The Technology Conundrum

Danny DeBare - Ecuador


November 19, 2017

 

A normal greeting in the States goes something like this:

            “Hey! So nice to see you, thanks for inviting me over.”

            “It’s my pleasure! Come on in.”

            “Great…What’s the Wi-Fi password?”

Does that sound familiar? Ok, it may not be verbatim, but you get the point. I didn’t realize the extent of this practice until most houses I entered didn’t even have Wi-Fi. Imagine a world where the second question you ask of a person when stepping foot in their house isn’t the Wi-Fi password. Well, I am in this world; kind of.

It’s not as straightforward as I thought, and even hoped for. When mentally preparing for this year abroad, I developed the belief that in the United States people are obsessed with technology, while in Ecuador there isn’t a screen to be seen. However, this isn’t even close to the truth. I inadvertently utilized the belief that left my bubble to internally destroy: American exceptionalism. Although the purpose may have been inverted, I assumed that America’s advances in technology had a negative effect on society, while Ecuador’s technology deficiency led to exponentially stronger relationships and conversations.

Yes, people in America are obsessed with their devices. Yes, the Wi-Fi password almost never comes up in conversation here. But, generally speaking, I believe that people may be more connected to their devices here than in the States. You can reread that sentence, but it was not a typo.

From my experience in Ecuador, people here are so glued to their screens that I can’t even attempt a conversation because they will, without a doubt, respond to my first statement with “Lo siento, dime?” Sorry, what was that? I know when my brother is home by the speed of the Wi-Fi. Many of my colleagues, when I take over their class to teach English, immediately pull out their cracked Samsung and scroll through Facebook. The television is always on during our lunch – an ever-changing mixture of white rice, potatoes, white bread, and maize — and throughout the evening, past my bedtime of 10:20.* Everyone’s phones are out at the dinner table; their eyes darting between the television screen and WhatsApp conversations.

I will now take a moment to describe this culture’s** obsession with a particular telephone application: WhatsApp.*** Yesterday, when I came home from a day without Wi-Fi, I was only mildly surprised to see three hundred unread messages from the Quilumbaquí family group chat.**** Consisting of  25 members, a copious amount of memes relating to everything from Japanese pop culture to Christian morality videos, and emojis you didn’t even know existed, I muted the chat after the first 10 minutes and never read another thread. Consider it a combination of my laziness and the fact that half of the chat is in Kitchwa, the native language my family also speaks. However, it’s not my habits I am discussing right now; it’s the fixation my family, and the wider Ecuador community, has for this constant communication. Even the kids, who tend to be more conscious about their social media presence, post obscure selfies and motivational pictures almost every day on the WhatsApp story feature.***** My fifty-five year old Vice-Principal, who wanted my number under the context of relaying necessary updates regarding the school schedule and social events, sends me almost daily photos and videos.  One day was a Ping-Pong match, but instead of paddles and a small hollow ball, it was a medium-sized bouncy ball played with the head. Another day, a series of GIFs (animated pictures) of cars and trucks barely avoiding a catastrophic collision with humans was accompanied with the caption, “Finalistas al premio “Ángel de la Guarda 2017”, Finalists for the Guardian Angel award. Weird, right! This guy and I haven’t had a full on conversation. Ever. But apparently, here it is normal to widely distribute enjoyable content, however one interoperates that, to the entire contact list. ****** In the US, we have the sensibility to recognize our own dependency and mock ourselves about the technology problem, even if little is done to fix it. Here, there hasn’t been one reference, either a joke or serious comment, to reveal their awareness of this addiction to technology.

Part of me wanted to escape to Ecuador with the intention of disconnecting. Disconnecting: from the unnecessary drama of home, from my obsession of likes on Instagram, from the reliance I’ve developed to my IPhone. I am partly achieving that goal by removing social media from my life during the weekdays. By reading a lot more, be it the 7 NYT briefings delivered to my inbox or chapter books pirated from various Bay Area public libraries, I enjoy the new stimulus football tailgating pictures from the Midwest couldn’t provide. That being said, my phone often buzzes with people from my new home contacting me. I am fighting to strike this difficult balance of Facetiming my American family and friends to keep me sane and grounded, while morphing mindless habits from home into sustainable, intentional practices. Enhancing connections here through cutting my lifeline of Wi-Fi for an hour, or reducing the messages sent to people from home, I’m trying to build behaviors that I can carry with me beyond April.

Would you be so kind to let me retry this opening conversation with the new lessons I’ve learned?

            “Hey! So nice to see you, thanks for inviting me over.”

            “It’s my pleasure! Come on in.”

            “Great…My phone is down. I am ready to actively listen to what you are saying, realizing that I don’t have to be connected to the ever moving, yet stagnant, world of constant communication the inter-webs provides.”

Give it a shot next time. I dare you.

On another note: Happy Thanksgiving to you all! I am forever grateful for this opportunity to have a year to discover who I am, what values I hold, and my place in the world. Have an extra bite of that delicious dessert you know you aren’t hungry for but what to devour anyways; use my living vicariously through you as an excuse to stuff yourself! And I challenge you all to take a step to recognize the wider community you are a part of — especially the people who may be less fortunate — and do something to brighten up their holiday.  The wider community represents the largest cornerstone the indigenous culture here, and it’s only fair if you get to experience a taste of my life this holiday season, too.

My irrelevant footnotes that (I don’t know why) I feel so compelled to include every time:

*I dare say that the entertaining telenovelas mirror America’s obsession with reality TV; I now understand how silly Keeping up with the Kardashians and The Bachelor must seem to a partial viewer unaccustomed to this madness. .

**And many other cultures’, from people I’ve talked to around the world.

*** I had a fun time teaching my students the greeting “What’s up?” because I was able to reveal the play on English words this app employed.

****Yet, my family still has trouble informing me of the plans more than five minutes in advance. Even when I ask on Thursday, “What are our plans for this weekend?”.

*****Did you know that even WhatsApp had this story thing? I guess it wasn’t only Instagram that stole this quintessential Snapchat feature. If you older readers don’t understand this, ask anyone under the age of 21.

******I’m equating this in my head to a mass Snapchat. (Again, parents, ask your child what this means. Sorry for using these references you may not pick up.)

Danny DeBare