The Cigarmakers of Cuba and the New Information Revolution

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”  ― Frederick Douglass Learning from past revolutions in information literacy, can we develop a model that suits the 21st century?

The Cigarmakers of Cuba and the New Information Revolution
Photo by Yerson Olivares / Unsplash
“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”
Frederick Douglass

In Cuba, in 1865 a revolution was taking place — one designed to free the mind. The reform movement leaders in Cuba working to escape the yoke of imperialist Spain and its practice of slavery. Though this initial reformist movement in many ways failed and slavery only came to an end after The Ten Years’ war, some of the changes made during the period when the reformers were in power have stayed with Cuba to the modern day. Chief among these was a simple practice these early reformers helped to institute: A practice of reading to workers in the cigar factories.

With the understanding that literacy is vital to the exploration of any type of progressive society, the reading movement was instituted to provide the Cuban workers with access to the sort of information that would strengthen their ability to make informed decisions and take part in the restructuring of their government. And it worked. They would, in time, be instrumental in helping achieve Cuba’s independence from Spain and the eventual creation of Cuba’s trade unions.

There is an unfortunate and dangerous myth about the nature of so-called “unskilled workers” which is propagated far and wide across all social climes, through disjointed centuries, and beyond the squalls of even the most turbulent and well-intentioned revolutions: manual laborers, “unskilled workers,” and those people raised within subsistence cultures, are less intelligent than their counterparts in higher classes or more “advanced” countries. This myth persists because it serves the needs of those individuals and groups that rely upon sowing division among those of lower class — who derive their power from the very fact that there are less-educated members of society.

Yet therein is the point to be studied: differences in power have has nothing to do with natural intellect and everything to do with access to information.

The cigarmakers in Cuba worked in the relative silence of the factories, hand-working their cigars, while lectors — the men and women responsible for reading to the group — dispersed vast quantities of information in many ways akin to a classical education, but also including political and current events of the time (due to the reading aloud of American newspapers circulated at the time).

The lectors would eventually face replacement during the rise of the radio age, but even then many would continue to coexist alongside radio broadcasts within the factories, due to their serving as a natural liaison between workers and the producers of the original media — the writers, authors, and figures from news and the social world.

Today, access to information is easier than ever. Billions of words are available on the indexed, searchable, web — to say nothing of the unlisted “dark web” which certainly contain billions more. These words come in all forms and exist in all genres and areas of thought. Politics, news, sports, fiction, cartoons, jokes, philosophy, science, religion: there are a million possible perspectives at the fingertips of anyone with nothing more advanced than a dial-up internet connection.

So, why then does it appear that so many people remain uneducated and unaware? If there is such an accessible proliferation of information, how can people remain ignorant of simple basic facts (like the fact of a current and ongoing climate crisis)?

Partly, the access itself is the problem. With unlimited access to information, easily searchable, and completely unstructured, people have a hard time parsing the relevant and important information from that information which is misdirecting or flawed.

A lector in the cigar factory served the purpose of acting as a funnel for information. Their reading selection would be voted on by the working populace, and they would work to ensure their material was both engaging and informative. Their motivational inspiration was also, likewise, quite clear-cut. The workers were required to pay them but, should the lector fail to attend to the audience’s needs, the workers might gather signatures and have the factory remove the lector from their position. The workers had an enormous level of power over choosing who offered them information.

Now, we have a situation where there is a huge amount of freely-available information and yet the major media organizations are primarily beholden to wealthy elite interests rather than the common people. One cannot, for instance, get a signature campaign together to keep Fox News from pedaling misinformation and anti-scientific tosh. Nor can one force Google to provide advanced warnings to all searchers who attempt to explore the websites of extremists. Free access to information is a good thing — but, without the tools to carefully deconstruct and parse that information, it is also a thing with vast potential for destruction.

Which is why we need a new model for information education. We need to reengage with people in a new format, a new medium — if you will. The new battle is not one against simple illiteracy, but a battle for the right to access the tools needed to understand the information one encounters.

A new revolution needs to take place within our society. Partly, this is already in the public consciousness in the form of free access to advanced education. In the United States, and elsewhere, this discussion is heating up and hopefully driving toward near and exacting action: A complete forgiveness of all previous loans and a total annulment of all future tuition costs related to college (as well as enough of a safety net to ensure that the lowest-class individuals can access education without suffering). Alongside this are other social safety plans — for it becomes far easier to educate oneself adequately when one is not forced into subsistence living.

But there needs to be another shift as well, a shift in the way individuals relate to one another.

During the last four years, there has been an upsurge in antagonistic approaches to communication. The delineation between “them” and “us” has become a stark wasteland

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for as little as $2.50 a month!

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