Kazakhstan Visit, Issue 4

New Yorker cover: 23 July 2012On 23 July 2012, the New Yorker’s cover showed a scene which relects our fear of becoming disconnected through our connectedness: a family portrait on a beautiful seaside resort – with each individual deeply engrossed in a mobile device, seemingly oblivious of each other and their surroundings. We’re still grappling with the role and etiquette of mobile devices in our connected society, as Scott Adams parodies in this Dilbert cartoon.

The New Yorker cover plays on a common fear that ubiquitously connected mobile devices are, in fact, making us less social; that it can tear away at the fabric of our society if we let it go unchecked.

Of course, we can today connect with people that we never would have been able to reach before.

At the moment, I’m working in a country where I don’t speak either of the main languages (Russian and Kazakh). Very few of the people we’ve met can speak English. The students whom we lecture seem to understand enough English so that we get by with lots of diagrams, maths and some interpretation in between. Our meetings with faculty are interpreted, always with the aid of an undergraduate student who studied English.

Still, we quite often find ourselves without an interpreter, in a country that’s very foreign to us. The last time I had an experience like this, was when I visited Beijing and Wuhan in 2005. I was armed with a small phrasebook, I memorised some Mandarin vocabulary and useful sentences, and I could count up to 10. It was hopeless. My mobile phone, an old Ericsson clamshell, only helped me to phone home when I felt too lonely. I was completely disconnected from the people around me.

Google Translate screenshotForward to Karaganda, Kazakhstan: present day. Our guide, Murat, doesn’t speak more than ten words of English. It doesn’t matter. My smartphone has become our voices. We blurt out sentences at each other in our native languages, laugh at the other party’s incomprehension, then someone calls “translate!” and the phone is passed to him. The Google Translate app does the to and fro between English and Russian – sometimes perfectly accurate; sometimes a bizarre ramble.

Our phones have become deeply personal objects, and sharing and exchanging the device almost creates a sense of personal connection. In shops, restaurants and at the university, strangers smile when you try to communicate something using the phone, and playfully join in to type a response in Russian for translation. And we get our thoughts across.

It’s incredible to me that we are able to connect with people that, only a few years ago, would effectively have been deaf and mute to us. More than that: we’re connecting with people with very different languages, and hence very different backgrounds – exactly the type of people I feel is worth getting to know.

Perhaps mobile devices are tearing away at the fabric of society. But if the fabric of society is sewn together by languages and cultures that stitch us into our familiar prejudices, I say: tear away.

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