Monday, March 26, 2012

Coming clean, digitally

I just read a Globe and Mail article so in tune with my viewpoints on our culture of constant communication that I just had to feature it here. Like the author, I don't current have a cell phone. In this part of the world, that's extremely uncommon. Jonathan and I might just be the only people in Seoul (or all of South Korea for that matter) over the age of five who don't own a cell phone. But it doesn't really bother me. I've never been a phone person.

Living at home I often let the phone ring over and over until another member of my family picked it up, even if I was the closest person to the phone. And when call display became mainstream I was in bliss. Imagine being able to see who was calling before deciding to answer?! I got my first cell phone while in university in my twenties, but it was rarely used (mostly to contact our parents or for driving across the U.S. twice a year) until my final year when I was the news editor for our school newspaper.

Last year when I was in Tanzania I went three months without a cell phone before I finally caved when my sister was visiting and I realized I couldn't really call a taxi or organize getting together with other volunteers if I was cell phoneless. So I borrowed someone's old cell phone that was sitting around not being used, bought a 500 Tshs SIM card, and 10,000 Tshs worth of minutes. I was so clueless about Tanzanian phone procedures that I had to have my friend Shae give me a lesson on how to load the minutes onto the phone, and how to dial Tanzanian and North American numbers from my cell phone. I didn't use the phone all the time, but it did definitely come in handy.

I almost thought I'd miss having a cell phone when I got back home in April. But I didn't really. I rather enjoyed the freedom. Of course, I was almost always at my house or in close proximity to someone who had a cell phone, and I was never in an emergency situation where I absolutely had to have a cell phone, so it all worked out well.

After getting married, Jonathan and I lived in Maine for a few months while getting all our paperwork in order to come over to South Korea. I was with Jonathan most of the time and could use his cell phone if I needed to (which was very rarely). And then we came to Korea. At our first institute we were nearly always either at the institute or at our apartment, both which had phones if we needed to use them. There were very few times we actually felt we needed a cell phone in those first two months. But we managed to get through those one or two situations with careful planning and did just fine.

Then we moved to Seoul. We thought we might get cell phones here, but kept delaying the actual going and buying part. Yes, our lives might be easier if we each had cell phones. But honestly, there's a phone in our apartment - one which has rarely rung with a real call for us (usually it's telemarketers who hang up as soon as we utter a word in English). And I spend most of my days in an office - with a phone on my desk that has rung maybe less than 10 times in two and a half months (and several of those times were people getting the wrong number and wanting to talk to someone else in my office or a fax machine that for some reason sometimes rings the phone). It's really rather liberating to be cell phone-less. I'm contemplating continuing the trend into next year, too, if Jonathan will let me get away with it. And even if I do get a cell phone, it will never again be one with a contract. Tanzania* gave me the insight on that atrocity. Why in the world people pay so much money every month just to be locked into a two or three year contract is beyond me. Pay-as-you-go is absolutely, positively the best plan, in my opinion (and for my cell phone needs).

But now it's time to be completely honest and admit that, despite my record low levels for time spent on the phone, I spent much too much time online. I used to spend hours each day reading books. That time diminished in university where assignments and studying took over, although I still read my way through a large number of books during those years. I think the real reason my online life jumped into first spot was my relationship with Jonathan. I mean really, who wants to read a book when you could be talking to your boyfriend? (Well, OK, me, but I decided communication should take the front seat). Christmas breaks, when I was in BC and he was across the continent in Maine, were a tough two weeks apart. And last year, when I was an ocean and continent away from him (with frequent power outages and internet disconnections) was even rougher. And then for a portion of this past summer I was again in BC while he was in Maine and we had to chat online or Skype to finalize plans for our wedding. But then, suddenly we were married and living together, and life and communication became much more simple. But there is still one problem. I still spend almost as much time online as I did before we were married. And I make up multiple excuses for my behaviour. Excuse #1: I'm again halfway across the world and this time I spend time online communicating with my family and friends living all around the world. Excuse #2: I have a very limited supply of English books to read. I've pretty much finished all the books we brought with us (as well as the two Jonathan gave me for Valentine's Day). Books, especially English ones, are pretty expensive here, and we haven't yet found a good English library yet (although we've heard of a couple and should get off our butts and find them). Excuse #3: I have some organizational projects to work on online. There's always things I could be working on online or on my computer.

None of those are bad excuses and all are true. But that doesn't mean I don't have room to improve in this area. So from now on I'm going to try to wean myself off of too much time spent online. In the article, the author said our society's compulsive communication disorder reveals, "...a pathological incapacity to be alone with our thoughts for more than a few minutes." And I sheepishly agree. Where I used to spend hours of my childhood roaming around my back yard inventing games or stories, I now spend ingesting other people's thoughts. And most of those are not good, creative thoughts, such as I'd find in books, but mundane comments about house cleaning or the new Starbucks drink or politics (sorry to those who enjoy politics and don't find it mundane, but for me it's a brain drain). So here's to less time spent online and a boost to my creativity. We'll see how it works.

*Many Tanzanians, poor as they may be compared to the ordinary North American, have at least two cell phones and some even have three. By having SIM cards for the two or three major cell companies, they can call people who have Zain with their Zain phones, people who have Tigo with their Tigo phones, and people who have Vodocom with their Vodocom phones. Even with three phones, three 500 Tshs SIM cards, and minutes for each phone, I would guess they do not pay anywhere near what the average North American pays for phone bills each month.

Another interesting link on the subject, from Psychology Today.
And a TED talk on it as well.

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