Yoani Sánchez’s blog Generation Y has been applauded for empowering Cubans with freedom of expression by President Obama, she has been named one of the most influential people in the world by Time in 2008, and has been accused of being funded by the CIA. Forbidden Voices, a 2012 documentary directed by Barbara Miller, presents three fearless bloggers who stand for a new generation of networked activists and refuse to be silenced by the dictatorships of their home countries. The documentary frames each blog as a sociocultural artefact and Sánchez’s blog – still active – embodies the kind of forbidden voice that Miller frames as liberating, empowering, and fearless. However far fetched and generous this kind of assessment may be, there is some truth. Sánchez’s blog occupies a unique space in the 21st century as since it contains tremendous cultural currency. Her words and hereby her voice forces a reconsideration of technology and resistance.
Sánchez’s blog has met considerable pushback from her home country proving that what she says is taken seriously. The Cuban government believes her words to be so powerful that her passport has been revoked, her website blocked, and her and her husband have been arrested. Sánchez’s own voice unfolds as complex as her own personal history. Writing in her own time and hunting for wifi, Forbidden Voices portrays Sánchez as a laptop revolutionary; her words inspire and her actions empower. This kind of portrayal is a production facilitated by the team behind the documentary that produces the right footage to portray a contemporary “blog activist” fighting a well-established and demonized communist dictatorship. Sánchez’s voice, however honest and resilient, is only one of many Cubans. Sánchez succeeds as a revolutionary because of her educational background, community building skills, and access to technology. Her cultural capital as a blog activist is contingent on the digital economy that has emerged from capitalism in the West.
Through understanding her blog as a commodity, or rather a product of free labour, the cultural value of her words can be disentangled from her status as cyber-revolutionary. In order to accomplish this task in a short critical analysis, “Free Labour: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy“ by Tiziana Terranova facilitates a discussion on the a blog’s cultural capital as well as free labour as a form of resistance. Specifically, an interrogation into Sánchez’s mediated representations in the film and online will lead to a more complete understanding of her “blog activism” and prove that Sánchez is more of an event than a revolutionary figure.
Before ripping into the juicy economic theory of digital markets, it is worth mentioning the irony in this kind of academic pursuit. Terranova’s paper from 2000 specifically refers to free labour as a quality of late capitalism on the virtual landscape. Therefore, an application of late capitalist value and commodification to a blogger in a communist country is not only problematic but shockingly simplistic. Perhaps a critic would call out this argument simply because Terranova openly argues that free labour is a product of overdeveloped countries and a quality of late capitalism (37). Although Cuba is not overdeveloped in the kinds of excess that occurs in the West, Cuba is in dialogue with these economies and flirts with its currencies. These kinds of interactions are not innocent or ironic in the naive sense and worth investigating further.
Particularly, what is illuminating is how Forbidden Voices presents Sanchez’s relationship with her laptop. Terranova insists that labour from the assemblage of human and machine is a result of a post-factory workforce (45). This assemblage is particularly powerful since it is an accumulation of fixed capital (the laptop) and living labour (Sánchez). It is this relationship that suits Terranova’s understanding of the knowledge worker and her free labour that is valued differently than material production. Unbeknownst to the audience of Forbidden Voices is where this fixed capital came from in an impoverished country. Sánchez and her laptop are a curious footnote with no citation in Forbidden Voices despite that Miller went to great lengths to represent the other kinds of technology in Sánchez’s world. A particular striking example of this scripted story is Sánchez’s wifi access. She writes her blogs at home, sans internet on Microsoft Word, and goes to what Sánchez describes as expensive hotels to upload to her blog. The gap is left unfilled and remains the kind of mystery critiques are made of.
Another connection between Terranova and Sánchez is the obvious consideration of communism as an ideology built on the promise of free labour and collaboration. Free labour, according to Terranova’s definition, is unpaid continuous activities that are not normally recognized as work. Sánchez’s blog is an amalgamation of these time-sensitive continuous productions. Forbidden Voices presents Sánchez’s free labour journalism as so dire that lives are contingent on her online availability, postings, and physical presence. Particularly, there is a scene in the documentary where Sánchez is on her way to stop a fellow journalist from his hunger strike to save his life. Her writing and embodied experience are instilled with martyrdoom pre-mortem.
The tension between the perceived neutral Western camera and the communist blogger in Cuba reveal how public opinions reshape original messages. Miller intentionally represents Sánchez in particular positions to “make tape” to reinforce the aims of the film. Sanchez is revealed as a cyber-revolutionary who forages for wifi in the barren, technologically underdeveloped Cuba. There is a startling juxtaposition between Sánchez’s relative wealth and the impoverished community that surrounds her. Landscapes that provoke intentional connotions are the graveyard, her dilapidated childhood home, pushing the car that ran out of gas, sitting on the rocks dreaming about American shores, receiving a gift from a fan inside her apartment, and her journey to the hotel to get wifi access. These scenes are intentional and prove that Sánchez’s story has been scripted for an audience.
That being said Sánchez is a legitimate activist. She blogs about the wrongs done to her people by the dictatorship, the censorship that prevents Cubans from knowing the truth, and literally puts herself in the drama as a champion of Cuban revolution. In fact, despite that Sánchez’s story seems to be the central focus of the documentary and is exaggerated, her blog is testament to her actual engagement with Cuban politics. These moments on screen help Miller portray Sanchez as a “forbidden voice” that refuses to be silenced.
Sánchez’s real success actually comes from collective intelligence and networked relationships. Terranova claims that collective intelligence is a network of immaterial labour and knowledge workers who observe, describe, and participate in the accretion of cultural content and information (42). Knowledge workers are a contested social category and Terranova describes it as indefinable yet essential to innovation and competition (40). Inherently, knowledge work is rooted in collaboration, and since the kinds of minds that come together need an open organizational structure to produce, this particular flavour of collectivism resonates on some fundamental values that strike a chord with pure communism. Unfortunately, the film intentionally blurs the connection that Sánchez has with her numerous sources, fellow journalists, and her people. Sánchez is encased in this structure where bloggers from around the world, who act as knowledge workers, work together to write journalism on contemporary – silenced – politics in Cuba. She is always working in collaboration, writing about individuals who are also fighting, and often using her privilege as a vehicle to share the voices that are overlooked in Miller’s documentary.
This kind of analysis is possible precisely because the presence of the Western production team who frame Sánchez’s work as revolutionary. Western audiences adore representations of the Other, and especially love when the Other is clamouring for Western democratic systems. A documentary like this portrays this blog activist as a freedom fighter who can change lives, liberate a nation, and bring accomplish this by the virtue of her individual labour. Take for example the numerous awards that Sánchez has received from Western institutions despite that she could not leave the country for quite some time. Recognition like this proves that Terranova’s article can permit a reconsideration on how virtual products are valued and treated akin to physical commodities. This kind of value on the individual, instead of a focus on collaborative practices, is reminiscent of the tropes and themes of capitalism. Sánchez’s complex personal character and bravery of speaking out despite real oppression proves that – whether communist or capitalist in character – she does not have all the answers. It clearly points out that what is going on now is not working.
Forbidden Voices. Dir. Barbara Miller. Das Kollektiv für audiovisuelle Werke, 2013. Film.
Fusco, Coco. “Who’s Afraid of Yoani Sánchez.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 27 Mar. 2013. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.
Terranova, Tiziana. “Free Labour: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy,” Social Text, 18(2). Durham: Duke University Press, 2000. 33-58. Print.