Month: November 2015

Uncharted Territory: Cuba’s information sovereignty & US digital capital

Cubans repeatedly rebelled against the mono-culture of sugar that an empire of capital forced on both land and people[1]; only the Cuban Revolution of 1959 finally succeeded in overcoming this bondage.[2] However, even before attending to a new agrarian law, needed to put an end to the plantation system and to redistribute foreign landholdings, Cuba gave an immediate demonstration of its newly won sovereignty. Just two months after Fidel Castro marched into Havana, in March 1959, telephone workers tore down a telephone advertising billboard, placed it in a coffin, and marched it down a boulevard before tossing it into the sea.[3] The ad was an icon of foreign domination. The Cuban Telephone Company, owned by the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation, controlled and profited from the country’s thoroughly inadequate telecommunications. Cuba’s revolutionary government now took over management of this company; to the cheers of the Cuban people, formal expropriation followed.[4] In the ensuing years, what had been an unbalanced, Havana-centric telecommunications system was extended substantially into Cuba’s countryside. Meanwhile, other companies, based not only in the US but also in Western European countries, were also nationalized.[5] Every government apart from that of the United States duly accepted the legality of nationalization under existing international law, and negotiated financial settlements with the Cuban state.

The U.S. Government neither forgave nor forgot. It imposed a punishing economic embargo, which has lasted for more than half a century. Successive U.S. Administrations made repeated attempts, overt and covert, to overthrow the Cuban Government; since the 1980s, the US government has doled out more than $1 billion (under the pretense of “democracy” and the “free flow of information”[6]) to stir unrest against Cuba’s government. The 1992 Torricelli Act and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act turned the embargo into an even more devastating blockade, by adding further extraterritorial sanctions. Helms-Burton enabled the original owners of nationalized Cuban assets who afterward became U.S. citizens to use US courts to prosecute foreign companies that took over these properties.[7] Such provisions violated international law; but they were still deployed against a Mexican telecommunications corporation for making use of IT&T’s onetime Cuban telephone property.[8] Year after year, for twenty years, the United Nations General Assembly has resolved by overwhelming majorities that the U.S. embargo should be ended. The blockage continues; but real changes are afoot.

If Cuba’s entanglement in the circuits of capitalism had long revolved around sugar, information and communication have now become pivots of the country’s reintegration into a newly digital capitalism. In the run-up to President Obama’s 2014 announcement that the US was negotiating with Cuba to restore diplomatic relations, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) was funding a Cuban version of Twitter – “ZuneZuneo” – through the Cuban-American youth group called Roots of Hope,[9] and was infiltrating the underground Hip Hop scene by sending a Serbian music producer to recruit Cuban rappers to provoke fans to spark a youth movement against the Cuban state.[10] As the U.S. shifted its foreign policy strategy – the two countries re-established formal diplomatic relations in July 2015 – it also moved networks systems and applications into the foreground.

The previous June, Google Chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt had visited Cuba, with a team of Google executives including former State Department advisor Jared Cohen, and accompanied by the usual noise about a “free and open internet.”[11] Expressly criticizing the embargo, Schmidt geared his visit to scoping out future business opportunities. Soon after, Google released its Chrome browser and free versions of Google Play and Analytics in Cuba.[12] This was possible because, while the US trade embargo still remains intact to this day and can only be lifted by an act of the US Congress, Google tactfully offered free services – which fell between the cracks of the embargo – to test the waters in Cuba. As Google anticipated, the Obama Administration eased regulations in a few strategic fields including telecommunications.[13] To “initiate new efforts to increase Cubans’ access to communications and their ability to communicate freely,” the U.S. relaxed its controls to allow U.S. companies to sell telecommunications equipment and services, software, and Internet services in Cuba.[14]

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Behind “Big Data”

Over the last few years, the idea has taken hold that “big data” is driving far-reaching, and typically positive, change. “How Big Data Changes the Banking Industry,” “Big Data Is Transforming Medicine,” and “How Big Data Can Improve Manufacturing,” are characteristic headlines. “Big data” has become ubiquitous, powering everything from models of climate change to the advertisements sent to Web searchers.

Even in a society in which acronyms and sound-bites pass for knowledge, this familiar formulation stands out as vacuous. It offers us a reified name rather than an explanation of what the name means. What is the phenomenon denoted by “big data”? Why and when did it emerge? How is “it” changing things? Which things, in particular, are being changed – as opposed to merely being hyped? And last, but hardly least, are these changes desirable and, if so, for whom?

Big data is usually defined as data sets that are so large and complex – both structured and unstructured – that they challenge existing forms of statistical analysis. For instance, Google alone processes more than 40 thousand search queries every second, which equates to 3.5 billion in a day and 1.2 trillion searches per year;[1] every minute, Facebook users post 31.25 million message and views 2.77 milion video, 347,222 tweets are generated; by the year 2020, 1.8 megabytes of new information is expected to be created every second for every person on the planet.[2]

The compounding production of data – “datafication,” in one account [3] – is tied to proliferating arrays of digital sensors and probes, embedded in diverse arcs of practice. New means of storing, processing, and analyzing these data are the needed complement.

A quick etymological search finds that the term “big data” began to circulate during the years just before and after 2000.[4] Its deployments than quickened; but this seemingly sharp-edged transition into what Andrejevic and Burdon call a “sensor society”[5] actually possesses a deeper-rooted history.

The uses of statistics in prediction and control have long been entrenched, and have increased rapidly throughout the last century[6] – as is pointed out by a working group on “Historicizing Big Data” established at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. The group emphasizes that big data must not be stripped out of “a Cold War political economy,” in that “many of the precursors to 21st century data sciences began as national security or military projects in the Big Science era of the 1950s and 1960s.”[7]

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