When I first arrived in rural Honduras in 2002, communication with the outside world was severely limited, and I relished the solitude. Living off of the grid, hidden in plain sight from all the demands of modern times, was truly liberating. Ten years later, I’m suffocated by the ubiquity of electronic communication, but grateful that it allows us to connect to friends globally, minimizing the distance felt despite geographical constraints.
Then, email was slowly becoming a regular form of communication — my parents had just obtained an email addresses that summer so that we could connect with each other. I had only just purchased my first cell phone in the US, and very few people in Honduras had cell phones at that point so it was unnecessary to have one there.
Once a week, I’d travel 30 minutes by bus to the city of Comayagua to check email and place international phone calls. My email at the time, firstname.lastname@example.org, was so flooded with spam that I would spend an hour of time purchased at the internet café merely deleting emails intended for others. To connect with family, I had to visit special calling centers that offered a plastic phone booth from which to call home. I’d speak to each parent for five minutes or so, conscious of the clock as I watched the pricey minutes tick by.
I first downloaded Skype in 2006 when I spent the summer in rural Haiti and needed a way to interact with family and friends. Webcams were not standard on computers so we generally used only the audio feature to converse. In the loneliest moments, those nights when the stifling heat and swarms of mosquitoes consumed me, I could dial one of the five people who actually had Skype so I could speak English for a few precious minutes.
In Uganda in 2011 I had a simple phone with T9 text — likely the reason why texting didn’t take off as a form of communication until the smart phone with a full keyboard. When I moved to Rwanda in 2011, I bought a local cell phone and initially refused to pay for a data plan. It wasn’t so much the money as it was an attempt to recapture some piece of time and space for myself. When lying in my room up the hill from the hospital, I wanted to feel disconnected from work and obligation for a few hours of fitful sleep, but the solitude was an illusion. I could stand on top of a mountain in rural Rwanda, surrounded by crops and goats, and talk to my mother via cell phone for 11 cents a minute as if we were only an area code apart.
The joy of being free, living outside of the social network, has faded away with the digital revolution. We’re now permanently connected to work emails, Facebook advertisements and news updates about reality stars’ romantic lives. But in exchange for the shackles of ubiquitous connections to the web, we’ve gained something intangibly superior — a distant but constant connection to each other. No matter where on the earth we travel, those we love are only a text or a call away.
Now I split my time between Florida and Haiti, but I’m always tethered to a smart phone that carries all the modern forms of communication. I can call people in the US for 10 cents a minute using cellular airtime or three cents a minute when using the Skype app, if the wireless internet cooperates. The phone constantly, obnoxiously vibrates to notify me about new emails, tweets, wall posts and pictures of friends’ babies or goat cheese salad lunch. The mind swims and swirls, unable to concentrate on one item long enough to accomplish anything. Mid-email, I’ll switch over to Twitter or Facebook to see if any activity has transpired in the last 10 minutes that might temporarily distract from the task at hand.
Even vacationing around the world has become more connected, permanently integrated into the worldwide fabric. While traveling across Brazil this summer, every hostel, no matter how cheap, offered wireless internet. Hot water and plumbing that tolerated toilet paper were rare commodities, but even the $40 a night rat holes had wireless internet.
The diminution of the globe has, however, led to unprecedented levels of connection with friends and family. We may sacrifice some of our focus and allow our minds to be consumed by mindless drivel, but the people we love have never been closer.
When he served as the US Ambassador to France, John Adams and his wife had to pen letters to each other carried across the Atlantic by ships, arriving a minimum of one month after they were written. Imagine a long-distance relationship whose love messages were carried across the Atlantic by ships traversing the vast ocean. Now we can have video chats across an ocean with only a few hiccups in the sound and the occasionally pixelated video.
From Haiti, I can virtually visit my nephews in the South Pacific Ocean, experiencing their drawings of Thanksgiving turkeys firsthand. While driving through traffic in Port-au-Prince, I can call a friend in London via the Skype mobile app and connect as if she were still down the street. I can have real-time text discussions with a friend in Liberia responding to the Ebola epidemic. My good friend from Rwanda keeps me up to date on his family life and his studies in public health via regular chats on Facebook Messenger or Whatsapp. Instead of merely lobbing emails back and forth, we can enjoy real time text discussions via Whatsapp or iMessage or Viber. We can even have a running series of discussions via three or four different messaging platforms, typing in the most recent thought or addition via whichever program is most easily accessible at the moment.
I remember sitting in a quiet room in rural Haiti in 2006 thinking that I didn’t want to sacrifice my connections to friends and family to work in global health. Now I don’t have to.
Vincent DeGennaro is an internal medicine doctor and a global public health specialist at the University of Florida’s Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine and works half time in Haiti with the nonprofit Project Medishare. See his An American Doctor in Haiti blogs.