March 05, 2010

Disconnected Connectivity

By Deacon Patrick Moynihan *
Disconnected Connectivity
Not very long ago, the first question visitors to Haiti would ask was either, “Why are so many houses unfinished?” or, “How do people raise their children in these circumstances?” Both of these questions were based on what they saw out the window on the way to the school from the airport, observing the vast number of rough concrete structures which do always seem to be “in progress” or noticing how hard the women were working in the hot, dirty streets selling baskets of diverse somethings, cooking over hot coals, or hand-washing clothes.  

Today, the first question I am asked is more likely, “Will my cell work here?” Due to the recent increase in connectivity brought to this region by two very aggressive telecom companies, even those who have the most modest of equipment can connect.  So, almost regrettably, I answer, “Yes.” Even the poorest nation in the hemisphere is not immune to ubiquitous connectivity.   

Since the towers have sprung up, I have observed how virtual reality, even here, can trump the physical world at times. Visitors’ eyes, which were once glued on the new world they had been cast into from the moment the plane landed, have migrated back to the sacred gateways of technology. The rebar-topped houses and hardworking women go past for awhile unnoticed while the electronically advantaged and possibly dependent connect up. Rides from the airport these days are often a lot quieter; the silence only interrupted by the tapping of screens and clicking of buttons.

Recently, I suggested to a group of medical professionals whom I had the pleasure of assisting in their relief efforts around Port au Prince that they take advantage of the chance to submerge themselves completely in the grace of immediate service and give up the iPhones and Blackberrys along with the dreaded insurance forms they had happily left at home.  By their response, one would have thought that I had suggested to a toddler going to his or her first sleepover without his or her teddy bear.  

Over the years, I have watched as people from a broadening age group use the newest technology to send photos home almost as quickly as they took them to seemingly ever ready panels of friended experts to get feedback.  The isolated, window-gazing self-reflection of the past seems a bit old-fashioned and confining compared to posting one’s experience for the world to see instantaneously, especially when it takes less time to upload pictures and receive text feedback than to form one’s own thoughts.

These experiences have in no way caused me to doubt or to lessen my immense appreciation for the visitors to Haiti whom I have had the privilege to of movinge about Port au Prince as they voluntarily do much needed work. But, they have prompted me to question: has technology  seduced us into outsourcing our personal reflection. In other words, have we become obsolete to ourselves as the primary examiner of our own lives?

The popularity of Facebook, YouTube, and the success of electronics specifically designed to allow us to instantly publish our experiences for public review would suggest that we have indeed moved the office for internal reflection outside of ourselves into virtual space.  In choosing to become our own paparazzi, we alleviate the need to understand ourselves and what we are experiencing.  We can consult a thousand friends in a parsec and save ourselves the trouble.  

Thanks to the wonders of digital cameras, we can also look back at a moment almost as fast as it happens.  We do not have to absorb things in real time. We can shoot and think later. The hairs on my neck prickle when I am with someone who snaps a photo and then immediately passes it around for others to see. Oddly, it seems that the object or person in the photo, although still before us, has disappeared, lost importance.  Maybe those who resist having their pictures taken for fear of having their soul stolen have a point.   

In the process of pursuing electronic connectivity, I fear we have become our own intruder, leaving behind the moment and self-reflection as cadavers .  I have to wonder if Socrates, had he foreseen the advent of Facebook, digital cameras, and the iPhone, would have warned us that life is still unexamined if we leave it others to do it for us or store it for later evaluation. Alas, limited by his times, just as we all are, Socrates was not able to foretell the risk of disconnection resulting from getting a signal.  
Deacon Patrick Moynihan graduated Culver Military Academy in 1983, from Brown University with BA in Sanskrit and Classics in 1987, and from Providence College with an MA in Religious Studies [Theology] in 1999.

He taught Latin and English in a Catholic High School from 1987 to 1990, traded commodities, futures and options for an international trading company from 1990 to 1995 and directed a free Catholic mission school in Haiti for academically gifted children from the poorest areas around Port au Prince from 1996 to 2006.

Deacon Moynihan was ordained in October of 2001 as a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Rockford [IL] where he was the director of formation and later the Office for the Permanent Diaconate from 2001 to 2006. He has since gone back to Haiti and is currently the president of The Haitian Project.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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