Take a closer look, freedom-lovers

Around this time last year, I had a meeting with a graphic designer who had come to my former office to bid on a project. The designer’s name was Bob. Eager to get our business, he asked me about my research and we discovered that we had something in common. Bob had also been to Cuba. A former jiu jitsu master, he had traveled to Havana with the US jiu jitsu team.

When I asked about his impressions of Cuba, he skipped straight to the end of the trip. The team’s return flight had departed late, and for reasons that went unexplained, the athletes had been made to wait for their aircraft on the tarmac, as opposed to in the shady, humid environs of Jose Martí International Airport.

I quietly take pleasure in the perennial challenges and inconveniences of travel in underdeveloped countries. When no amount of complaining or haggling will improve the situation, you give up. You get a chance to watch the people around you, think about where you’re going and about where you’ve been. What began as a harrowing rush becomes a laid back affair. But Bob had no such appreciation for the experience.

“They had us sittin’ out there, in the blazing hot sun,” he told me. “We had our bags with us and everything. And you know what? After a little while it was like, I started feelin’ like a political prisoner.”

I let out half a laugh.

“Really,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s just terrible there.”

He meant this in earnest. Bob believed that the extremely temporary inconvenience suffered by the jiu jitsu team, which seemed to have caused no actual harm to anyone (with the potential exception of the fairer-skinned members of the team), was apt for comparison to the reality of politically-motivated incarceration in Cuba.  The results of US mainstream media mythology about that country turn up in the darnedest places.

As bizarre as it was, I figured Bob was not all that different from most Americans. He didn’t claim to have any expertise on Cuba–he was just giving his impressions of the place, which is fine, drenched as they were in preconceptions. I expect the Bobs of the world to continue thinking this way.

I’ve been thinking of Bob lately because I’ve begun to encounter people in the digital rights community who claim to have some knowledge about Cuba and the politics and policies of Internet use there, but whose understanding of the political and human rights situation on the island is not much deeper than Bob’s was. In the mainstream world, this kind of ignorance is disappointing, but it’s tolerable. In the digital rights community, it’s not. It is a problem.

I attended an event recently at which the speaker described the situation of Internet access in Cuba. In addition to getting certain facts wrong, he compared Raúl Castro to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chávez, and various other commanders-in-chief around the world who, to quote George W. Bush, are best known for “hating freedom.” Rather than simply mentioning these ‘freedom-haters’ by name, he showed a series of slides depicting each leader cowering in a corner of a room, opposite a piece of communications technology–a computer monitor, a smart phone, a mouse. Dictators are afraid of technology because it threatens their power. This was the main thrust of the presentation–there was no deeper argument, no new insights or information.

I think there is no gain to be reaped from surface-level Cuba research that leads to the same simplistic conclusions that we hear uttered on the evening news from time to time. Cubans are helpless. Cubans have no Internet access and no knowledge of the outside world. Cubans ache for freedom. Similar narratives are familiar to anyone who studies China, sanctioned countries in the MENA region, and a range of other places.

It is perfectly true that political leaders of various persuasions see technology (in the hands of citizens) as a potential threat to their power and stability. Fine. But the kind of rhetoric that I’m referring to typically stops there. Somehow, we are made to assume that once a country is “not free” on some imaginary “fundamental” level, there’s nothing more to know. Somehow, it is assumed that this is the only thing that matters. There is no legitimate consideration of what is happening there or what one can do to learn more. Not very progressive, not very thoughtful, and not very Internet-y, is it?

If in any given country the Internet acts as a mirror, a space that reflects certain truths about the ways and wants of the nation, then I think it is irresponsible to claim expertise on the Internet in any country if one does not know a good deal about it economy, its politics, and its culture.

Like any society, Cuba is complex, and yes, its unique political and economic systems make it particularly difficult to understand how things work there. But this should be all the more reason to dig deeper: do careful research, consult a range of sources, and be discerning in what you believe. And there has never been a better time to do this: the Internet allows people off the island to learn about life in Cuba in ways that simply weren’t possible a decade ago.

If digital rights advocates want to be supportive of on-island efforts to increase access to technology and information, they must listen carefully to Cubans in Cuba, and they must listen to a diverse range of individuals. The members of the fragmented dissident community, or those of the most combative corner of the nation’s diverse blogosphere, have important perspectives. But they are not the only Cubans bringing their ideas to the table, nor are they the only Cubans who are active online.

I do not defend the human rights record of the Cuban government, nor do I defend its abuses of Cubans’ civil and political rights. But I know enough about Cuba to say that I think it’s counterproductive and actually harmful to perpetuate such overly simplistic narratives. If advocates want to take a stand against government practices, they must understand how they work, where they come from, and what effects they really have on people. And they must think strategically about what kinds of pressure could bring change, and what kinds of pressure will do nothing but exacerbate the status quo.

There is so much to learn about what is happening there, and unlike in the past, we have an amazing new tool that allows us to do this. Many people in the space, both in and outside of Cuba, are working on citizen media projects that are having a marked impact on interconnections and public knowledge about civil society in Cuba. I hope our colleagues will soon begin to do the same.

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Filed under Intellectual community, Technology in Cuba

Love and loathing in Latin America’s second capital (it’s Miami)

Last week, Miami Marlins’ manager Ozzie Guillén told Time magazine that he “loves” Fidel Castro, and saluted the elderly leader for his many successes at avoiding assassination. “I respect Fidel,” Guillén said. “That son-of-a-bitch is still here.” This unleashed a supposedly deafening outcry in south Florida, prompting the Marlins to suspend Ozzie for five games, and eliciting a public, very emotional mea culpa from the loud-mouthed manager to the community that he now calls home.

Right-wing bloggers in Miami are calling the public fury over Guillén’s comments evidence that the conservative Cuban-American community in Latin America’s “second capital” is as loud and strong as ever. But talk of the incident on social media indicated that this infamous constituency is, as we’ve known for a while, not the only one in Miami that cares about Cuba-related issues.

Late last week I conducted an informal content analysis of tweets posted from April 11-14 that contained references to Guillén (with and without hashtag #OzzieGuillen), in both Spanish and English. While there were plenty of tweets that berated Ozzie for being insensitive to Cuban exiles, or mockingly suggested that he probably thinks Adolph Hitler was “the best,” the majority of Guillén-related tweets took a different tone. A few people joked that, thanks to Guillén, George Zimmerman had been demoted to “second most wanted man in Florida.” Most users either forgave him for being a loose cannon, or shook a finger at the Marlins for undermining Ozzie’s right to free speech. Many called the move hypocritical. Cuba-American Miami Herald columnist Armando Salguero (@ArmandoSalguero) tweeted:

RE: Ozzie Guillen saying he loves or respects Fidel Castro, my folks brought me to U.S. so I’d could speak my mind. Others get same right.

There was not quite the groundswell around the “boycott the Marlins” or “fuera Ozzie” sentiment on which the mainstream press so dutifully reported.

On YouTube, videos of an anti-Ozzie demonstration outside of Marlins’ stadium show a group of about a hundred people milling around with “Fuera Ozzie” signs and occasionally shouting the same. At one moment, they come together and begin shouting “boycott” as fifteen or twenty cameramen document the scene. Most of the people in the video are retirement age—there is one prominent woman who appears to be in her thirties, but the group otherwise supports the notion that Miami’s conservative exile community is getting old, and that younger generations are not joining the ranks of what I have come to think of as the “old” guard.

I see no connection between Guillén’s politics and his formidable ability to manage a baseball team. Guillén has obviously done nothing wrong. But I don’t live in under a rock—constitutional and civil rights are not exactly held in high order in Florida these days, and in the Miami exile community, the rules of the game are somewhat different. As a private employer, the Marlins had the right to suspend Ozzie, and they didn’t do it because they care about his politics—they did it because they can’t afford to lose ticket-buyers over the incident. The tide may be turning in Miami, but there are still thousands of fans who are upset about this and will probably show it by giving up their season tickets this year. Local politicians can’t afford it either—the Marlins’ new stadium was built with local tax dollars, and taxpayers are perfectly aware of this.

I recognize that the conservative exile voice remains extremely powerful in Miami, but I’ve come to suspect that this power lies mainly in the hands of political and business elites, and an aging group of “hardliners”–these folks represent some portion of the population, but not all of it. When President Obama carried Miami-Dade county with 58% of the vote in Miami-Dade county in 2008, it became clear that some kind of shift is underway. I hope that what Twitter, YouTube and other social media sites showed last week is evidence that this is not just a liberal media myth, but a sign of a different generation with a different outlook towards Cuba, and towards Washington. I also hope that traditional media folks (I’m looking at you, @Inquirer_2012 and @MedillWatchdog) can heed this as a little lesson in how social media can augment and diversify their coverage of public opinion on red hot controversies like this one.

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The cyberwar continues

Two weeks ago, AP’s Desmond Butler obtained copies of several reports filed by USAID subcontractor Alan Gross on his ultimately ill-fated “tech support” mission to Cuba and wrote a long piece detailing his findings. Gross is now serving a fifteen-year prison sentence in Cuba after being found guilty of “acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state,” for bringing a large amount of tech equipment into Cuba without obtaining authorization to do so.

According to Butler, Gross coordinated the transport of “12 iPods, 11 BlackBerry Curve smartphones, three MacBooks, six 500-gigabyte external drives, three Internet satellite phones known as BGANs, three routers, three controllers, 18 wireless access points, 13 memory sticks, three phones to make calls over the Internet, and networking switches” from the US into Cuba. All told, these numbers are substantial—I have to imagine that immigration authorities in any country would look on such actions suspiciously. Only an extreme few would go so far as to call this a threat to national sovereignty. But this is Cuba—and Gross was sent there by the US government.

The reports also describe the lengths Gross went to in trying to cover his tracks. In the eyes of the Cuban government, Gross’ good intentions of bringing technology to a needy community were irrelevant: he was bringing in communications technologies that are highly contested in Cuba, and are increasingly characterized as “weapons” in the ideological war against the US.

I believe that increasing Cubans’ access to technology has become vital to civil society on the island, but Gross’ experience has shown that US-based organizations, particularly those receiving public funds, must find a new and more transparent way to approach this kind of work.

While the case has brought a terrible set back to US-Cuba relations on a number of levels, it also has coincided with an increasingly belligerent conceptualization of the Internet and social media in official discourse.

While authorities there have rarely lauded the Internet as a space of information exchange and connection, over the last year there has been a noticeable hardening of official rhetoric about the web. In press statements, “leaked” videos, and television news programs, the Internet has been portrayed as a space of conflict, an ideological battlefield where the “ciberguerra” being fought is simply a virtual rendition of the “war” in which Cuba and the US have been engaged since 1961. I imagine that many Cubans, particularly those living outside the capitol, have been introduced to the Internet in this way. And I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t accept many of these ideas as fact.

I had held out hope that Cuba’s fiber optic cable would bring some degree of change to the nature of Internet use for at least some Internet users on the island. But we haven’t heard an official peep about that cable since March of 2011—just days after Gross’ trial.

The covert nature of his mission, to which the reports attest, does little but reinforce the idea that ICTs are a new, powerful weapon in the ideological battle between Cuba and the United States. This nasty paradigm has dominated relations between the two countries for decades; perhaps the Internet piece of it is simply a new iteration of the same argument. But it’s upsetting. There have been moments of progress in US-Cuba relations in recent years, many of which have been associated with family relations as well as cultural and scholarly exchange. Fundamentally, these moments have reflected the importance of connection and mutual understanding across borders. The potential for the Internet to allow Cubans and Americans to build on these kinds of connections is immeasurable. But I’m not sure what it will take for Cuban leaders to begin to see it this way.

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In Cuba, art is a public good (but the Internet will have to wait)

In addition to triggering the greatest civic hell-raising in Internet history and inspiring numerous nonsensical quips about Latin cuisine and Kate Middleton’s younger sister, the SOPA/PIPA laws have touched a nerve in Cuba’s digital community. Bloggers from a diverse range of political perspectives are interpreting the proposed legislation not merely as a law on piracy, but as a powerful statement about how the US values culture and creativity as part of society.

Voces Cubanas blogger Regina Coyula’s post on SOPA was particularly moving. She wrote of the FBI’s partial shutdown of file locker site MegaUpload, which took place shortly after Wednesday’s Internet blackout, describing the event as follows:

“‘The bad guys,’ those who wield freedom as a paradigm, with allegations of piracy, encroached [upon] the also alleged right of millions of citizens of the global village to download content that they know they should not — or cannot — pay for.”

Note: the freedom-wielding “bad guys” are U.S. officials who plead for reforms in Cuba by offering the (perhaps empty-seeming) promise of the inherent good that democratic values could bring to the island. She continued:

“The issue is extremely complicated for me, a semi-surfer from a semi-connected country. I assume that the technologies have developed faster than the copyright laws and I assume that these illegal downloads don’t affect the artists themselves so much, as it geometrically multiplies the distribution of their work (provided there is no plagiarism and credit is given) as a form of advertising.

It’s true that there is a symbiotic relationship between art and the marketing that puts it in the hands of the consumers. But to see art as a commodity has resulted in the promotion of products of dubious quality at the expense of other values. I don’t consider myself an elitist or an expert; the simple perception of success and popularity reveals very aggressive publicity campaigns. […] At some point, a balance must be achieved between both interests.”

Coyula makes two very important points: first, file-sharing sites provide something akin to a public good—they benefit people who otherwise cannot access or afford their contents in other ways. Second, these are laws that ostensibly favor commercial interests over the cultural commons and the “gift economy” in which art is created, re-created, and circulated. Most Cubans writing on the issue agreed on this point, and reason for this seems clear: in Cuba, culture has been legally enshrined as a public good since the triumph of the revolution.

In 1961, the revolutionary government made a bold, robust commitment to supporting artists and writers and making art accessible for all Cubans. While this wrought bitter controversies over what it meant for artists to join their fellow citizens in the trenches of an ideological war, it also led to the creation of a strong system of support for artists and cultural institutions that remains highly active today. In Cuba, one can attend the national ballet for just a few pesos more than it costs to buy a movie ticket. Access to culture is not a privilege of the upper classes—it’s a right that all Cubans share.

Yet most Cubans are far worse off than any American when it comes to accessing information and media online. There, the Internet remains a battlefield, a contested space where government authorities and the official press denounce the United States’ cyberwar on Cuba, and the boundless universe of culture and knowledge online is scarcely mentioned. Cuban authorities have elected to limit Internet use presumably in order to dampen the effects of political speech and economic activity online—they feel they must control such activity in order to preserve the socialist project.

If things had played out differently last week, and SOPA/PIPA were looking inevitable for us, we would have to get used to the idea of our government that limiting Internet use in order to placate content (music and film) industries. SOPA or not, we are far better off than Cubans when it comes to Internet use. But the question of what motivates our government to limit the Internet is still worth earnest consideration: are we a society that is okay with commercial interests trumping those of public goods? Congress may be, but last week’s uproar suggested that millions of us are not. I hope people are willing to keep sending this message to Congress, because it may take more than an Internet blackout to truly win this one.

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Filed under Art community, Blogs out of Cuba, Intellectual community, Technology in Cuba

Free isn’t easy

As I study Internet use and human rights in different parts of the world, I am routinely struck by how difficult it is to make speech truly “free,” even when policymakers and citizens seem to agree that this is a good choice.

Last spring I wrote about a video interview conducted by journalist and fellow blogger Tracey Eaton with John McAuliff, founder of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, a non-profit organization that advocates for developing respectful diplomatic and political relationships between the US and communist/post-communist countries.

"Your URL is blocked!" Screenshot by tonystl. CC BY-ND.

McAuliff spoke of how we must understand rights not as static illustrations of what is good or moral, but rather as products of history. As he spoke to Eaton about the lack of free speech and free assembly in Cuba, he invoked the Civil Rights movement in the US, pointing out  that less than five decades ago, US citizens lived in a fundamentally and legally unequal society. He said to Eaton:

“If so recently in American history that was part of our culture and our legal system, the fact that these things exist today in Cuba doesn’t mean that they’re going to exist ten years from now or twenty years from now.”

Many of us think of free speech as an unquestionable good—it sits at the level of ethics or morals and it seems indestructible as an idea. But clearly it’s not. Yesterday, Global Voices, Wikipedia, Google, and thousands of other websites participated in a strike in protest of SOPA and PIPA, two very bad pieces of anti-piracy legislation in the House and Senate. If passed, these bills could severely hinder free speech and innovation online, in the name of protecting copyright holders. I think it’s fair to say that since the First Amendment was written, lawyers, policymakers, and the US judicial system have worked very hard to interpret, protect, and apply this law as time has worn on and technology has evolved. We have come a long way. But the bills currently in Congress show that we may still have a long way to go.

As I juxtapose SOPA and Cuba’s limitations on free speech, it may sound like I’m comparing apples and mangoes—on several levels, this is true. But my point is that high-level political rights don’t come easy, and that even when you have these rights, you have to work hard to uphold them. For Cuba, it is hard to imagine when free (or even free-er) speech will become a possibility. The good news for people in many other parts of the world is that we have the power to act in support of good laws. If you vote in the US, and you want the Internet to stay open and free, visit americancensorship.org and give Congress a piece of your mind.

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In Mexico, government is only part of the problem

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been involved in discussions on and offline about the growing role of blogs and social media in covering drug-related violence in Mexico.

CPJ reports that thirty journalists have been killed or disappeared in Mexico since  2006. Journalists covering drug activity in Mexico’s northern states have proven to be at the greatest risk for threats and acts of violence in retribution for their work. As a result, print news coverage of drug violence in the region has diminished, and in its absence, community blogs and online forums like El Blog del Narco and Mundo Narco [NSFW/graphic content] have become important spaces for sharing information about drug violence. Contributors to these sites typically write about incidents that they’ve witnessed firsthand, or repeat accounts that they’ve gotten from friends or other sources they trust. These reports are explicit, and often very scary.

Last month, a reporter and active blogger who wrote about drug violence on the site Nuevo Laredo en Vivo, under the pseudonym “La Nena de Laredo” [The Girl from Laredo], was found decapitated in Nuevo Laredo. Beside her body lay a sign that read:

“Nuevo Laredo en Vivo y redes sociales / Yo soy la nena de Laredo y estoy aca por mis reportajes y los suyos” [Nuevo Laredo en Vivo and social networking sites / I'm the Nena de Laredo and I'm here because of my reports and yours.]

Many digital rights activists responded by urging social media users in Mexico to begin posting anonymously (or pseudonymously) and using technical anonymization tools such as Tor and HTTPS.

This is an important measure for bloggers to take in any situation in which they may be at risk of harm. But it is not a silver bullet.

In Cuba, few bloggers write anonymously—this fact tends to surprise people. A blogger I spoke with in Cuba told me he believed that even if bloggers there were to use pseudonyms, or blog anonymously, authorities would still have little trouble identifying them. Most bloggers there seem to have made a similar calculation. If there’s one thing that works in Cuba, he said, it’s state security. .

Yoani Sánchez has made the point that within a democracy, in a real civil society, there would be nothing wrong with having a blog like hers. This is the kind of society that she says she’s “practicing” for online, until the real thing comes along. In that society, she should have no reason to mask her identity.

Yoani has spilled a lot of kilobytes writing about the connections and disconnections between life in the on and offline worlds, and part of her point here was that she is a participant in what she writes about. She is trying to build a civic dialogue, as fractured, inaudible, and imperfect as it might be. As much as I’ve come to question her persona over time, I think some of the things she says are very smart.

In broad terms, the bloggers in Mexico are doing something similar to those in Cuba. They are participating in an online conversation about what is happening in their communities. But they are not playing cat-and-mouse with the soft social control mechanisms of Cuban state security.  They are writing about acts of crime, violence, and corruption that are happening where they live, and they’re often writing about drug cartel workers—a group of people who have gained substantial immunity from law enforcement in certain parts of Mexico, and who are, as most accounts have it, incredibly well-connected and very aware of the obstacles they have to overcome in order to make a profit.

Many members of the digital activist community rightly focus their energies on how governments limit the rights of their citizens, and the ways in which technology can help circumvent these limitations. But Mexico’s case is different. There is much to be criticized about how the Mexican government has handled the drug war, particularly since Felipe Calderón took office, but the government is not the source of the problem. Rather than working against injustice at the hand of their government, these bloggers and citizen journalists are speaking out against (and trying to protect their communities from) a very powerful criminal organization that has little incentive to hold itself accountable to anyone, other than its clientele (nearly all of which, by the way, is in the U.S.) How do you work to protect free speech when it is being threatened by a criminal organization?

There are many ways that citizens can advocate against what is happening in Mexico—they could demand that the government experiment with different strategies for combating cartels, or even begin supporting drug legalization movements in the U.S. But this won’t change the fact that by writing what they know and putting their voices into public space, some of these bloggers are putting themselves at a real risk.

This is a very hard question to sit with. There is no clear solution, and there are clear limitations to what technology can do to help. As much as possible, I do think that it is important to listen and participate in the conversation about what’s happening in Mexico. Locally and internationally, awareness does matter, and can have an impact. But it is hard to know what to do beyond this.

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After Fidel?

I took an extended vacation from blogging this summer,* and this felt okay until last week, when someone tweeted that Fidel Castro had died. My rational mind knew that this was probably not true. The likelihood that the news of Fidel’s death would hit Twitter before international news sources seemed slim, and false rumors of Fidel’s death have circulated in the past. But this didn’t stop the rest of my brain from zooming away into a strange, frantic oblivion where I began to sweat, as if I had a fever coming on. A friend had texted me the news and I raced to Google to find that the rumor had already been squashed. It took several minutes for my heart rate to return to normal.

What caused this to happen? I am not Cuban, nor do I live in Cuba. The effects of Fidel’s death, when it does come, will be indirect for me. They will not mean a change in my way of life, an end or a beginning in my path. It will be an intellectually overwhelming thing, and an emotional one. But it is the uncertainty of what will follow that sent me down this road.

Photo by Leon Kasparov, CC BY-NC-SA

Fidel’s death won’t be like the many events over the years that have caused Washington wonks to gather task forces on post-socialist societies, exiles to gas up their motor boats for a 90-mile trip and resort executives to pack their guayaberas up and book a seat on the next charter flight to José Martí Airport. These moments—Mariel, the balsero crisis, the collapse of the USSR—came and went, but Fidel and the revolution continued onward. Somehow, Fidel’s strange combination of shrewd and misguided policy efforts have pulled the nation along, but Cuba’s survival isn’t just about policy—it is rooted in the complex, wondrous dimension of Fidel as a political and spiritual leader.

I had the great privilege at the University of Chicago of studying with the Mexican journalist and memoirist Alma Guillermoprieto, who has written several fine essays on el comandante. She opened a 1998 New York Review of Books essay on Fidel in old age with the following sentence:

“If you are in the neighborhood of forty years old and Cuban, Fidel Castro has been at the center of your heart and thoughts, for however small a second, each day of your life.”

So what happens when this omnipresent, unavoidable leader, the father of Cuba’s national project, is suddenly gone? When that leader—whose voice has dominated the radio and the pages of the newspaper for decades, whose face appears everywhere on paper, concrete, the walls of giant cement apartment buildings and on the chests of young men proud of their leader or uncertain of how to do anything but show love for the patria by burning an image into their skin—is suddenly gone, it will be a shock. Identities, opinions, morals, life goals are all built around an idea about Fidel, whether you love him or despise him or fall somewhere in between. He has often been compared to a religious figure—he has been worshiped and loathed and mythologized in a way that is much more personal, much more spiritual, than any other political leader in recent history.

I’m not sure what will happen when Fidel dies, and I’m scared to find out. To think that  his absence will instantly give rise to a tide of liberty for Cubans is too simple. Of course I think things need to change in Cuba. I have written in the past about how difficult (and necessary) it will be for Cuba to re-structure the state so that it does not control every good and every industry and every activity down to the level of bicycles and ice cream and shoe repairmen. But I don’t see Fidel’s death as the key to these kinds of changes. There is no guarantee on this great improvement in the lives of Cubans that so many people assume will follow.

And then there is the question of identity, of what will happen to the island’s social fabric when this person is suddenly gone. Who will you spend your time hating? At whom will you direct your salute? Who will you worship? From a policy perspective, it’s going to be difficult. Spiritually, it may be even more complex.

*I spent most of this summer on an unexpected break from half-wired. I finished my work in Chicago, packed up my things, moved to San Francisco, and began a job with the Center for Democracy and Technology. July and August took more out of me than I expected. But half-wired is now officially back in action.

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