Information scarcity in Haiti

When I visited my family in Haiti this summer, I was culture shocked. Culture-floored even. It was like being on another planet. And it was hard to live there, despite my dad’s efforts to pamper me.

The food was good but did a number on my stomach. I dealt. The weather was excruciatingly hot and I got sun exposure that made me puke my guts out. Whatevs. At my sister’s high school graduation I experienced dehydration that made me want to cry. Meh. Every day I was swarmed by mosquitoes, accumulating about 200 bites at one point. It’s the food chain. One of them probably gave me Dengue fever. If it was that, it was a mild case — could’ve been worse.

But the thing that made me really uncomfortable, that made me throw up my hands and exclaim “How do you live like this???” was the lack of Internet, and thus the lack of information and communication.

If you know me, that won’t come as much of a surprise. But hear me out, because this is not entirely a bratty complaint coming from a privileged American.

My family has three computers. They have what looks like a standard broadband modem and a wireless router. My sister is used to getting online and chatting with her friends via MSN messenger and checking email and stuff. But, she is also used to going without it. She doesn’t depend on the Internet, just like she doesn’t depend on electricity. To many Americans, myself included, these things are necessities, but to them they are luxuries.

Even though they have the hardware for high-speed computing, Haiti’s infrastructure is the limiting factor. You’ve likely heard discussions of bandwidth allotment, and how some Internet Service Providers in the U.S. have been limiting the bandwidth that individuals and networks are allowed. Bandwidth essentially determines the speed you are able to do things online, and refers to the rate of transfer of information “packets”. People who download movies are considered “bandwidth hogs” because, since they are doing something that consumes a lot of the available bandwidth, there is less available for others, making their computing processes slower. One of the reasons why you have to wait for a YouTube video to buffer before you can watch the whole thing seamlessly is low bandwidth. If you think low bandwidth is a problem anywhere in the US, you should see it in Haiti. If you want to watch a one-minute YouTube video, you have to pause it and wait for it to load for ten minutes. Sites like Netflix, Blip.fm, Hulu>> Don’t even try it. Want better transfer rates? Too bad. There’s only one commercial ISP in the country.

In addition to the low bandwidth another factor limiting computing is the lack of electricity. A tropical storm knocked the grid power out during the first week of my stay this summer, leaving individuals to rely on gas-powered generators and inverters to power their home appliances. With gas being pretty expensive before, and really expensive in the aftermath of the earthquakes, getting online is not a priority or possibility for most. It prompted a few humorous, “Daaaad, can you run the generators? I need to check my emaaaailll” moments this summer, to which my sister would smile and shake her head and my dad would say, “Yeah sure, I’ll get right on that,” and go back to reading the newspaper.

Us Americans, we leave lights on when we’re not home or in a room. We leave appliances plugged in when we’re not using them. We waste electricity in all kinds of ways. In Haiti, you don’t. Our electricity consumption is tallied into a bill that is delivered to us at the end of the month, and any wastefulness catches up with us then. But in Haiti, you have to calculate how much gas is in the generator and how much power is in the inverters to figure out if you’ll have enough time to finish an email, or a movie, or charge a cell phone. I always make it a point to turn the lights out when I leave my apartment now.

There’s also the matter of Web services in Haiti. The fourth day I was there, we heard via radio that there was a riot downtown at the funeral of a Bishop for reasons I still don’t understand. The UN was there and the report said that four people were shot. This of course, sounded very startling to me, so I went online to try to find out what was happening.

I soon learned there is no Google News Haiti. In fact, the Google services you can access in Haiti are severely limited compared to what they are in the states. The prioritization of search is completely different and it assumes your preferred language is French. In the U.S. when there is a shooting, you can’t not hear about it through every medium possible. But I couldn’t find any information about the downtown shooting whatsoever. So I asked my sister, “WTF, why can’t I find out what’s happening, where are all the journalists?”

“I dunno. I guess they’re too busy running,” she replied nonchalantly.

I checked online almost every day but I never found an explanation of what had happened.  My sister shrugged off the shootings with a “meh” attitude. My dad actually laughed at my reaction. He went upstairs, came back down with four guns and said “Are you still scared? Here, take one of these, let’s go downtown and find out what’s happening!” I was not amused.

But I guess that’s part of living in Haiti — being content with not knowing. But that contentment could be a dangerous thing. I am a firm believer that knowledge is power, and would venture that one of the reasons why rampant corruption has existed in Haitian government is because most people don’t have access to knowledge of what exactly they’re up to. The government there isn’t checked by the media the way that it is in the United States, and even if it was, it might not matter because the information gathered would only reach those in the top 5 percent of Haiti’s income distribution graph — the people who are in the position to influence political decisions anyway.

This might be me being idealistic, but maybe if, in the process of rebuilding Haiti, there is as much of an effort to get people wired as there is to get them water, the segregational constructs that allowed previous corrupt regimes to keep the masses in poverty will no longer be able to stand.

One thought on “Information scarcity in Haiti

  1. FrauTech

    That kind of thing reminds me of the early days of the internet here. I wonder if, like you said, infrastructure will improve or competition might improve the broadband services. Or, if like in many parts of Asia, they’ll just bypass that stage of the information age and head straight to data plans on smartphones that are controlled by satellites or easy to build cell towers rather than cable laid underground. I agree that lack of access to that information is certainly bad for democracy and good for government corruption.

    Reply

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