I arrived in Berlin exactly one month ago and I am now in the middle of my fact-finding/gotta get this dissertation proposal written already trip. I find that in the States, its easy enough to combine my scholarly interests (ethnicity/race, journalism, teaching) with technology, observing how its used, how its not used, who uses what, etc. But here in Berlin, there has been a much different approach to things like iPads and iPods, laptops and other computer accessories that quite literally, define us in the States (just remember those ads between Apple and Microsoft; one can get branded positively or negatively - just by the kind of computer one buys.). There seems to be a different definition going on here.
Living abroad (Germany is my 6th country) has taught me a lot about myself, especially in terms of when Im overwhelmed by my foreign surroundings (like trying to find cough syrup in the CVS-like store, to be told I have to go to the Apotheke (Pharmacy), or getting to the Apotheke and realizing I have to go back to the CVS-like store to buy Kleenex.). One major thing Ive learned is that I turn to my iPod when I want to escape back into familiarity. Without it, though, Ive not been able to tune out the people reading the other side of my newspaper or the cover of my book and looking sheepish when theyve been caught or smiling when I lift the page or book so they can get a better glimpse.
I hear people when they mumble something about me, or when they thank me quietly for moving out of the way. I actually hear the undercover train agent coming to check that my ticket is valid (Ive missed this a few times when Ive had my iPod on blast. Its not been pretty.). I dont have my laptop, or an iPad, or an iPod, or a phone with internet (my cell phone here doesnt even have a QWERTY keyboard. I thought I landed in the Middle Ages when I saw it. You wouldnt *believe* how long it takes me to write a text.). And instead of itching to get re-connected once I am back in my apartment in the States, I rush to my computer and am normally there the rest of the day I linger a bit, happy to be unplugged.
Ive actually become more engaged in the society in which I live because Ive disconnected myself. Now I actually pay attention.
Its not to say Berliners arent using the internet or they have no interest in technology, rather, I see many more people reading a newspaper or a book on the train and bus than I see fiddling with an electronic gadget. I see a lot of folks unfurl a newspaper and attempt to do the broadsheet-navigation-in-a-small-space dance (that I still havent mastered). The bookstores I've gone into, large and small, have been filled with people (which makes me even more sad at the situation in Laredo, TX.) In many neighborhoods in Berlin, there are cafes (and in my 'hood clothing stores that double as cafes), and sometimes, they are so close together you wonder how any of them get any business. But they do. They are filled to the brim many days, with people sitting, talking to each other, watching passersby. Only a few people bring their computers. This may also be because as a friend told me, students often have a workspace at home, but I also see it as an attitude toward technology. It is a necessity, but not should not replace human interaction.
I am concerned about US attitudes with technology, and mainly, our kids growing up in a culture in which to be unplugged is tantamount to being a technological hermit. What are the long-term effects of remaining plugged? Does the ability to unplug, for even a 15-minute commute, enable one to more easily think outside of an electronic box?
As it is, Ive spent far more time writing this on my laptop than I thought, and now its nearly 10*30 am. But I guess its okay, a friend and I will be meeting today in a caf, where we will talk for as long as our schedules allow, and more than likely, do a good bit of people watching.