The bus from Yangon to Mandalay was packed and I was the only foreigner on it. As such, I was given a seat up front, among the monks dressed in their dark orange robes. Slowly we made our way north on the toll way. In Myanmar, there aren’t any radio stations or satellite radio to be played as the miles crept by. The country has the lowest mobile phone penetration in the world after North Korea and, well, considering that that country is on permanent lockdown, Myanmar has the lowest mobile phone penetration of any country where you can actually buy a phone.
This means as the miles roll by, the people on the bus start to converse and talk. The conversations start muted, whispers from two people sharing a thought or secret and then they slowly built. By the time we were an hour out of Yangon, people were standing in the aisles, talking, laughing and sharing snacks. By the time the bus stopped for lunch, everyone piled out together and shared tables at the the roadside restaurant.
I thought of that trip last year as I sat at the airport in Boston recently. All around me were my fellow passengers on the journey, glued to their phones and computers, listening to music and shut off from the world. There wasn’t a single conversation happening around me. No one had met anyone or shared a story of their day. No snacks were being pulled out and traded.
In Myanmar, they are anxious for the chance to buy the latest phone. They lament the lack of Internet and how slow it is when it does exist. They wonder how much better their lives would be if they had more wifi, more connection and more technology.
In the States, I don’t think that collectively we understand the impact of technology on our lives. I have learned a lot during my yoga practice about being present, about being on the mat. At one of my favorite yoga studios in the world, there is often a sign on the blackboard about how you can’t do anything tomorrow and you can’t do anything yesterday, today’s the day.
We speak in the Internet and the ability to be in touch with everyone in our collective worlds as being “connected.” Partially, that’s true. The technology and the platforms that are at our fingertips do make it easier to stay in touch with family, friends and business colleagues – especially the ones that are at a great physical distance from us.
But it comes at the cost of disconnecting from where we are now. At the airport in Boston, I watched as people messaged, emailed and called people who were not around them physically. I realized that every person around me was trying to connect electronically with a person or a place – they all were trying to be somewhere else, or with someone else.
When a hundred people gather to get on a plane, and everyone is trying to be somewhere else, there is no chance of true connection. There is no chance to meet someone interesting or perhaps, meet a new partner or even future spouse. My parents met in Washington, D.C. at the airport. My mother was flying up to New York for the weekend and my father was heading home to Boston. Would they have even met if they had both had their heads down texting friends? I doubt it.
The advent of wearable technology, Google Glasses and the like, will make the situation even worse. At least when people have to look at their phones or computers, there is the chance that that they might make eye contact with someone. If they are wearing their phone, that low chance is completely gone.
In Myanmar, they anxiously await lower prices for cell phones and improvements in the Internet. All that does is make me want to return there before it happens so that I can enjoy a people and a culture that is still truly connected.