Saturday, January 25, 2014

Off the Grid

We spent most of this English conversation class talking about their plans for the future.  Their connectivity to the larger world has helped them set ambitious goals and drive them to excel in English.

Today's blog post is a special shout-out to Ms. Mach's 3rd grade class at Jefferson Elementary.  My Uncle Tim is teaching a Junior Achievement lesson to the students about modes of communication which gives me a chance to post this "hello" from some of the kids and students I work with, and also to talk about what it means to live off of the communications grid I'm accustomed to in the U.S.

Despite what some folks think about post-communist Hungary, plenty of people have smart phones with internet and many homes have internet.  My host family, however, does not have internet which has been an interesting part of this year.

Let me step back for a minute and say just how connected the average American is, which is to mention in a small way the immense privilege and wealth that most Americans enjoy relative to the rest of the world.  The other day I read the income amount that is considered the threshold for "poverty" in America which would be more than enough for a Hungarian family to live comfortably. Yes of course these things are relative, but we still enjoy a level of wealth and freedom with our wealth that many others don't.  At this point, my debating last year between a 2 gigabyte per month data plan and a 3 gigabyte plan sounds a little absurd.

When you're connected to the internet, your options for information and information archives is truly limitless - newspapers, blogs, podcasts, film/video, social media, Skype/facetime, even telephone calls via the web.  I can call anyone in the US for free using a GoogleVoice number that shows up on caller ID as a South Dakota number.  That's kind of weird.

Coming from a high-school that pioneered a 1-to-1 student-to laptop program and a College that was pretty well connected, I'm used to having all of this information at my fingertips.  

So here's a few thoughts generally about what the heck we're supposed to do (or not do) with this surplus of communications possibilities, and a few more specific thoughts on how this experience living just a little less connected has sharpened my use of the communications spectrum.

1. It was generally suggested in the early days of the internet (unclear if Al Gore was in on these talks, too) that with instantaneous interactions around the world we could surely strengthen peace among nations and states.  As Jared Cohen reminds us, the internet is simply another sphere in which good and evil, fact and fiction, frenzy and sanity can exist.  Facts still matter, and critical minds and eyes are crucial. 

2. The ubiquity of mobile phone technology across the globe has brought a new level of connection and awareness of the larger world to people everywhere.  This also means that the cultural impression of America is delivered in a certain way, but that's a topic for a different day.

3. There are a lot of things to read, and it's easy to try and keep up with everything.  Instead of tracking 12 different blogs, pick up a book.  To that end, it can also be easy to try and stay connected to your 1400 closest friends on Facebook.  Take time to write a long email.  It's great to get a long reply in response and really know what's going on with people.  

4. Being a little less connected is also a very relative phrase when compared even to other American volunteers around the world now and in the past.  The fact that I can get online and check email once or twice a week is pretty good.  I can mail a postcard from Hungary and it will show up in the US in about ten days.  Volunteers and reporters around the world have to endure more than a half hour bike or bus ride to hop online, so I'm grateful that staying connected isn't such a big deal, or such a hardship here.

5. Like all things, scarcity sharpens your priorities of use.  

6. Google Translate is a great tool, but not having it has made me dig in my heels to learn simply by immersion, passing my English/Hungarian dictionary back and forth at the dinner table, and spend some time with a study book.

7. Perspective matters.  I'm talking about the perspective you bring with you, and the perspective of the communication.  Away from the constant drone of American cable news, I think I'm getting a lot better information from international news like BBC on my host family's TV.  When the BBC channel switched to AlJazeera in mid-November, the perspective changed with a heavier Middle East focus.  I now feel like I have a better idea of what's happening in the communities where the Jerusalem/West Bank YAGM's live.

7b and 8. A few weeks ago I was catching up on a blog written by one of my former professors.  His is a fascinating collection of sometimes useful, sometimes quirky, and always insightful articles and reflections.  He mentioned Thoreau's essay Walking, which I downloaded and read.  Had I read that last year when I was comfortably sitting in Sioux Falls and racing off to the next thing I would have read it with a significantly different perspective than I do sitting in rural Hungary without other blogs at my fingertips and without a lot of distractions.  

"We spend most of our lives in common, but little in community."  I'm not sure where I read that quote recently, but I think it applies to the realm of modern communications and the opportunities to communicate.  If we can use these things to bridge divides, share a story, reveal a bit of ourselves, and still take time to look up and disconnect, then I think we've realized the power and potential to live not just in common (virtually and literally), but also in community.  

Basic communication: breaking bread, laughing, playing.

1 comment:

  1. Thad this was a truly superb post. Thank you, friend. (I am selfishly excited for you to be connected more easily again in six months so we can keep in better contact)