Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies

Tech Beach: Techno Capitalism in the Caribbean

Monday, December 16, 2019

Maile Speakman, PhD Candidate, American Studies

In December of 2019, I embarked on a five-day research trip to a conference called Tech Beach in Montego Bay. I spent the first day of my trip with a local guide to get a sense of the social life of Montego Bay and the impact of all-inclusive tourist resorts, foreign banks, and multinational corporate businesses on the city’s residents. On the second day, I interviewed the founder of Tech Beach, who was looking for someone to facilitate interviews with high profile Tech Beach attendees about why they were attending the conference. I volunteered to conduct the interviews and proposed that I could add in my research questions at the end of each interview. This research strategy worked quite well and on the last three days of my research trip I interviewed 14 technology company founders, CEOs, CIOs, World Bank executives, and associates of companies like Google, Microsoft, and Airbnb. These interviews lasted fifteen minutes to over an hour and all took place in the Iberostar Rose Hall Grand Hotel on the Montego Bay coast. In each of these interviews, I got a sense of what motivated these company representatives to come to Tech Beach and what motivated their work in the Caribbean. With some of the longer interviews, I also was able to document how these executives and founders imagined the Caribbean as a geography and how their ideas about the Caribbean as a space impacted their understandings of the type of work tech investment is doing in the region.

Beyond the 14 interviews I conducted, I also engaged in participant observation at a Google executive dinner, multiple sessions of Tech Beach conference lectures, and at meal and break out session gatherings during the event. Through engaging in these spaces, I observed how executives, venture capitalists, high-up technology associates, and company founders talk about the work they do and create spaces in which they can connect with each other for future projects. Since Tech Beach was a catalyst for Havana-based technology projects in 2018, my 2019 attendance and research at the conference has given me the ability to understand the context in which some of my key interlocutors made their Havana-based investment plans. Though my broader dissertation focuses particularly on U.S. technology investment in Cuba, my first chapter will zoom out and theorize U.S. investment in the Caribbean through using Tech Beach as a key site of this kind of activity. Beyond the practical happenings of the conference, I see Tech Beach as a larger metaphor for the history of U.S. infrastructural investment in the Caribbean, which has historically relied on colonial racial hierarchies, territorial occupation, and ideas of the Caribbean as a vacant paradise.