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New media in Cuba

I read an ingenious article this week on Slashdot, talking about how Cubans evade Internet censorship (not to mention lack of access) by passing contraband material around on flash drives. It’s so old school, but brilliant.

Sure, it’s less efficient and less elegant than using the Internet, but unlike the Internet, it’s nearly impossible to detect and even harder to stop.

As the article notes, the drives are so small, people can pass them on the bus or on the street without anyone noticing. And if people swap data in their homes behind closed doors, it’s impossible for anyone to know it’s going on.

In the old days–you know, like, 20 years ago or longer–dissidents used to publish newsletters or even newspapers. That was hard to stop, but not impossible. And authorities or loyalists could confiscate or destroy papers, cutting down on circulation. That tactic can’t stop flash drives.

It’s kind of like what I saw happening in the cafeteria and playground when I was in middle school. Kids would swap music on tapes. Sometimes it was music we didn’t hear on the radio, sometimes it was music kids didn’t want their parents to know they had–people could get a bit uptight in this small town in southern Missouri–and sometimes it was stuff they just couldn’t afford to buy themselves.

Everyone knew what was going on was illegal, but the kids didn’t care. Some of the teachers tried to stop it, but they couldn’t, and gauging from the level of their efforts, I think they knew they couldn’t. It wasn’t nearly as efficient as swapping songs on Napster, but in the mid 1980s, swapping songs digitally wasn’t feasible anyway. The best we could do was swap crude 8-bit “chiptune” renditions of songs on floppy disks–but come to think of it, that’s what I was doing with my buddies once I moved to St. Louis, while the people I left behind in southern Missouri were still swapping tapes. No wonder I didn’t fit in down there. And besides those so-crude-they-were-charming songs, we were swapping software around too.

One of my buddies knew someone who had a modem and accounts on a few BBSs, so he had a source for some new material. Then I got a modem, and a few other people got modems, but we kept passing stuff around on floppies too, since downloading was so slow. From time to time, groups of people would get together for “copy parties” too. Sometimes it was a handful of people bringing their computers over to someone’s house along with a few boxes of disks. But from time to time, someone would be able to get a school gymnasium, VFW hall, or a big room at a community center and bring in tables. Those looked a lot like flea markets–long tables, each with a computer set up connected to a portable TV and at least two floppy drives, with boxes of disks sitting next to them. The really organized people had binders with lists of what was on what disk. You’d stand in line, with disks in hand, wait your turn, and the person at the table would copy what you asked for.

It might be dangerous for those large-scale copy parties to go on in Cuba today. Freedom of assembly is a right we take for granted in the United States–so much so that I’m not sure everyone knows it’s explicitly spelled out in the Constitution. But it’s easy to imagine files getting copied back and forth over dinner among friends at home, letting underground writing trickle that way. It’s a little more efficient than passing flash drives around on the streets.

The Cubans just rediscovered what we knew 25 years ago. When telecommunications is slow, unreliable, or just unavailable, you can always get around some of the limits by passing physical media.

I hope we’re teaching the dissidents in other less-than-free countries the same tricks. If not, we need to be.

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