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Replug: Technology in the ‘Raw Abroad’

Unplugging is like using sunscreen: I know I should do it, I often don’t and maybe that’s why I’ll die of cancer.

Even though it is generally good advice, I tend to roll my eyes whenever someone tells me I spend too much time on my laptop. So earlier this month when Inside Higher Ed published “Digital Cocoons and the Raw Abroad,” a plea by two U.S. professors for study abroad students to unplug from their “digital helmet,” I rolled my eyes so hard I felt like I was thirteen again. Here’s an excerpt:

Today’s study abroad explorers may leave their home country but not leave home at all. Thanks to cheap international data plans and smartphones in their pockets, millennial Americans seldom say goodbye to familiar friends, family and online comforts as they set out to experience life in a different country. Can a digital native ever go native?

What does it take for a digital native like me to “go native” in Santiago? Well, considering how many of my Chilean friends also grew up glued to a Game Boy, I would have to plug in, Santiago-style.

“Don’t unplug. Replug.” Photos: Daniel Bergerson, 2016.

And that’s exactly what happened. I got back on Facebook to coordinate movie nights with new friends. I ended my six-year streak of not playing PlayStation when my 21-year-old host brother crushed me in Pro Evolution Soccer. I even started watching the nine o’clock news in order to stay up-to-date on the endless string of celebrity slip-ups and bank hold-ups that seems to sum up Chile today. (Actually I just watch it because my host sister turns on the TV during dinner. I couldn’t ask for a more *authentic* experience with these digital natives.)

Thanks to that damn smartphone always in my pocket, I have also been using a slew of new apps, including a Spanish dictionary, a Chilean idiom dictionary and, most surprisingly to both myself and everyone who has ever known me, Tinder. Back in New York City, I had assumed that Tinder was the spawn of a horny angel investor named Satan hell-bent on making my campus even more superficial and ruthless. Turns out that matchmaking software can really help someone who is new-in-town find friends beyond the study abroad student bubble.

Technological immersion has even enriched my academic experience. Children’s TV shows, satirists on YouTube and Facebook events for student marches have each provided insights relevant to my research about the Chilean education system and sparked further questions. This past month was a social media marathon of connecting with young teachers on online forums and scheduling interviews via email. In Chile these days you need to plug in to be enchufado.

“(left) Chile. (right) Also Chile.” Photos: Daniel Bergerson, 2016.

Contrary to the advice of the article’s authors (who moonlight as study abroad coordinators in Germany and China), unplugging is not how one should “set out to experience life in a different country.” At best, such a prescription naively underestimates the pervasiveness of technology in most places study abroad students are willing to venture. At worst, it reflects the imperial ideology of  American exceptionalism in which the United States is a shining city on a hill surrounded by the dark parts of the map where there be dragons but no Wi-Fi to InstaGram the dragons.

Today there are more cellphones than people in Chile. When my classmates WhatsApp through lecture and my host siblings SnapChat through dinner, don’t tell me that storing my smartphone in the suitcase is “the raw abroad.”

Plus, as Arjun Appadurai writes in Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization“Electronic media provide resources for self-imagining as an everyday social project.” What that means to me is that watching Chilean films starring white boy archetype Michael Cera, Chicago economist Milton Friedman and West Coast pop singer-turned-Marxist activist Dean Reed is important. These popular representations of gringos in Chile help me understand the imaginary backstory that my Chilean compañeros and compañeras might assign to me, the gringo, when we first meet.

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“Michael Cera, Milton Friedman or el gringo rojo — take your pick.” Photo: Daniel Bergerson, 2016.

I agree with the critics of the “digital visor” in that technology can enable travelers to “superficially engage with the culture that surrounds them, glancing at surfaces, wincing at strange foods, seeing crowds of natives and talking about them online.” But I’d argue that the average tourist born before the internet does exactly the same thing, only offline. Five minutes on an Atacama desert bus tour makes that painfully clear.

I’d prefer to figure out how the “digital visor” can enhance traveling instead of exacerbate the veil of tourism. The same social networks that spin our digital cocoons can also be used as maps — tools for understanding the social world around you.

My advice?

  • Take less selfies. Write more selfies (a.k.a. critically reflective blogs).
  • If you’re a habitual texter, don’t do much international messaging. Part of learning a language nowadays is understanding the text lingo.
  • Avoid Skyping home more than twice a month. Join your host sister for a Skype session with her grandma.
  • Don’t bother eavesdropping on subway conversations during your morning commute because they are few and far between. You’ll have more language exposure eavesdropping on your own Spanish-language audiobooks.
  • Don’t binge on Netflix. Binge on box wine at the Friday-afternoon university party.

Okay, don’t actually binge drink. That is dangerous. But have a good time with new friends while speaking a new language. And try not to check your phone often, even if your friends do.

Read more on travel, education and history at The Dandruff Report.

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