I read recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education how Facebook was destroying Study Abroad Program. The writer, Robert Huesca, a professor communications at Trinity University in San Antonio, made the point that while living for six months in Benin he was “particularly attuned to the issues that concern professionals in study abroad-ranging from cultural immersion to health and safety. All of those issues seem to have been transformed for good and for ill by advances in information and communication technology.”
After living with 10 students in the town of Ouidah, watching all of them (and himself!) operate in a new cross-cultural setting, equipped with “computers, mobile phones, digital cameras, iPads, iPods, and other media players loaded with movies, television programs, and music,” he came to the decision that “we need to add technology management to curricula aimed at preparing students to gain as rich an experience as possible from their time abroad.”
He tells the story of one morning at 10 o’clock, while up writing, “one of my roommates walked into the dining room with her Apple laptop computer opened and already in full operation. As she poured her bowl of cornflakes, she listened to soothing music (“Dance and DJ” music is the category on iTunes, she told me) as the well-known instant-messaging “ring” chimed repeatedly for her to respond to a friend on the West Coast-of America, not Africa.
Later that day, he was teaching a multimedia class in Ouidah to a class of high school students, he learned that “virtually none of them had ever touched a computer, searched the Internet, been to a movie, or watched American television.”
From this, and other experiences, he sums up, “The hourly use of digital communication technologies by volunteers in many developing-world countries drives a wedge between their experiences and those of ordinary Africans. This chasm is likely to be deepened and widened by the attention paid to popular culture and social media by study-abroad students.”
Those of us who were around ‘at the beginning’ of the Peace Corps remember thin, blue tightly folded aerogrammes sent from the third world home to the U.S. It took a week, or at least a good four days, I know, from the Horn of Africa to the American Midwest. I never telephoned the U.S. in two years, and the Peace Corps administration in-country responded by Cable Traffic from the old Maiatico Building. E-mail was a long way away.
It wasn’t so bad for us personally to be frozen in time, or better said, tossed back in time to another way of living our lives, spending our days. As e.e.cummings wrote years ago, “program is a comfortable disease.”
Professor Huesca makes the point that communication technologies built bridges between volunteers and our adopted local culture and he feels that advanced communications were negative forces in the cross-cultural experiences of the volunteer, but he did adds that the Internet was “put to good use to find reference materials on esoteric topics.”
That said, I am still of the view that the task of the Peace Corps is not an anthropological one. We aren’t going to all the trouble to volunteer just to sit around villages and observe and record the ‘quaint’ ways of another culture so that we might proclaim later in life, “you know, I once lived for two-years in a grass hut on the Baro River.
Of course, Professor Huesca, and other study-abroad students, don’t have the Peace Corps objective when traveling to Paris, Italy, or even Ouidah. Writing of his first experience in Mexico City, the professor recalls. “Although stressful and, frankly, painful at the time, the periods of intense loneliness and homesickness I experienced in Mexico City contributed significantly to core and treasured sensibilities such as empathy tolerance, perseverance, perspective, and gratitude.”
That might work for undergraduates, but what PCVs should be doing, and doing as fast as we can, is introducing host families, friends, co-workers and students to the technology that is out there, beyond the village, the town, wherever they might be able to connect in the world. It is the job of the PCV perhaps to pause and marvel at the Norman Rockwell romantic painting of a PCV helping a farmer with his crude plow and old oxen, but if the Peace Corps is ever going to matter, it will make a different by saying to the HCNs in the developing world as far as way as conceivable from Silicon Valley or Wall Street, “Look, there’s a better way ‘next door.’
Years ago, Shriver gave us book lockers to leave behind, a small gesture that put great fiction and non-fiction into the hands of kids who could “read themselves’ into new world. Now we have mobile technology, a vast array of information that we take for granted, but others can’t even image. Let the Peace Corps lead the way.
It is one small way the Peace Corps can make a difference.