What can a people without emerging technology teach us about our own technology?
The recent history of Cuba starts with the Special Period, that dark decade or so after the Soviet Union collapsed. Technology, energy, and other subsidies that kept the Cuban economy afloat instantly disappeared, causing the country to contract by a third. Fossil fuels for industry and transportation, expertise for education and enterprise, food for people; it all vanished overnight.
The Special Period was extremely hard on the Cuban people, and echoes of it are still felt today. The entire country, built for Soviet material and energy inputs, had to adapt indigenous resources and ideas to run or evolve the infrastructure left behind. The survival of the Cuban people in this time of terrifying necessity rested on their incredible ingenuity and humanity.
What emerged was a series of deliberate and accidental technological revelations, spanning organic and sustainable agriculture, demand-responsive transportation, and a very quirky and effective ‘energy revolution’ that continues today.
In the last years Cuba has undergone a change in leadership, welcomed substantial foreign investment, and has precipitated rising hemispheric influence through the discovery of coveted natural resources, and the growth of strategic alliances with Venezuela, China, and others. All the while, barely 1 in 1000 people have access to the Internet in a form recognizable to the average connected person. Mobile phones are nearly as absent from the technological mix. In Trinidad de Cuba, one hustler proudly showed off his mobile phone to us, though it didn’t even have a service provider.
In its peculiar and unconventional emergence, Cuba and its people provide an important model for an expanded discussion on emerging technology. In addition to the feats of technological improvisation, Cubans display early analogues to the social technologies that are prominent today, and uncover the tension that drives our technological innovation and curiosity.
What happens when inventive people hack and play with limited technological ingredients to make best with what they have? What will happen when a cultured, literate, hyper-social people get access to the Internet for the first time? How will their virgin experiences and experimentations impact the rest of the world? Cubans teach us to strip away layers of plastic, metal, and code to the root of what technology is, and what it has always been. From a people that have been greatly anticipating the future—any future—we’ll be left with clues for the promising technologies of our own near future by looking at recent progress and universal lessons in the Cuba of today.
Gwendolyn Floyd is a co-founder of REGIONAL, an interdisciplinary design and research office that performs and applies original analysis of global society, culture and commerce, uncovering and developing opportunities for profitable innovation and meaningful cultural intervention.
With REGIONAL Gwendolyn researches and consults on the frontiers of technology and design for numerous transnational organizations. Recent projects covered sustainable habitats, ecologically integrated products and biometric interfaces.
Her current focus is how technology, art and design interact on the geopolitical spectrum of international development, environmental awareness and knowledge transfer.
Her design work has been widely published and shown most notably as part of the American National Design Triennale at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Museum. Coverage of her work has been featured in the International Design Yearbook, Wallpaper Magazine, the Financial Times and the book Ecodesign.
Gwendolyn studied cultural theory and digital anthropology at Brown University and critical design at the Design Academy in the Netherlands.
Joshua is a co-founder of REGIONAL, an interdisciplinary design and research office that performs and applies original analysis of global society, culture and commerce, uncovering and developing opportunities for profitable innovation and meaningful cultural intervention.
He is a globally-active consultant and designer, and was recently in China investigating contemporary Chinese urbanism. The environmental aspects of that research led to REGIONAL’s contribution of the entrance piece of the Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture through which 100,000 attendees passed. The piece precisely recreated to scale an anthropogenically removed mountain-ridge in Shenzhen (PRC), mapping it back onto the functioning buildings of the contemporary urban environment.
Joshua also recently consulted a principal city-builder on using digital technologies for the cultivation of productive and humane communities for newly built cities in the developing world.
Other recent projects include consultations and inquiries into the intersection of geopolitics and design. At the Hong Kong Polytechnic University he led workshop with Graduate students about strategies for assisting the responsible, sensitive and successful integration of China into the global community.
In commercial spaces Joshua has advised on technology-related urban, consumer and product strategies. He frequently facilitates dialogue between global organizations and independent experts for focused collaborative exploration and creation.
Joshua studied Globalization at Duke University.