Inside Cuba's massive, weekly, human-curated sneakernet

Most Cubans have terrible access to the Internet — estimates suggest only 5-25% of the populace can regularly get online. The government made it a bit easier in recent years with paid wifi hotspots, but they require dough, and they're super slow.

So Cubans have instead, in the last decade, evolved a complex, massive sneakernet. It's called "El Paquete Semanal", or "The Weekly Package" — in which a loosely-connected group of Cubans assemble a bunch of files (video, audio, web pages, texts) and distribute them around the country via external hard drives, CDs and USB sticks. It's pretty stunning: A weekly curated version of the best of the global Internet, mixed with a ton of locally-produced Cuban content, too. The upshot is a population that is fully conversant in contemporary global TVs, movie and music, except they get it all via USB port and DVD drive.

A group of academics did a deep dive into how El Paquete works, and their paper is free online. They met with "Los Maestros" — the folks who download and compile the material, relying on their own crowdsourced networks of Cubans who get files off the creaky public wifi, or, in the case of bigger files, from contributors who have fatter bandwidth at their government or university jobs. The Maestros also act as promoters of local content, finding Cuban music and video and putting that in El Paquete.

The next step in the chain is Los Paqueteros — "The Packagers" — who are the distributors: They buy the weekly package from the Maestros, and sell files to everyday customers. They work as librarians of a sort, helping people find the content they're looking for …

On a narrow street in Havana Vieja, we visited a bottom-floor apartment with a blinking, rainbow-colored sign that read "OPEN." Inside, the front room of this house had been converted into a shop with a desk, couch, and a wall full of DVDs packaged in colorful paper envelopes. Ricardo, one of the shop owners, sat behind the desk scrolling through digital files on his Dell desktop computer as a middle-aged woman, Aileen, looked on. "Copy me something good," she told him, "Whatever you recommend." Ricardo quickly navigated through several folders on his screen until he got to the soap opera section. "I'm going to put a soap opera on here for you that you're going to like, just the first season," he told her. "If you don't, just bring it back and we'll find you something else." Aileen pulled out a USB stick from her purse and handed it to Ricardo who got up from his chair to plug the USB into the computer tower on the floor behind his PC. As he began to copy the files onto the USB, Aileen told him that she had been having trouble with her phone. Ricardo told her to come back later in the day and that he would help her install the latest software update that just came out in the week's EP. "See," he told us, "I not only sell them content, I help people in my community with everything."

Interestingly, Los Paqueteros also work as filters and censors, which they pitch as a service to customers, with each packager having a different sensibility:

Paqueteros also clean or censor EP, most often to ensure that their content is high-quality or that it does not contain overtly anti-government messages. At other times, censoring is due to personal beliefs or beliefs of customers. For example, Renier has been selling EP for six years and the majority of his 100 clients are religious. Renier shared that his religious views impact the way in which he compiles his version of EP:

"Sometimes I clean EP when it arrives. That is, I remove what I consider to be obscene things that are against the Christian theme. [My] EP comes from me and I do not like to distribute something with content that is not good. If there is something I do not approve of, I try to eliminate that section. It's like censoring. "—Renier (M, 35)

Renier's customers, therefore, receive an offline internet that is censored based on his sensitivities. Renier's view is that he censors his material as an extra service for customers and, if they do not approve, they can find a different Paquetero with a different EP

Parents hunt around between different packagers to find educational stuff for their children …

Zamira visits multiple Paqueteros and asks friends in order to find educational content that is appropriate for her five year-old granddaughter. She also searches for "items from Discovery, " a phrase that alludes to content from the Discovery Channel but has evolved to mean any documentary film:

"It's important for people to have a larger view of what is in the world. I love watching Los Discovery because it allows me to see what life is like for people all over the world. This is important for us here. "—Zamira (F, 74)

The weekly package also includes the latest copy of Revolico, which is the Craiglist of Cuba
— the packagers will download it, sometimes formatting all its postings in PDFs that people can more easily print to hand around.

It's a pretty remarkable system, I gotta say.

Also: One thing that struck me was how the valuable curation in El Paquete is human, and not algorithmic. Out here in America, we're struggling with the problems of abundance: How do you sort through and find the useful stuff amongst the Niagaran postings online? Years ago the major social networks and content sites like Facebook and Youtube decided that the only way was algorithmic recommender systems — which scaled easily, sure, but with the emergent problems of algorithmic gameability, inscrutability and loopy bias.

In contrast, El Paquete actually reminds me of the early "social" Internet of the late 90s and early 00s. It, too, relied on human curation: Links posted on discussion boards and email lists, bloggers finding stuff, RSS stitching things together. Those cultural mechanisms have been pushed to the margins of the Internet, but some people still enjoy them: Hey, you're reading this on Boing Boing, right?

BTW, if you want another slice of Cuba's online world, check out the terrific piece that Antonio García Martínez wrote for Wired last summer, where he visited members of El Paquete and reported on hackers that have meshed together their own parallel intertubes, complete with Cuban versions of all the major US social services.

(CC-licensed photo via Bojana Brkovic)


Thanks to Fred Benenson for pointing out this one to me!)