Monday, April 15, 2013

Grabbing Technology by the Tail

The world has changed a lot since last we travelled, 5 years ago. The housing market crashed, Avatar revolutionized the movie theater experience,, the Arab Spring almost revolutionized the Middle East, Abby's become a nurse, I've become office adept...and Apple introduced the iPhone (actually it was introduced on June 29, 2007, but close enough).   Ever since that momentous occasion, we have been struggling to keep up.  When the initial cell phone revolution happened, it threatened to pass us by completely before we managed to grab a hold of it's tail at the very last moment, just as it was disappearing forever into the 21st century.  This was in 2009, almost a decade after the 21st century had officially started, but we had been busy with other things.  Abby had actually had a cellphone on and off over the years, but since we were never stationary for long, the 2-year commitment required of most plans seemed way too steep.  Besides, what we do with two cell phones?  One, fine, but two? No, thanks.  What we each do with a cell phone, text back and forth at the dinner table?

And it's not that we're anti-technology, not at all.  I think new gadgets are great, and wonderful.   In fact, I would even go so far as to claim that I was in the vanguard of those who discovered the wonders of MP3 players. But in general, I'd rather let other people pay a lot to learn all about a technology when it first comes out.  Later, when everyone has figured out how best to use it, and it's become dirt cheap, and it reaches a point where it's more annoying not to have one than to watch idly as all my friends play with them at dinner while I try to engage them in actual instead of virtual conversation, I give up and join in the fun.  It's an approach that's worked well.  And abroad, well, abroad has been a safe haven for us, where connectivity is blissfully hard to come by, and we can get lost in the days and weeks and months of the foreign world turning around and around and around, completely unconnected save for an occasional email at our discretion: "When we can find internet next, Mom, it's not like it's everywhere over here.  Don't worry about us, we'll be fine, we'll be in touch sometime in the next month."  It's been a glorious and reliable escape.

No more.  A couple of years ago, our friends Anne and Jeanette sought out our advice before they embarked on a 6-month trip to Africa. They had some general questions about packing for such a long trip, but mostly they wanted our opinions on what technology to bring.  "Easy," we exclaimed in unison. "Nothing!" They went on to explain that they were considering bringing a cellphone, a laptop, two Kindles, and a couple of cameras. We were flabbergasted. "Umm...maybe one of the cameras?", we conceded weakly. This was in 2010, 2 years after we got back from our long trip to Turkey and India and Nepal, and we still felt very much in touch with the travel zeitgeist. We explained that too much technology in the third world would just make you more of a target, another reason to attract already curious eyes in the land where your white skin would already ensure that you would never be anonymous. Why tempt fate? And why lug all that shit across the world just to stay in touch with what you left behind? Weren't you trying to escape this world for that one? It seemed excessive to our preferred lean and apparently antiquated approach. They ignored our advice, conceding its outdated wisdom but insisting that they'd be fine. They left with a gaggle of gadgets, used them all, and didn't regret bringing any of them along. Whatever, to each their own, we said.

Fast forward now to January of 2013.  We arrived in Kathmandu and discovered that the world outside our Alaskan bubble had changed much faster than we ever could have anticipated. Smartphones were ubiquitous, with both locals and travellers. In a country that can't even figure out how to build a decent road between the two most important cities, where the capital has power cuts more than 50% of the time, they had managed to build cell phone towers reaching halfway to the sky, deep into the heart of the Himalaya.  As a result of the smart phone revolution, wireless was also omnipresent.  Most guesthouses used to offer a computer or two for their patrons to use, but those were now gone, replaced by little signs advertising wireless and the associated password.

At home this fall, when road-tripping around Western Canada and the US, we had run into the same problem.  Lots of wireless, but no devices to access it.  Without a smartphone, and with (gasp!) only one laptop to share between us, we had become adept at sniffing out public libraries in all the little towns we passed through.  It was kind of fun, poring over all the notice boards to gain some insight in to the communities, then buying trashy novels for a quarter a piece to support their library auxiliary funds.  We were resigned to our technological lag time there (and appreciative at the chance to get our hands on more Harlequin Romance novels) but we weren't prepared for it abroad, in Nepal of all places.  

Bikul, a Nepali friend we met at our guesthouse, didn't believe me when I tried to explain that neither Abby nor I had smart phones.  "So your iPhone is at home?", he asked incredulously one day when I whistled appreciatively at his shiny new iPhone. "I don't have an iPhone," I explained.  "So you left it at your home, in your country?"  His expression was confused, and concerned.  "No, Bikul, I just don't have one. But I do have a flip phone," I replied brightly.  I was trying to reassure him that I at least understood the technology, even if I didn't partake in it.  "It's my first phone, I just got it 2 years ago. It's great. I can even text with it!"  He shook his head to try and help that concept get into his head - either that or he was making sure such blasphemy didn't gain traction in his grey matter.

When we started asking around about permits and logistics for the GHT, it became apparent that we were fighting a losing battle. "Call me with any questions," they'd say. "I"ll call you with a price quote, what's your number?", they'd ask. We caved. We bought a cell phone.  We went to New Road, in the old city of Kathmandu, and went shopping.  For 1,200 rupees (about $15), we came away with a compact little number that even has an led flashlight built-in.  And getting it set up and working was a snap. Did you know that you can just pick up a SIM card at pretty much any local shop and start making calls immediately, for almost nothing?  In Nepal, we dropped into the Ncell office located right in Thamel, just down the street from our guesthouse.  Here in Thailand, we picked a 7/11 at random, and minutes later were making dinner plans via text.

When it rains, it pours.  phone calls were nice, but music, movies and more would be even better. We are also the proud new owners of an iPad mini - black, sleek, and amazingly useful.  Purchased at the MBK mall in Bangkok for the same price as at home, it's a truly magical device.  Just yesterday I used it to Skype with my brother in Vancouver, B.C. (the current home of our laptop), who then was able to upload our entire music library to the "cloud" (I assume it was threatening rain there at the time) so we could access it from our guesthouse in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and put on some Sade while we got busy (I'd already hung up the call).  I'm still not entirely sure how that all works, since it was really sunny here at the time, but I'm certainly not complaining (wink, wink).

Despite having belatedly embraced the technological revolution of the past 5 years, and willing to admit its wonders, we still have very definite reservations about it. Mainly, I think it's a double-edged sword: although it makes life easier in some respects, it complicates it in others.  For example, it helped us book a room in busy Chiang Mai for one of the biggest festivals of the year, but it also took Abby some 6 hours to do so. There was so much choice, and a learning curve to figure out the local websites, that I'm pretty sure it would have been less of a hassle to have just shown up and gone door-to-door for an hour and come away with equivalent lodgings. It's wonderful to have the convenience of the Internet in your guesthouse common area, but it also means that instead of the chatter of conversation of new friends, you hear the tapping of smart phones.

I understand that these are old-man, crotchety complaints, but they're also legitimate ones.  It's an odd contradiction that all this connectivity allows us to remain closer with old friends but then limits the creation of new, relevant ones. And by that I don't mean that old or absent friends are irrelevant, I just mean that by keeping so in touch with everywhere else, you miss parts of where you are - of this I'm certain. I find it disturbing that I didn't know that a Tibetan refugee immolated himself in Kathmandu, less than a handful of kilometres from where I was surfing the internet, to protest Chinese occupation of his homeland. I was too busy looking at pictures of that grisly broken leg in the Final Four to take notice. This is my failing - I was the one surfing the internet, looking up basketball scores from across the world, but what relevance did an American basketball game have to my experience in Nepal? The lure of the Internet is too strong, and it's just become too damn easy. We are too weak to overcome it's inexorable gravitational pull.

I'm sure in time I'll get used to the omnipresent availability of information and communication, and stop whining and moaning about it. I'll get used to texting and talking to people across the world like they are just next door, and accept that the concept of here and there is less than it used to be. I will accept that I live in a world that is getting smaller and smaller. But I also hope that I'll always be a little bit sad that downtown Bangkok and downtown Toronto become more indistinguishable every day. Because a smaller world is also one with less adventure, less mystery, and less chance to get lost in the weeds. And I, for one, think that getting lost in the weeds is something that the world could do with more of, not less.

1 comment:

Monologue said...

Heh heh.

Loving it.