Basic Elements for a Connected Society | MIT Center for Civic Media

Basic Elements for a Connected Society

It is important to debate digital inclusion because having access to the digital world opens virtually infinite possibilities for humans to question, build and eventually change their reality. The digital society has brought humanity together more than any other invention in human kind. Providing equal access to all humans is among the most fundamental achievements necessary for a fairer planet. Regrettably, providing digital inclusion isn't yet a priority for many. In this blog post I discuss the most basic elements necessary to provide a society with the access to the digital world and how those principles are not met in my home city: La Habana, Cuba.

In very few words digital inclusion requires (at least) three elements on its side to take place: (a) existing infrastructure, (b) a permissive socio-economic environment, and (c) a favorable public decision-making/political structure.

(a) Infrastructure relates to those technological or otherwise foundations that bring the digital world reachable. Cables connecting servers to computers, the computers themselves or other tools alike, electricity to run all those electronic equipments, etc. Here I also include service providers and other institutions necessary for the provision of uninterrupted access to the Internet.

(b) A permissive socio-economic environment. Obviously, developing countries (and particularly those countries fighting against poverty or its consequences) have a different set of priorities. The people and the government of developing countries often find very good reasons not to prioritize digital inclusion. Basic health, education and other services usually take the lead in spending the very limited resources available to some of those countries. There could be other alternatives, and I could always argue that digital inclusion could bring an array of socio-economic benefits to that country to boost its importance up the list. However, the fact is that in order to evaluate access in a feasible way a permissive socio-economic structure should be in place. By this I meant that the country in question should have the economic resources to support its digital inclusion plan, especially in its early days when the market could be very small with few providers of the necessary means to get connected. In this category I also include the cultural elements that might steer a particular society away from the adoption of the digital world.

(c) A favorable public decision-making/political structure. At first glance, the previous two elements might account for the political environment necessary for access. Some might understand that having fair institutions is included in the basic infrastructure of a particular country, and others might believe that having public decision-makers in favor of supporting the Internet is a socio-economic characteristic. Both are correct indeed. However, what I am trying to highlight is the opposite negative of that element, and how it can obstruct digital access in such a radical way that all access could be blocked, denied or curtailed if this element isn't addressed by itself. In the example I've selected to analyze, this element will prove as being probably the most important of them all.

The three elements above (existing infrastructure, permissive socio-economic environment, and a favorable public decision-making/political structure) must be considered the basis of every first approach to a digital inclusion discussion. These elements are complementary, but could also be exclusive: if one of the elements isn't satisfactorily in place digital inclusion might be curtailed, and if one element is in opposition all inclusion could be blocked away.

In the case of Cuba, for example, the country I spent the first ten years of my life, having access to the digital world is a far away reality. In first place, Cuban citizens don't have the means to acquire computers or other digitally capable devices. Even if they could, the infrastructure isn't in place to provide access to the population as a whole. In fact, Internet access is only provided to very few Cuban citizens at extremely high prices by a single government-owned provider.

The socio-economic issue could be debated thoroughly highlighting the pros and cons of having a socialist model of development. However, what I want to highlight as particularly striking is the lack of infrastructure in the Island. As seen in the map bellow from The Guardian, Cuba has been isolated from the development and quick fiber-optics cables expansion in the world. The island was left with only a connecting cable coming from Venezuela.

Cuban Fiber Optic Isolation

Many reasons are behind the isolation of Cuba from the global Internet, but for the matter of exploring the digital inclusion basic elements presented in this post I want to debate how the political environment in the Island has contribute to this complete exclusion.

External limitations have been against any initiatives the government took throughout the years to improve access (e.g. the American economic embargo), but more importantly the Cuban government has often been uninterested in developing the country's connectivity. Providing access to information in an uncensored way isn't a possibility for the Cuban government, and controlling the inflow of un-vetted information given the government's limitations would be simply impossible considering the country's limitations. The most feasible solution, at times, has been an infrastructural neglect. By neglecting the development of a national structure that could guarantee access to (at least) a quarter of the Cuban population, Cuban officials save the Ministry of Informatics and Communications and the intelligence agencies the hassle of sorting through a fire hose of information on dissidence and counter-revolution.

Some activists throughout the Island have started a series of movements to increase the Cubans' ability to connect. Remarkably, Yoani Sanchez and other Cuban bloggers alike have endured a long period of SMS-based postings, twitting and facebooking their ideas. Their initiatives have reached many Cubans inside and outside the island, but the country's infrastructural problem is so grim that their initiatives will not succeed alone.

Having a political favorable political structures, with decision-makers that are willing to support equal access might not be necessary for all contexts and societies. However, having that as an opposing element could probably become the greatest limitation for access in every situation as it is the city of La Habana.