Written by Jordan Walker
Jordan is a member of the Centre for Social Innovation custom group who recently returned from Zanzibar, Tanzania. She worked on programming and facilitating a series of entrepreneurship workshops in partnership with the Vocational Training Authority of Zanzibar. She brings an academic and professional background in international development to the project, and recently completed a five-month internship at the YCI Toronto office.
Many people will disagree when I say we are disconnected in the 21st century. It would seem that we are even more connected now than ever before. In today’s world of lightning-fast internet and constantly being “plugged in,” being able to connect has never been easier. Though we talk about using technology to connect instantly to people all over the world, the reality is that, in my experience living and working in various countries, there is a huge difference between the way we connect (Facebook, texting, Whatsapp) and making genuine connections with people.
In addressing this issue, I always think about my first experience living abroad in Chile in 2007. Cell phones were widely used, but they were basic and used mostly for quick phones calls. Texting was rare and smartphones were nonexistent. Most people had never heard of Facebook. By the end of my year there, I could already see a change in the amount of young people using Facebook and communicating mostly via text messages, but these were still fairly new concepts. When I returned six years later, Facebook was as pervasive as it is in Canada, and peoples’ addictions to their smartphones, Whatsapp, and other electronic communications was as extreme, if not more so, than in North America. The shift from making real connections to plugging in and connecting online was astounding.
In Zanzibar, I see what I saw in Chile the first time I was there. Cell phones are a huge part of life, but people generally pick up the phone rather than text, and rarely continue on long conversations unless they are face to face with the person. I constantly see knots of people standing together and chatting; the norm is to ask very personal questions about everybody you meet, and the aim is to truly get to know people. While standing in a print shop, our local volunteer Omar began chatting with two complete strangers and learned that they were Wright brothers-esque inventors who had designed and built their own car, hot air balloon and recently a helicopter! After a short chat, they were happy to come to our entrepreneurship workshop later that week to share their story with our attendees.
I will not argue that technology is only negative; I think its implications in the international development field alone are invaluable. However I do believe that it is important that we recognize our own lack of genuine interpersonal connection in the Western world. I sincerely hope that Zanzibar retains its culture of open, friendly person-to-person connection as access to electronic means of connecting grows.