From Netflix and Nooks to YouTube and iPhones, technological innovations have exploded over the past four years. And while many North Americans have spent this time trying to keep up with the Kardashians, Beth Claassen Thrush and her family have been living in Nicaragua, where access to new technologies is limited. Now, as they return to life in the U.S., Beth shares about their experiences in grappling with the banes and boons of the tech-boom.
Now that we’ve been in Nicaragua for 10 months, we have figured out the basics of using internet cafés to email and update our blog. We also just signed up for Facebook, which is great for sharing pictures from here with our families. On both our blog and Facebook, I find myself craving comments. They affirm that people find us sufficiently important and our lives sufficiently interesting. Is this a healthy desire? It’s certainly not a new one—I’ve always wanted to be affirmed by others—but it seems to have a new intensity and immediacy to it.
Just as I long for others to find me glamorous, witty, or interesting enough to comment, so I find myself following certain people—not necessarily good friends or family, but distant acquaintances—who I find beautiful, mysterious, or clever on Facebook. It’s a similar feeling to the fascination/guilt of looking at celebrity magazines in the grocery store.
Our neighbors opened an internet café last month! I love the convenience, as well as the fact that it comes with natural boundaries and limits for us: We have to know exactly what we want to do and how long we will take (which makes for good time management), we expect that whatever we do will be observed by other neighbors and kids (which keeps us honest), and the internet time is bracketed by real conversations with our neighbors as we enter and leave. Communal access also forces us to refrain from viewing internet as a right. And the more the business grows, the less chance there will be immediate access exactly when we want it—which builds patience.
Recently, I catch myself reading the Facebook postings of some Christian friends in the U.S. I confess that the unfiltered stream of their political and theological opinions gets under my skin.
When I live in personal, consistent, face-to-face relationships with people, we develop boundaries and filters that allow us to find common ground and work together while respecting sensitive areas and discussing differences within the context of relationship and civility. But social media generally scoffs at the idea of boundaries, filters, or trying to confine comments to the context of personal relationships.
Here in Nicaragua, context is everything—people spend great amounts of time asking about one another’s families and communities before conversations even begin to turn to differences of opinion.
We are in the U.S. for our home leave. Sometimes, foreign workers adjusting back into North American life lament the large supermarkets or wide roads. For me, the biggest shock is the change in people’s eyes—namely, that they are always directed into their hands/cell phones. This happens as we are talking with classes or youth groups, engaging in personal conversations, walking down the street.
This is such a big change from Nicaragua, where one person converses with another often for excessively long periods of time, without interruption. There is no fear that your thought will be cut off if you do not get it out quickly or concisely enough.
In working with short-term volunteers, I have long encouraged them to fight the temptation to use internet time as an escape from the discomfort of intercultural interactions. We’ve had a couple of interesting conversations recently with friends who struggle with similar issues in their work with college students studying abroad. They were commenting that, in recent years, they’ve noticed that students are having increased difficulty relating to their host families. Since the internet and texting world promotes a more uniform communication style of short, pithy tweets and texts, it is easy to begin interacting mostly (or only) with those whose backgrounds or communication styles are similar to ours. Immersion in the online/texting world not only separates us from our immediate environment, but also can rob us of the variety of communication tools we need to interact with those outside our usual circle.
In Nicaragua, we had to plan carefully and prioritize our time online. We’ve been back in the States for just two months now, and I already feel myself caving in to the pressure of unlimited access. For example, why did I spend so many evenings on the internet while we were visiting with grandparents? I regret it—I know I missed valuable time in conversation.
In the midst of my criticism of myself and the culture, this month I also have a new appreciation for social media forums. Through Facebook, I have been able to maintain contact with friends from Egypt, seeing the situation through a much more personal lens than I ever could through normal print or visual media.I have also enjoyed the videos that our dear friends and neighbors in Nicaragua have posted on YouTube from the cyber café.
In college, I read The Riddle of Amish Culture. In this book, the author, Don Kraybill, points out that even the most conservative of the Amish do not reject all technology outright. But each community carefully examines the technology and decides which parts to accept or reject based upon how it will influence their values. As I make this cultural transition, I realize I’m facing an “Amish moment” of my own—a chance to really reflect on what I will accept or reject from these new technologies.