For most of human history geography has been a powerful factor in determining how we build and maintain communities. Early organization on nation states and religious groups were able to transcend geography to a degree but even these tended to be hemmed in by bodies of water, vast stretches of land, or topographical features such as mountains. The over arching trend in our history is the use of technology to overcome these barriers whether that be the written word, ships, telegraph wires or cellphones. Today, many consider the world a “global village”, essentially implying that the forces of technology have defeated the limiting factors of geography. But is this true the world over? Specifically, is there anything to be learned about the state of community among displaced populations?
In Oh My Sweet Land, our host meets Syrian exile Ashraf who is desperately using Skype to reconnect with the loved ones he left behind to try and help them, to try and rebuild his community. The power of this technological tool and others like it is profound, but not limitless. It is predicated on the connectivity of all parties, which in less developed communities or in communities that have been forced to flee their homes as Syrian refugees have is certainly not a given. Without these technologies, it is difficult for refugees not only to remain in contact with loved ones, but also to apply for government asylum or assistance. Often they must wait in line for hours to charge a phone or use a computer such as the case of Hassan Haidari profiled by This American Life last July.
This undercuts the idea that for all people in all places the comfort and practical value of community is a given. But new efforts to combat this inequality are growing in strength. In an address to the U.N. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg said, “The Internet is more than just a network of machines, it is the key driver of social and economic progress in our time…” He then laid out a plan to bring free Internet access into Syrian refugee camps, admitting that while it wouldn’t stop a bullet it could help to maintain and build communities. Other companies like Google have plans to spread Internet access through initiative like Project Loon which launches smart weather balloons into the stratosphere that are capable of beaming high speed internet access to remote locations.
By contrast, in more developed countries, an approximate opposite problem of hyper connectivity is growing. A 2016 University of Pittsburgh study (among others) linked high amounts of Social Media usage in adolescence to depression. According to the study, “highly idealized representations of peers on social media elicits feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier, more successful lives.” Depression often causes individuals to disengage from community, perhaps spending more time interacting with online avatars, perpetuating a vicious cycle.
Returning to Oh My Sweet Land, our host eventually journeys to the Middle East where she bears witness to the devastation wrought on local communities by national conflict. But, as a result of crossing this geographic barrier, it also leads her to (re)discover an essential community from her own cultural past. Perhaps suggesting that geography is still very much at play in building communities whether that’s across a border or across the street.
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