Connected in Cuba: TEDxHabana 2015 Report

Edwina Throsby

TEDxSydney 2016 · 25 May 2016

TEDxSydney Head of Curatorial, Edwina Throsby, reports from TEDxHabana 2015:

With hundreds of TED talks watched millions of times online, thousands of TEDx events around the world generating tens of thousands more TEDx talks that can be watched online, it’s hard to imagine that there’s anywhere left in our hyper-connected world that is not thoroughly familiar with the form.  But what about a capital city whose regular citizens have had easy access to the internet for less that a year?

The weekend before last, TEDxHabana was held for the second time ever.  The first time was last year, and the event was a triumph, filling a small theatre and earning a standing ovation from its audience, many of whom had never heard of TED or TEDx before.  This year, the ambitions of the organiser, curator and licensee Andres Levin, expanded to fill all 2,500 seats in the National Theatre of Cuba.  I was fortunate to be in one of those seats, with TEDxSydney founder and licensee Remo Giuffre next to me and the simultaneous translation devices pressed to our ears.

There was a wonderful local-ness to the program.  Most of the speakers were Cubans talking about Cuban issues.  The surgeon general Gilberto Fleites outlined his impressive idea for an entirely green hospital.  Mariela Castro (daughter of Raoul) compared the feminist revolution with the communist revolution, and argued for the importance of rights for women and LGBTI people.  But the most recurrent theme of the conference was, unsurprisingly, connectivity, with systems analyst Dadne Carbonell and several of the other speakers discussing the impact that access to the internet is having on Cuban culture and society.

If you’re an ordinary person living in Cuba and you want to get online, you buy a ticket with a pass code, and you take your device to one of a handful of WiFi connected public hotspots.  In Havana, they are in parks, squares, and on street corners.  You enter the code and hope that you will be able to get online.  Crowds of Habaneros gather in these hotspots, often sharing headphones to watch online videos.  This creates an interesting paradox.  There is a common view in more cyber-developed countries, usually expressed in terms of moral panic, that online culture is eroding real-life social activity.  But this simply doesn’t apply in these crowded, friendly public squares.

Sitting in the cheering audience at TEDxHabana, trying unsuccessfully to get online so I could see what sort of internet buzz the event was generating, I finally gave up and settled in for the in-real-life pleasure of seeing a community coming together to share ideas in a way that is, for them, quite new.  As the show ended with all the speakers and organisers on stage dancing to brilliant music of legendary multi-instrumentalist Alain Perez and his band, it was easy to see the event becoming a regular fixture in the intellectual and cultural calendar of the rapidly-changing capital.

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