Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Technology in the United States Today: Some Personal Reflections After Years Abroad

When it comes to technology, I consider myself to be philosophically “Amish.” I don’t hate technology nor do I want to see it destroyed in some Luddite revolution. Nor do I ignore technology, I just tend to hesitate in embracing it.

Let me share a quick story: In high school and even college, I didn’t have a cellphone (arguably to the detriment of a certain kind of social life). I was probably one of the last people in my circle of friends to get one. After going abroad to Europe for half a year in 2004, I came back to discover that life in the US without a cellphone had become essentially impossible. Society and people had adjusted to a point where people required text confirmations for delays and meeting up at a public place required a phone call to find each other. Briefly, I tried to manage with pay phones but the absurdity of finding one in a convenient location anymore made it rather difficult.

I’ve lived abroad for over seven years now and only periodically return to the United States for visits. As such, I notice what were probably gradual changes in technological acceptance in the United States as sudden “societal shifts.” For the last three years, I have been living in China. While China is embracing technology quite rapidly, the economic stratification and Chinese “firewall” sometimes make it hard to feel the changes that are brewing with rest of the world. I was back in the US of A in early July 2011 and spent over a month bouncing around, I noticed several technological changes and changes in people’s relationship to technology.

What’s my “status”? What’s yours?

I spent quite a bit of time on airplanes, and I was surprised to see how automatically the reaction was for my fellow passengers when we landed: better check my Facebook status. I am not sure what it means to us as a society and people to have such a thing as a personal status. “Look forward to coming Harry Potter movie,” “Waiting for the Weekend,” etc. It will be interesting to see how this mass of personal, subjective messages gets interpreted about our society in the future. The Egyptians left scratched engravings and painted walls, while we will have a “walls” of status. What’s that say about us?

Am I as Smart as My SmartPhone?

Being one of the last to have a cellphone, I’ll likely be the last to have a smartphone. It was amazing to see both in the US and in Taiwan pre-age-two children manipulating iPhones. I don’t have much experience with phones in general so it was startling to see a speechless children zooming and scanning through a group of phones.

It was also amazing to see how some of my US friends quickly turned to their phones for the answers. Stumped about who was in what movie or what was the date for that event? No need to think it out when the answer can be googled anywhere and anytime from a phone.

In some ways, I wonder if the the future of our society will be turned on not such how smart we are but how smart we are with our smartphone. Maybe we won’t need a smartphone externally, because we’ll GPS-ing and SMS-ing via a neurological brain input/output port.

I can’t help but feel like a major new kind of narrative of the self has started. I’m not even sure who or how it will be written, but it’s clear that the narratives of the past don’t quite meet the reality of twisted social status, smartphones, constant internet interaction and a person walking, watching and acting amongst these social nets.

So much to say on this thread of thoughts that I’ll leave it for another day.

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