Interview with Nestor Siré [Part II]

December 2020

Marloes de Valk is a software artist, writer, PhD researcher at the Centre for the Study of the Networked Image and thesis supervisor at Experimental Publishing at Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam.

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This is part two of a conversation between Nestor Siré and Marloes de Valk. In part one Nestor introduced himself, his artistic practice and his personal history with Cuba’s alternative networks, from book rental shops to El Paquete Semanal and SNET, the country-wide Wi-Fi mesh network run by gamers. In part two they talk about visual culture on SNET, as well as the social and physical aspect of digital networks.

Marloes de Valk

Has Teamspeak — the backbone of SNET — influenced visual culture on the network? It seems image-rich but the interface of Teamspeak is text-based...

Nestor Siré

I am currently researching the dynamics of communication within the network. One of the practices that have caught my attention is the use of symbols for the characterisation of digital identities within Teamspeak (TS) and a very particular jargon among users to identify certain actions or tastes. Much of the jargon was initially related to the language of gamers, but the vocabulary expanded. Mastering this language is essential to feel at home inside SNET, to be able to communicate and create your own identity.

For example, words such as "desatado/a" (unleashed) are attributed to very popular users, while "mal de la cabeza" (not right in the head) is reserved for those controversial users who always participate in debates and discuss everything. All words and phrases are directly represented with icons in the identity profiles of each user in TS. The icons are not selected by the users themselves; they are gradually granted by the community through moderators and administrators of each TS. A personal profile contains one image selected by the user and multiple icons or symbols that are granted by the community and form their identity within the network. This way profiles hold the middle ground between the way that users see themselves and how community members see them.

Since the 2019 policy changes, Cuba has Internet access. As a result, many young people had access to social networks for the first time. This caused some of the practices that were used in SNET, especially in relation to user names and the use of ASCII ART for digital profiles, to migrate to other platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram. This led to a subculture called The Dürâkïtøs[1]Los Dürâkïtøs is a brand-new urban teenage subculture appearing in the Cuban news since the late summer of 2019. Durakitos wear decorated masks, walk around with stuffed animals and stage elaborate photo competitions for which they divide themselves up into 'teams'. On Facebook, they change their names to special character-heavy pseudonyms which are reminiscent of heavy metal umlauts or 1990s ASCII art., although it seems to be already a little less popular.

We could say that TS is SNET's visual identity as well as the link that keeps the network alive.

Marloes de Valk

In your project!!!Sección A R T E [2015], you inserted an art section in El Paquete Semanal. Can you tell us about the project?

Nestor Siré

The project !!!Sección A R T E replicates the structure of the Paquete: it’s a directory of folders meant to be experienced without an Internet connection as a digital package of information. So a curatorial project was also inserted into El Paquete Semanal.

To date, about fifty artists have participated, including Lázaro Saavedra, Franco and Eva Mattes, Jonathan Horowitz, Penélope Umbrico, Roc Herms, Alan Butler, Joana Moll and projects such as Galería I-MAIL, Café internet, MEGATIBURÓN vs PULPO GIGANTE, Screen Walks and The Dazzle Club. The project has also featured collaborations with guest curators including Magaly Espinosa, Amy Zion, Paul Soulellis, Michael Connor, Aria Dean, Jon Uriarte and Marco de Mutiis.

Marloes de Valk

Is there space for art on SNET?

Nestor Siré

At present, the only samples of art that we see on SNET would be, precisely, the identity profiles of the users and groups within TC. Through ASCII ART they create forms and images that represent and differentiate them within the network. There are also gameplay videos shared in the forums, which could be understood as performative, but nothing more!

My intention is to connect the curatorial concept of !!!Sección ARTE with SNET; to present several of the projects of !!!Sección ARTE through a hosted server within SNET for a Cuban audience. At the same time, I want to create an archive of international projects that intervene in these offline platforms.

The projects presented in these two spaces will become public information, being able to be edited, modified, reconfigured and reproduced, with an approximate reach of ten million people throughout Cuba.

Marloes de Valk

In Western Europe, repair culture has pretty much disappeared. It is often impossible to repair electronic devices, something the Right to Repair movement is fighting hard to change. Repairing instead of discarding is one of the most significant things we can do to limit the environmental damage the rapid 'upgrade or die' cycle of the tech industry is causing. Can you describe the Cuban situation?

Nestor Siré

In the Cuban context, these actions have a direct relation with precariousness. The culture of repair in Cuba was strengthened, above all, during the economic crisis of the 1990s; a period often described with the euphemism “Período especial en tiempos de paz” (Special period in peacetime). After the fall of the socialist camp in 1990 and the tightening of the US embargo on Cuba, there was a collapse of the economy. This led to an unparalleled recession from which Cuba has still not recovered. As a result, creative practices were accentuated and became essential to ensure the basics.

Repair and recycling skills were facilitated and institutionalised through a movement called Asociación Nacional de Innovadores y Racionalizadores (National Association of Innovators and Rationalists). In 1992 the magazine Verde Olivo, an organ of the armed forces, published the book Con nuestros propios esfuerzos, a compendium of hacks from everyday life to solve the shortages, precariousness and absence of industrial products for home use through repair and innovation.

Marloes de Valk

And how are things today?

Nestor Siré

Today there is no extreme crisis like that of the 1990s, but many of these practices have remained as alternatives to certain problems. Personally, I learned to repair and maintain my bike. This logic extends to numerous social practices of sustainability, recycling and repair that today are understood as the solution to survive on a planet that is increasingly dying from pollution and irrational consumption.

Unfortunately, I believe that Cubans, in general, would be happy to become aggressive consumers, since the practices that exist in Cuba are mainly a response towards the crisis, rather than due to an environmental conscience.

However, some government institutions, NGO’s and art groups are increasingly addressing these issues and try to raise awareness in the community. One of the main ways is by communicating these activities as positive and trying to combat the popular imagination that understands these practices only as signs of poverty.

Marloes de Valk

Many people with unrestricted access to the Internet are longing for tools and infrastructures that benefit them and their communities, rather than large corporations. Do you believe the alternative networks of Cuba can be an inspiration to them, even though they live in radically different contexts?

Nestor Siré

I'm sure they can, or at least I hope so. The alternative networks in Cuba were not created as an alternative option to the monopoly of the multinationals that control the Internet. These networks emerged naturally as a response to certain socio-political situations and to the scarcity of infrastructure needed for digital interaction in Cuban society.

I believe that both SNET and El Paquete Semanal contain many decentralised and democratic socio-technical dynamics and structures, which could be implemented in other contexts. They are living proof that there can be parallel functional alternatives to online services on a scale of millions of users.

Marloes de Valk

For most people in Europe connecting to network services is so easy and seamless, no skills or understanding of network infrastructure are needed. Do you think the collectively built infrastructure of SNET makes for more skilled, knowledgeable and therefore resilient users?

Nestor Siré

SNET is a network created and maintained by the users themselves, many of them without any technical knowledge of networks. However, the administrators, in their majority, create teams with graduates of computer science universities. In one way or another, the network users are forced to learn about basic network configuration, since SNET is not a service to which one subscribes but rather a community of which one is part.

What I have seen in my interaction with the network is that there is a willingness to learn and adapt, to be self-sufficient. You can find experts without any computer-related qualifications. Everything comes from interest. The willingness to learn, adapt and be self-sufficient is not merely a Cuban condition. I think that this type of infrastructure, created by a community, tends to involve its users at other levels. I would not be able to say if this makes users more aware, but at least it gives them more control over their connectivity and generates a greater sense of community and belonging.

Marloes de Valk

You are working on a new project, "The People's Node". Can you tell us a little bit about it, even though it is still a work in progress?

Nestor Siré

Together with Luis Rodil-Fernandez, I am working on publishing an easy-to-use, do-it-yourself toolkit to create your own mesh network node in a sensitive techno-political environment. We aim at providing interested citizens with the means to reclaim sovereignty over their telecommunications, using the Republic of Cuba as a case study.

We are interested in strategies for the development, documentation and inter-operation of citizen-owned networks, what such networks can fulfil in our hyper-connected times and how they can connect to each other in ways that are resilient, consensual and independent from industry.

Marloes de Valk

One of the aims of the project — to use as little resources as possible — is very urgent. Network infrastructure is a growing source of CO2 emissions and pollution, through the production of electronic devices, the mining of minerals needed for their creation, the energy they consume while in use and the e-waste they eventually become. In which ways are you approaching resource minimalism in your project?

Nestor Siré

The People’s Node aims to use as little equipment as possible, and use software and hardware that is as simple as possible by optimising the assembly process and simplifying its operation. This also extends to the use of free software and friendly configurations for domestic use. Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) can extend the use of equipment by providing software updates as long as there are active developers, even if manufacturers stop supporting specific devices.

I think that the networks already existing in Cuba, with thousands of users connected, are proof that there are other ways, less polluting and more democratic, to connect person-to-person. It shows that it is possible for users with no experience in networks to manage their own equipment and connectivity. And taking out of the equation the large production of equipment and all the waste produced by the corporations that control the Internet today.

Marloes de Valk

Can MMORPGs like World of Warcraft run unaltered on SNET and if not what has to be done to make it work, what are the obstacles system administrators have to deal with?

Nestor Siré

Based on talks with some users and my own experience, there is a lot of reverse engineering going on, regarding the game server bases, which are all mounted on a pirated STEAM. But the World of Warcraft server, for example, was donated directly by Blizzard for the Cuban community, through one of the RoG (Republic of Gamers) NODE administrators. Then, RoG users and administrators organized themselves and continued to work on the server. They created many features adapted to the specificities of the Cuban offline network.

Cuba produces practically no technology, and it is illegal for travellers to bring network equipment into the country through airports. SNET administrators and users have to pay high prices for Wi-Fi antennas and are in constant danger of having them stolen. At present, thanks to the merger of SNET with the Joven Club, this situation is changing. The State now allows network equipment to pass through customs with an approved request from administrators or registered users to the Ministry of Communications (MINREC).

Marloes de Valk

To wrap up, a little dreaming… What would you love to see happen in Cuban net culture in the coming years?

Nestor Siré

This is a question that I have asked myself, especially in relation to the continuity of these networks once the access to the Internet becomes cheaper and more stable for all Cubans.

As for El Paquete Semanal, I do not think it will disappear, but obviously, its content will change and many of the micro phenomena that exist today, such as advertising, will migrate to the Internet, as is already happening gradually. Also, many of the Paquete services will migrate to the Internet, leaving the network with a smaller number of users, and with a narrower focus on forums and game services. SNET on the other hand is a solid enough community to stay around.

I believe that the major problems that Cuban society will face in the next few years regarding the digital future are not unrelated to what is happening in the world. Cubans, who are not natives to the Internet, are extremely vulnerable and we must learn several lessons that in other contexts have already become apparent. I have several projects in development that focus on social digital education, for example, aiming at sharing experiences as well as allowing users to be reflective about the benefits and harms. In Cuba, concepts like big data and online surveillance do not exist. I think it is important to prepare our society, that has made a radical leap into a new digital ecosystem.

The biggest challenge is to provide the tools to generate thinking that allows us not to stumble upon the same stone.

Marloes de Valk

Thank you, Nestor, for this conversation!

This was part two of a two-part interview. Read the first part, here.

References

[1]

Los Dürâkïtøs is a brand-new urban teenage subculture appearing in the Cuban news since the late summer of 2019. Durakitos wear decorated masks, walk around with stuffed animals and stage elaborate photo competitions for which they divide themselves up into 'teams'. On Facebook, they change their names to special character-heavy pseudonyms which are reminiscent of heavy metal umlauts or 1990s ASCII art.