From the Virtual World to the Real World / Yoani Sanchez #Cuba

Image taken from http://www.flickr.com/photos/ervega/532592865/

“To express yourself is freedom.” Image taken from http://www.flickr.com/photos/ervega/532592865/

The screen illuminates a face while fingers race over the keyboard. Outside, life goes on, the cars honk and a dog hurries past the door. It would appear that once across the threshold of the house the technological life would give way to reality, but at the beginning of this third millennium it is already impossible to delineate the boundary between the virtual world and the other, concrete and physical, that surrounds us. Walking the sidewalks, peering around corners, exchanging words with friends, one always has something of that other component anchored to this universe of pixels and kilobytes.

A blogger is a mongrel creature, standing between two dimensions: the area where she lives and a cyberspace of infinite possibilities for expression and creation. She is a missing link between so many phenomena: journalism and digital writing; Internet experts and the upstarts of the web; protestors with cobblestones in hand and the new civic demands via Facebook or Change.org. The dilemma between living or narrating what happens to us via Twitter; observing or clicking the iPhone’s camera; loving or sending an emoticon of a smiley face via cellphone to our partner. The dilemma of behaving as citizens only when when we are in the great World Wide Web, or also doing so in this world of honking horns, passing dogs and bodies that feel.

When we talk of being an internaut in this 21st century, we include in this word the concept of responsibility. The responsibility of assuming a public voice although we are hiding behind a pseudonym. The responsibility of exposing our opinions to the gaze of millions of potential readers. The personal and social cost of so much boldness is felt immediately to a greater or lesser degree.

The neighbor who tells us, “I read you,” with a hint of a complicit smile, the opponent who distorts our words to present them as the opposite, and even those who allude to our writings who will say, “And what made you say all that?” Once we cross this subtle line between silence and expression on the net there will be no peace… but neither will there be boredom.

If, in addition to all that, our voice on the web makes someone powerful feel uncomfortable, say a large corporation or an authoritarian government, then the effects can be more serious still. We tend to be the weakest link for the one who breaks the chain. Although we present ourselves only as victims, that doesn’t always conform to the truth. To see a blogger as a little David confronting the enormous strength of the Goliath of officialdom or of the corporate monopolies has generated a way of thinking we need to escape from.

Technology has no ethics in and of itself, it adopts the a part of the personality and behavior of whoever uses it. In blogs we find everything: from laudable altruistic projects to the most base human passions. We have made cyberspace into our own image and likeness, riddled with light and darkness that portray our baseness and our highest acts of kindness.

Image taken from http://www.flickr.com/photos/ervega/532497170/

“To express yourself is freedom.” Image taken from http://www.flickr.com/photos/ervega/532497170/

Citizens 2.0 versus Regimes 0.2

Fingers deformed from so much typing, thoughts expressed in groups of 140 characters, multitasking, the ability to read on the diagonal and a faraway look as if life does not behave like windows that open and close, recycling bin included. Anyone who is a consummate internaut has been transformed into a kind of mutant, a being trapped between the universality of its virtual spaces and the local condition of its existence.

Blogs today are a conglomeration of thematic and formal plurality, difficult to define and classify. From fabulous collectors of recipes to frustrated writers who post everything they write, sublime or ridiculous; baseball fanatics who defend, in each post, the plays of their favorite team to the forgetful who one day created a site in Blogger.com or in WordPress and there’s still nothing there but “Hello World.”

And above all, there are the blogs where we put into play life and liberty; blogs that risk everything, with the risk growing with every word published.

In countries where there is a strict government monopoly on the press, we independent informers are considered by official propaganda to be enemies, traitors, mercenaries. Coincidentally, in these societies, it usually happens that access to the Internet is restricted and severely controlled. They are, for the most part, nations where connectivity is a privilege awarded to the most reliable, or where the web ends up being a grotesquery of filtered sites, sophisticated firewalls, and disciplined technological soldiers who search through forums and portals.

It gives us the impression that to expose ourselves by having an informative or opinion-related blog under regimes of a totalitarian nature would be like shooting oneself in the head; like pointing to yourself when a cop passes by shouting, “Yes! It was me!” However — here comes the paradox — in countries like this expressing yourself in cyberspace maybe more likely to succeed than to doing so in real life.

The reprimand against dissident bloggers tends to occur most often in the physical world. Surveillance, persecution, imprisonment and, in the most dramatic cases, death as a punishment for daring to comment or report.

There are also other strategies to try to destroy us in life: the media firing squad in the official press, the stoning of our public image through defamation, intimidation of the friends who surround us, warning them to stay away, and certain threats into the ears of the people we love the most, tend to complete the “dissuasive” picture that has led to the closing of more than one controversial site.

Where the thought police have been particularly sophisticated is in the battle in cyberspace. There they counter-attack, launching waves of kilobytes against us in response to our criticisms and complaints. It is at this point that we can give in to the impulse to respond to insults with insults, screams with screams, and with this strategy the intolerant have dragged us into the path of verbal violence.

It could happen that instead of resorting to attacks as protection, we begin to dedicate a good part of the texts we write to justifying ourselves or trying to clean up our image. The anonymous accusers, then, will have managed to knock us off the social path by locking us into this labyrinth of self-defense. The responsibility is all the stronger in that case.

Many have passed through circumstances of this kind, we know that these become the moments when we truly ask ourselves for what and why did we one day lean over a computer, type a couple of sentences and publish our first post. Moments that will become increasingly frequent as we cyber-activists keep reporting. Every day we ask ourselves if it’s worth it to pay such a high public and personal price in order to relate what is happening in our respective countries.

More than a stretch of this path of doubts and fears we travel alone. Thousands of abandoned blogs, or blogs marked with a sign that says “closed” hanging on their home page, testify to this. Blogging is an endurance race hung with obstacles. And it’s more common to become entangled in one of these obstacles than to continue along the track.

It will require a good dose of willpower to manage it, but the solidarity of others will be determining. Every time makes it more difficult for authoritarian regimes to act against dissidents and defenders of human rights without provoking condemnation on the web. A label repeated ad nauseam on Twitter, a petition with thousands of signatures for the release of an individual, a flood of demanding messages to the web officials of certain governments, are strategies that bring results.

Virtual tools affect reality and make it change. Tahir Square in Egypt is perhaps the best example of that connection. The citizen dissatisfaction with a three-decade-old authoritarian government found the vital tools to bind themselves and hold together on social networks, blogs and mobile phones.

In the Arab revolutions, screens and keyboards were a channel for the rebellion, but the boiling point was reached shoulder to shoulder, body to body, in the streets. The virtual world threw all these young people back to reality, more empowered, more citizens.

23 January 2013