have to clear to enter the field of digital access.

Despite the many layers that had been captured in varying marker colors on a long whiteboard, Sasha guided our group reflection to several key factors that were missing and show up clearly in the Pew Internet and American Life report we had read, such as race and geographic location.* 

After setting the stage by grappling with the complicated nature of digital inequality, we turned to Paloma Duong’s presentation of her work with Cuba’s digital segregation, alternative economies and illegal (but tolerated) gaming networks. For a clearly articulated summary of the presentation, see our classmate Katie Arthur’s post here.

Without reproducing an overall summary — as Katie already has — I would like to compare the vision of cyberspace and civil society put forth by Ted A. Henken and Sjammi van de Voort in From Cyberspace to Public Space? The Emergent Blogosphere and Cuban Civil Society with Duong’s talk.

Henken and van de Voort talk about the shifting cyber-scape of bloggers in recent years in Cuba. Looking at a variety of blogger collectives they “seek to understand Cuban bloggers” strategies dealing with the following challenges:

  • How do they resolve the conflict between self-preservation and self-censorship — that is how do they deal with the dilemma of the double moral (duplicity)?
  • How do they preserve an independent and critical posture toward Cuban reality in a context where the mass media are under government control and where nearly all Internet access points are mediated (and likely monitored) by institutions, by money, or by some other kind of influence or control?
  • How do they access the Internet, who can revoke that access, and under what conditions?
  • Who is their audience, and how do they maintain an interactive relationship with them in such a disconnected environment?
  • What have been the biggest obstacles to engaging in dialogue, debate, and collaboration with other bloggers both within and outside Cuba?

Looking at four prominent blogger collectives, Voces Cubanas, Havana Times, Bloggers Cuba and La Joven Cuba Henken and van de Voort draw out the various ways each collective navigates the conflict between self-preservation and self-censorship. I’d like to focus on this particular question, albeit just one of those set out by the authors, to put in conversation with Duong’s explanation of how internet is accessed illegally in the country. Duong emphasized that there are illegal ways of accessing the internet overlooked by the government and there are other illegal ways of accessing the internet that are not. The paquete semanal, for example, successfully delivers the latest global entertainment and applications via a 1TB external hard drive literally hoofed door to door, but does so by avoiding the untolerables of pornography or politics, while gamers construct and collectively manage a network for that avoids being shut down by staying off of the internet.

As Duong explained the nuances and fragile contours of navigating alternative IT economies, the nature of evading prosecution struck me as relatively arbitrary in the same way that certain blogger collectives manage to stay afloat in Henken and van de Voort’s survey while others, such as La Joven Cuba, are shut down.

While the concept of the double moral as the tension between self-preservation and self-censorship occurs in different ways in the alternative economies Duong researches, I’d suggest that it is a theme in both Duong and Henken and van de Voort’s work that exemplifies the nuanced nature of digital inequality and access in contemporary Cuba. Whether in the public eye at the Blogazo X Cuba conference for bloggers (hosted by none other than Mariela Castro) or inside homes where el paquete delivers the latest digital files weekly, the tension of the double moral serves as a springboard to explore the nuanced layers of digital access.

*The New York Times Technology section produced this timely article after our class discussion that looks at the implications of digital inequality as more school functions become internet dependent.