Our Cuban Existence Online is Perpetual and Fleeting

By Emilio Sanchez  (El Toque)

Illustration: El Toque

HAVANA TIMES – In early 2019, when a tornado swept through Havana up to Regla on October 10th, mobile data was the primary resource many used to set up support networks, send solidarity messages and coordinate humanitarian efforts. It was a beautiful, authentic and natural act. The number of Internet users has grown since then. As a result, many spheres of everyday life have moved to the digital space and taken on new shapes and dynamics.

Furthermore, COVID-19 has shaken the pillars that gave our daily lives meaning, or what was our daily life anyway. Restricted movement and invisible danger has made us withdraw more and more into our personal space. However, the social beings we are, we need other people to find out what’s going on, to eat, move; we need other people to carry on being a society.

Social media platforms reveal our beliefs, values and how we view ourselves. However, they also open up a technology gap that affects how we form part of this digital space. Our age, tech skills, culture, physical and economic condition, all separate users on the Internet that this wave of mobile data, lockdowns and late nights with half-price data, has brought us.

Cubans have joined the digital space in an irregular, staggered and partial way. Nevertheless, it has imposed its own dynamic and the impact it has on our lives is becoming more and more evident.

Good intentions but…

Ever since the beginning of the first lockdown, the Government has talked about digital alternatives and e-commerce to stop people from forming crowds and moving around. These good intentions were crushed on the spot by shortages and improvising an e-commerce service without a user-friendly and user-focused understanding of how to create a digital platform.

After many years, the Government created a platform, for the first time, that planted the idea in Cubans’ minds that “they could buy things on the Internet.” Although reality tells us that it is pretty much impossible.

Meanwhile, private initiatives have been an alternative to buying goods, even bartering too. Families and businesses have set up delivery services for sending food, baked goods, fashion, design… and have used digital platforms to sell them. Online payment and transfer services such as EnZona and Traansfermovil have also driven this phenomenon.

On the other hand, the experience hasn’t been all that promising, and Facebook and WhatsApp groups for selling goods have not only been used by business owners who wish to sell their products. Hoarders have also used them to resell goods for prices that are double or triple the official retail price, a lot of the time.

More time spent at home and less opportunities to go outside and interact with other people has also led to increased usage of social media websites and apps to communicate with friends, family and colleagues. Growing Internet usage via mobile data attests to this.

According to Cubadebate, ETECSA had 3.8 million Internet contracts using mobile data, covering 85.5% of the population, in June 2020. [However, it’s important to note that the amount of time these people actually have data is very dissimilar, from rarely to constantly].

Lockdown has also multiplied the number of WhatsApp groups between friends, family members, workplaces, etc. It was expected, given the arrival of 4G and remote working.

Within this context, messaging services WhatsApp, Messenger and Telegram, as well as national ones such as CubaMessenger and Siju, have become the most widely used for online communication. This was due in part to the national lockdown and physical and social distancing measures.

The fact that lockdown has forced us to use them as our main means of communication, also means that we have to accept online codes and formats as language.

Do we really exist for others in this virtual realm?

Videocalls are the most authentic form of communication on these apps; we can see the other person in situ, their facial expressions as they speak, the tone of their voice and look in their eyes. In this case, only technological factors such as camera quality, connection speed and the size or quality of the screen condition the message we are trying to send. Is this message our way of existing for another person?

It’s a whole ‘nother story with written messages. Chatting puts us at the completely mercy of our reader’s subjective interpretation. The nuances our tone of voice, gaze or gestures can add to verbal communication are instead replaced by emojis that decorate our texts. Do we really exist for another person with words? Emojis? GIFs? A profile photo?

Last but not least, you have audio messaging. (Do you also listen to your own audio messages too?) WhatsApp or Telegram audio messages have a unique function: they save us from having to call, having to give an answer straight away, from exposing ourselves too much. A friend recently told me how much he hates answering a call. I kind of do too. Audio messaging is a way to have a one-way conversation, with greater nuances though. It is normally used when you have to talk about a difficult matter and it’s hard to explain via text.

Not everyone has the same skill when it comes to using mobile phones: whether these are linguistic, visual or tech-savvy skills. This represents an obvious gap in tech use.

We don’t need technical explanations or examples to understand this tech gap. The tech gap is personified by the grandmother who, when listening to a WhatsApp audio message, can’t stop herself from answering back as if she were on a call. It’s the person who can’t afford to be online for a long time, and so their time online is limited between one paycheck and the next. There are also the silent areas where ETECSA’s signal doesn’t reach. It’s the people who only use the Internet to chat.

Online personality. Am I my profile?

With the intention to reproduce our physical ways of existing, digital spaces recreate our persona with a profile/avator that we give our name to and we identify with our photos, thoughts. While this profile is public, we think of it as being just our own. This is where the first crack appears. Of course, our profile represents who we are and so we use it to say what we believe, what we like or what we want to show about ourselves.

We accept our social media profile as a space where the “me” dictatorship rules or, in any case, the “superego” Freud talks about; and we turn it into a representation/projection of who we believe we are.

Social media websites and apps are a virtual space where our individual projections coexist. They are a virtual public square, represented by memes, hashtags, posts, photos, pictures or videos full of meaning that we may like or dislike. Things get complex when every piece of content can receive a different rating: like, love, annoying… and this is repeated by other people, or comments. This is when we watch our projection die in oblivion, or get slated and attacked by those who don’t accept it or receiving love from those who empathize with our content. Either of these could happen.

On these platforms, we interact with a profile photo and words on a screen, dehumanizing us a little, making us cruel with others who we don’t agree with sometimes. At the end of the day, a screen keeps us safe and if things get heated you can always switch off your mobile data, delete your post or block the person.

Our fragile existence

Our existence online is like that of our predecessors: via photos, words or videos, going beyond mere memories. In some way or another, our digital existence is as perpetual as the technology we exist on and, sometimes, just as fragile and fleeting.

These platforms are increasingly geared towards the now, they share the latest content. Speed and updating content has become an indicator of impact. Stories are a key example. If surfing these apps is done by going through a feed that forces us to live in a constant present, then “stories” on WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook confirm this.

Nobody probably ever thought that a concept like history would become something that only lasts 24 hours. Will this influence the notion of history for the Spanish-speaking digital generation?

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