Recently I spent a week volunteering in Laverton, WA - a small outback town predominately populated by FIFO mining workers and Aboriginal community members. With a group known as Curtin Volunteers, I assisted with the Laverton School Holiday Program. Every morning a team of uni volunteers and I arrived at the community youth centre ready to entertain and engage 30+ children in games, sports, cooking, science, artwork and the like. The experience definitely gave me some insight into the future, especially as someone struggling to figure out what the hell I want to do with my life. But you know what was possibly the most confronting part of the experience? Not having Internet for a whole entire week.
I had mixed feelings about this lack of Internet access. Being an exchange student, I was anxious about not being able to communicate with my family and friends from home. I was sad not to be able to Skype my dog or keep up with my friends on Instagram. I was also anxious about not being able to receive any news updates about life in the U.S. Over time, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest have become pretty prevalent forces in my life, especially in terms of identity-building and connection-making across the globe. Needless to say, it was nerve-wracking to leave all of this behind.
Throughout the first day I was constantly pulling my phone out to check my notifications without even thinking and became frustrated when I remembered that I didn't have service. I felt disconnected, like I was missing out on the world. I wanted to be in the moment with the kids and the town, but I couldn't help thinking about technology. One of our team members happened to have a phone carrier that worked in the outback, and I was jealous that he got to check his messages. I just generally felt a little uncomfortable.
As I got into the swing of things and started to connect more with the kids at the youth centre, I started caring less and less about not having cell service or Internet access. Overall I actually felt less stressed. I wasn't constantly checking Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I wasn't constantly worrying about emails from uni. I wasn't having to respond to people's messages. I finally felt like I was taking a break from the chaos of my day-to-day life. I was really living in my present moment in Australia and not channeling all my energy into other peoples' worlds back home.
I spent a lot of time just getting to know the people on my volunteer team. I learned a lot about their hometowns, their politics, their spirituality, their emotions, their goals for the future, among other things. I felt like I was finally making some substantial friends abroad. I had been nervous going to Laverton with a bunch of people I didn't know, but after a day or two I had become surprisingly chill.
As the trip came to a close and we arrived in Perth, I regained access to my cellular data and wifi. I was excited yet overwhelmed. A week's worth of notifications popped up rapidly on my phone screen. I felt like I had to drop everything and catch up with what had been going on online while I was gone. I'm still quite conflicted about it.
Growing up with the Internet is complicated. On one hand it causes you to lose touch with the people around you, detaching a bit from the present moment. On the other hand, it's a powerful way to engage ideas and dialogue with people all over the world. Overall, I think that my time without access to the Internet was a good one. I'm more grateful for the access to communication that I have. However, I'm also more apt to question it's immediacy.