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The Tyranny of Connectivity

On a two-hour torry ride the kid, he couldn’t have been more than four or five, did not look up from the game on his cell phone. Not once. When other passengers got on, he moved along the bench, but still did not look up. He did not look out the window or talk to anyone. Parents might applaud such an effective pacifier, but to me it was curious how completely absorbed this little boy was in the game. Other folks on the ride were similarly occupied. The two old yays on either side of me shouted into their phones at the beginning and near the end of the trip, (but I don’t think they could actually see their screens) then they chatted with each other a bit. But nearly everyone on the torry was captivated something on their phone.

This is not unusual in Cambodia or in the United States. We are all connected all the time, yet we sit together alone, dialed into our own private worlds. Cell phones are a recent phenomena in The Kingdom. The words “data” “cell phone” and “WiFi” belong to an international lexicon. Although nearly every student at my school has a cell phone, most only know how to call, text, and post photos on Facebook. Interesting though, that email is practically unknown, as is the Google search engine. During an English lesson about the news, my cohort and I asked students where they went to for local news. No one read newspapers. A few listened to radio, a few more watched TV, but the majority preferred Facebook as their main news source. Which means rumor has it.

Fifty years ago, when the first Peace Corps Volunteers trekked to obscure places on the map, the main method of communication was by post. That required three months for a letter to get from one place to another. Quite a pause between paragraphs. Grandpa would be dead and buried before you ever got word he was feeling poorly. Even six years ago, when my son and daughter-in-law served in Africa, email was the preferred mode, although it necessitated a trip to the capital city to use computers at the PC office. Three years ago, Cambodia was really beginning to connect, but reception was limited to urban areas. Now you see farmers in the rice fields on cell phones.

To a Peace Corps Volunteer this means they can still be in touch with family and friends back home 24/7. It also means they never really get to leave the homeland. In some ways this ability to stay in touch can make one feel even more lonesome. PCVs may not be motivated to make new friends if they are still involved in the minutiae of their old familiars. It makes it easy to complain to your sympathetic family back home, instead of working out challenges by communicating face-to-face with your host family here.

Fact is, we miss so much of what is happening at the moment simply because we aren’t available. We dial out bird sounds to listen to recordings. We look down at the screen and don’t look up at the sky. The other day at a coffee shop a real cricket chirped. At least three people with cricket ring tones checked their phones. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which reality we are in. I won’t bother to complain about our collective lack of social grace, or even awareness, because everyone at the table is on their phone. Sitting by oneself and not looking at your phone is suspicious. Even with a sketchbook or novel in hand, you are the weirdo in the room. Pointing this out is not going to inspire awareness, of course. We are in the grip of technology—the device is a vice that holds us tight. Like that little boy on the torry engrossed in his cell phone game, something else will need to catch our attention before we will let go of it.

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