I’ve been thinking a lot about technology as of late, particularly as I navigate this 21st century liminality between (relatively) instant access to information, and this unique chapter of my life in a small, agricultural village in Sri Lanka. I consider myself someone with a global identity–someone who identifies with people, place, and experience from very different realms of life–and I am committed to building a sense of wholesomeness and connectivity across those different realms as I move forward. Technology can help with that.
But, I have to admit, it sometimes feels disingenuous to have friends and family from such formative chapters of my life accessible through the click of a button.
Time matters. I heard an adage recently that the most valuable gift you can give someone is your time, and I think that’s largely true. A lot of people say “time is money,” but I think that simple calculus fails to value time in its ephemeral nature that makes it so precious. After all, time can’t be earned back or reproduced like money or (most) material things can.
About a month ago, I returned to the Fulbright Commission office in Colombo for a meeting with the rest of the Fulbright crew. When I arrived, the front office clerk told me there was a letter waiting for me that had been there for some time. I went over to the mailing area, and discovered a paper envelope addressed from a familiar name from a familiar place. I was completely awestruck. This was a handwritten letter from an old classmate and friend–in fact, he is a current inmate who took part in our “Citizenship and Religion in America” course at the Maine Correctional Center last spring.
In that short period, I couldn’t sit down and properly do justice to the four pages of thoughtful human expression in my hands. I tried to stay present as our group shared experiences and caught up with one another, but I couldn’t help but be cast back so vividly in my mind to a chapter of life that tested my capacity for compassion, and dramatically changed my concepts of human possibility, education, and connection with others.
I ended up reading the letter slowly on a train ride to Kandy, every line wrenching at my heart and mind like the forceful twist of a waterlogged shirt washed meticulously by hand near the paddy fields of Ekiriya. I read it, and I read it over again, humbled by the tremendously reflective nature of my friend, who took the time to sit down and write this long message, which moved in physical form through time from the confines of a cold prison environment enveloped by a frigid Maine winter, across the world to its destination on this small island in the Indian Ocean, and into my hands.
You can’t recreate the past, or encapsulate the essence of an experience through the prisms of words, sounds, or conceptualizations. Even a letter like this couldn’t reproduce the profound, face-to-face convergence of life trajectories that took place within the walls of that prison during our class.
But yet, the time and thought so clearly embedded in this letter made me pause, reflect, and meaningfully re-engage with that so very special chapter of my life that contributed to my dynamic journey here to Sri Lanka. I may not be back in Windham, Maine, but I think the time invested in this letter did justice to the gravity of our shared experience last spring.
I have to admit, when a Facebook message from a friend pops up on my iPhone, alongside a New York Times news alert and the daily birthday notifications of friends, the time and depth of my connections to these people and experiences feels somewhat cheapened. It’s comforting to keep informed from afar, and be able to reach people when I might like, but sometimes I wonder if the instant accessibility I have actually diminishes the authenticity and depth of my relationships. I’d like to at least feel some extent of that excitement, novelty, and humility I felt in opening that letter in most every correspondence I have with friends and family from afar, because I think it reflects a certain recognition and harmony with the space and time that mediates and gives divergence to our lived experience. But I don’t.
For me, there’s something about the saturation of an email inbox or a Facebook newsfeed that trivializes human connection, casting us into a digital medium permeated with so much stimuli that we are forced, or more aptly, force ourselves, to make constant decisions about what bits of information or exchanges are worth engaging in.
As funny as it may seem, I really appreciate watching elderly people use technology, which is often the source of much youthful frustration and/or humor. In my experience, there is a degree of caution, examination, and slowness in using technology that, I think, more appropriately investigates how such devices meaningfully incorporate into our lives. After all, elderly people have lived much longer without the degree of dependence we have technology today. The digital mirror reality we so often assume is not taken as a given, but approached with the kind of scrutiny and intentionality worth deploying toward anything we use in our everyday lives.
I’m careful not to give technology a determinative level of agency, to say that social media necessarily “cheapens relationships,” or that technology “pulls us apart.” To my understanding, technology can be reduced to complex algorithms that amounts to little that is persistently interesting apart from its relevance and use in human lives. It is how we use these tools, not the tools themselves, that really matters.
I confess that the burden’s on me to do a better job of managing technology in my own life. It’s on me to do something about that juncture I feel when I wake up to a beautiful sunlit morning in Ekiriya, and rather unconsciously gravitate to the artificially lit screen that stays close to my side. Maybe it’s trading my iPhone for a simple device. Maybe it’s deleting my Facebook. Or maybe, and perhaps with more nuance, it’s having the constant discipline, judgment and awareness to manage technology in a way that contributes to what’s really important at the end of the day.
Because it’s not the phone, or the laptop, or the camera that ultimately determines how we live, but us. And if indeed what matters at the end of the day is what David Brooks calls our “eulogy values,” then we should really think hard and be intentional with how we use technology everyday, and how it might somehow enrich those connections with others that make life worth living. Maybe, just maybe, we should slow down, and watch how our grandparents fiddle with the newly minted iPhone.