What Is Away?

 View from Mt. Verstovia.   Source: Julia Rosenheim

View from Mt. Verstovia.  Source: Julia Rosenheim

I’ve been in Sitka for a little more than a month, and now, when I overhear some fishermen laughing about their catch as I sip from a mug of coffee in the Back Door Café, I don’t think much of it. A month ago, I would have; I’m from New York City, where “fresh” fish arrives from somewhere else, somewhere totally abstract. When I first arrived in Sitka, the direct contact with the source of our food struck me. Now, the initial thrill of this aspect of the culture has subsided, replaced by a constant gratitude I feel for it every day.

 I'm not in New York City anymore. 

I'm not in New York City anymore. 

What does it mean for me to be away? In addition to exploring a new place, a new community, a new culture, do I feel separate from my home life? During the first few weeks of my internship at Artchange, I tried to call and text friends every night. The time difference of four hours meant it was quite difficult for me to talk to friends and family living their lives on the east coast, but I’d stop to snap a picture of a ripe salmonberry on a walk into town to send to a friend thousands of miles away. The geographic distance between my social circle and my life here made me want to engage with things like Facebook even more than I do at home.

 Salmonberries to post online. 

Salmonberries to post online. 

But shouldn’t being away mean a break from that social network? Why does it pull me in even more than usual? This is one of the paradoxes that the Frankentweet project is exploring.

In my interviews with cruise ship tourists, I ask them what it means to be away. Some of them talk about being away as a chance to explore a new way of life, others mention a break from work. What is interesting to me, however, is how many talk about “peace and quiet.” When I prod further, I find that this quiet isn’t really the absence of audible noise, but rather, it is more aptly put as a lack of media clamor. One man described the delight of not being able to check his phone on a boat without cell service. Another woman talked about how wonderful it is that she is only able to access wifi when they are in port.

 Tourist snaps a picture outside Totem Park. 

Tourist snaps a picture outside Totem Park. 

At first, these responses seem pretty standard, especially in the digital age. But after further reflection, I wonder why we feel it is so necessary to engage with our devices in our everyday lives if we know how great it is to have peace and quiet? What is it about technology that draws us in so much? One girl talked to me about how she does miss having wifi on board the cruise ship. Like me at the beginning of my time in Sitka, she yearns for this media noise. How does our culture and values contribute to this?

 Paying Attention.

Paying Attention.

Furthermore, the process of collecting interviews has revealed to me that people may be unaccustomed to the act of confronting both the benefits and consequences of technology in our lives. The way a man shrugged and laughed after he admitted that he uses his device way too much, the sheepish smile of a girl who talked about how playing games on her iPhone often separates her from the people around her, the nods of agreement coming from a woman’s family as she described the frustration of a friend ignoring her to check texts at dinner – to me, these moments suggest that perhaps on some level, we all recognize the way our devices alter our lives, whether it be by putting up barriers, connecting us to new communities, allowing us to feel an artificial tie to people far away. The question is: what are we going to do about it? Are we prepared to address it?

This process has made me more aware of the fact that I don’t feel the need to check in with friends and family back home as much as I did in the beginning of my time here. Now when I walk past bushes brimming with ripe salmonberries, I don’t think about sending a picture of them to a friend, I just pick them and eat them right away, with no other motive.

Do they taste better?

What are you noticing?

Check out facebook.com/pages/frankentweet and follow us on instagram at Frankentweet to see what we're up to. 

 

Julia Rosenheim is studying anthropology and political science at Yale University. She is passionate about exploring new places and cultures. This summer, Julia is working as an intern for Artchange, Inc.