As women’s online lives grow richer in Patagonia, new environmental challenges are poised to drown out advances.
As women, we tell stories. We write them in journals; we nurture them in discussions with our circle of friends; we look for meaning aloud and in silence. To communicate is innate for us, as it is innate for us to weave networks. We look to technology to aid us in story telling, to aid us in connecting across borders.
When I was 17, in 1990, I would have typed this story on a borrowed typewriter, a story to be read only by a close circle of friends.
In 1994, I would have written this on an old desktop computer under DOS. I would have gone to a public library in Buenos Aires to publish it to friends via email.
In 2000, I would have written this on a newer desktop computer, but I would have had to battle a chugging dial-up connection—unstable, slow.
Five years ago, I would have written this piece on a laptop, enjoying a somewhat steady Wi-Fi connection, relying on email and social networks to disseminate my voice.
But today, the routine of regularly checking my email on my smartphone or reading my Twitter messages via a strong Wi-Fi signal is a mirage. As Patagonians, we can remember it; we can describe it; yet, it is a distant reality for us. Climate change is impacting our connectivity, and it is a very real reality we must face with urgency.
Earlier this month, users of one of the main mobile service companies in the country started their day without mobile access. Heavy rainstorms in the northern part of the region took out half a road bridge and fiber optic cables went with it. Many other access services were affected that day: Internet connectivity became slow and erratic, mobile access was interrupted across providers, and power cuts rounded out the situation.
This is not an isolated case. In the past three years, recurrences show us an in crescendo pattern—with little sign of it letting up. We are uncertain of our fate—now fully dependent on a technological core that demands constant and immediate communication back and forth.
It is common on rainy days to have failures in satellite TV, to see 3G signals vanish from cell phones, and to lose Wi-Fi coverage from one minute to the other. Modem levels as low as 28 kbps are common. Mobile access through USB sticks is severely restricted—not only are there not enough signal masts in some areas, but extreme weather conditions make connections mission impossible.
Heavy rainstorms, strong winds, mudslides, flooding… The list goes on and on to reveal the scale of our fragility in terms of connectivity.
In researching this article, I was very surprised to find scarce reference to climate change and its impact on Internet access. The best-documented case is a report written in 2011 by DEFRA, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the UK government. It includes references about temperatures reducing the range of wireless communications, rainstorms impacting the reliability of signals, and it foresees the need of a future less dependent on physical infrastructure and fiber-based networks.
Of course, there are alternative technologies that are designed to withstand extreme conditions, such as the use of satellite networks. But these generate a wide digital divide since their costs are not only high but dollar-linked. They are a road back to a universe of exclusion and inequity that we were getting past.
Access to the Internet reinforces our identities, encourages us to find knowledge and learn new crafts, and allows us to tell of our journeys to a wide audience. Because of connectivity—for the first time in history—women have achieved self-sufficient visibility, sustained connections across borders, and found ways to broadcast our social, political, and economic visions. We have been empowered by access to technology, and it is simply disheartening to see this empowerment endangered due to factors beyond our control like weather.
No matter how many smart phones, tablets, cyber cafés, or desktop computers we may have, they will become lifeless technology if we do not join forces to mitigate climate change and its impact on communities.
In a century where nature has reengaged in itself, we are stranded on the other side of a mighty river that destroys everything we have built in its path. Today, we have come to a frightening bridge and we must make decisions that lead the crossing without further delay.