On Technology

One of the worst things about being a student is accepting the inevitable defeat of that moment where you realize that a document you were hoping would be saved has been lost. Be it a small homework assignment, a group report, a midterm exam, or even entire sections of an essay or dissertation, we have all been there. Even worse is when, well, you are forced to wipe your entire hard drive and lose everything because your disk has been corrupted. Only some of us have been there, but it’s painful. Such has been the case for me this last week. In addition to a variety of other documents and applications, and over 20 gigabytes of photos and 200 gigabytes of video, I lost the last blog I wrote this previous weekend and am now starting fresh with my laptop. But the blog is the least of my worries.

I had written a rather thoughtful exploration of my own reasons for studying development and the ways I’ve shuffled around my understanding of myself and what I want to do with my life over the years since I started university, and that’s probably stuff I will come back to at some point. (Summary: the follow through is okay but I’m very indecisive and could benefit from a little clarity in my understanding of who I am and what I want to do with my life; in other words, typical troubled Millennial angst.) Instead, though, I’m going to talk about the importance of technology and how I have realized how important it is to modern notions of traveling and living abroad (as well as being the source of further Millennial angst).

Starting over can be fun, but not when it’s your laptop and not when you’re still in your first five weeks of grad school in another country. For better or worse, technology both controls us and enables us to achieve so many things, and the loss of it for however long can be acutely felt in the modern day, especially if you are in a place you are unfamiliar with. I’ve always considered myself technologically literate and technologically dependent, like many others in my generation, but I’ve never considered myself an efficient technology user. Primarily, I use technology to do normal things like go on social media, listen to music, and do school work, just like others. But I’ve always felt like I’ve been squandering the opportunities technology has given me, like that I should learn how to code, learn how to use PhotoShop or edit video, or learn how to use a variety of productivity and news apps that will me make me more efficient on the computer. Instead, I’ve used it to go on Facebook, watch videos, and read some news.

In a sense, I’ve become annoyed that the only things I really use technology for are social media, news, music, and videos. In the middle of this, I’ve now realized what a fickle beast technology is and exactly how dependent I am on it, especially in this new context. I probably won’t follow through on half of these new ambitions, but the idea of being a better technology user seemed to coincide, for me, with the idea of being a more productive person more generally. Now that I’ve gotten into something of a routine over here, I can focus on being a better student and a better person in some sense. Technology is an integral part of our modern lives, for better or worse, and I should learn to take better advantage of it to improve my life rather than just distracting this to me.

In the middle of all of this came a computer crash and the realization that I know far less about technology than I could ever hope to. Just like I’d be Googling how to change a tire if I went off the room in a snow storm, I barely know what to if for some reason my computer cannot boot. You don’t realize exactly how lost you are until that moment because you know that most of your personal records and things that make you yourself are on there, as well as all the school work you need to be keeping track of.  In a practical sense the crash affected me very little and is something I could resolve, but it’s something that got me thinking about how we treat technology as a given when it is impermanent.

Running definitely clears my head when it comes to things like this.

Running definitely clears my head when it comes to things like this.

That moment for me was on Saturday, when a standard reboot to install updates on my computer wouldn’t end and resulted in the hard disk being corrupted. With some help from my roommate and a call to HP, I realized that I was going to have to reinstall Windows. The hard drive was irreparable and instead of being able to repair it, I was forced to wipe the drive and do a fresh install. All because, apparently, a graphics driver from Windows isn’t compatible with my HP laptop and somehow resulted in a computer malfunction that resulted in the hard disk being corrupted. Because Windows 10 forces these updates on you, I was helpless, and because I had only backed up some things to the cloud, I lost just about everything and am now back to square one.

What this entails in real terms is a realization that I’ve not been responsible in considering how dependent I am on technology and how being responsible and efficient with technology comes first from having the foresight to back up your computer and second having the realization that you’d be lost without the files and things that you have stored on your laptop or PC. You just don’t think that everything’s going to go South until it does one minute and then you’ve lost a bunch of memories and a whole bunch of things you need to live your day-to-day life, especially as a student. Having lost only a few weeks’ worth of work from my grad program, I’m struck by how grateful I am that this isn’t happening 18 months from now when I will be in the middle of writing a Master’s thesis. What you can’t get back, though, are the old photos and videos, or any writing you’d done that you’d actually want to hold on to. (I had written some chapters of a book over the years and am really disappointed they’re gone, despite probably not being any good.)

In my mind, I keep thinking: it’s just a computer, you’re abroad, you should be living your life and not worrying too much about these things. But, unfortunately, as a Millennial and especially as a student you are chained to the world by your computer to do many things, and when those are taken from you there is a realization of how much you need them to get by. Without the ability to use my computer to do work, I would realize how difficult it is to keep in touch with friends or family, do work, and get about. There’s a certain amount of privilege in all of this, but privilege you need to recognize and internalize if you’re going to move beyond the technology and not allow it to control you. You’re immediately handicapped, even though you shouldn’t be, and in that immediate helplessness you realize your own privilege. It’s an important realization: how important technology is to our modern lives but also how unimportant it is in the grand scheme of life and how lucky we are to have it.

From now on, I will definitely be purchasing external hard drives to back up my computer, and will realize that the first step to being an efficient technology user is to realize that you have an obligation to treat it like the commodity it is. It can go away in a flash, it’s not self-perpetuating; and we all need to realize that and think about what we can do to make sure the loss of it doesn’t control our lives. Technology should free us to do more things, not imprison us. If I can be more efficient in using technology better and using it less to do things like browse Facebook and watch videos, then maybe I can free myself to do more important and better things with it (such as keep track of the photos you think will never just one day be gone).

Definitely didn't lose all of my photos!

Definitely didn’t lose all of my photos!

In the meantime, I have also realized how technology dependent we are when traveling or living in a new country. Technology keeps us connected to people at home and serves as the basis for a new epoch of communication and relationships. When you’re in a new place where you don’t have roots, the lack of it is even more acutely felt. You sometimes don’t know how to get around, how to organize your life, or how to do things you’ve always wanted to do. You have this romantic idea that travel entails cutting yourself off from the constant flow of information and people, and in some sense it does. But when you’re putting down roots in a new place in the 21st century, you do kind of need it. Even more than when you’re home, technology opens up communication channels that are incredibly important for both being away from home and getting on in a new place.

As ridiculous and hyperbolic as some of this, I’m grateful I was able to fix my computer without too much fuss. But I’m still living with issues with it after two crashes and resets, and I know that I need to take better care of it and realize how it affects me and my place in the world. I could be negative on it, and indeed it is a sad state of affairs, but technology, and especially your PC, is something people forget they have to maintain and pay attention to. Only then will its loss not hit us so hard and we will free ourselves to spend more time detaching from it and disconnecting. Use it responsibly and take care of it and realize how important it is, but then don’t be afraid to put it aside. I know when I travel to Berlin, Prague, and Riga later this month that my laptop is something I will be leaving behind in order to better enjoy life in a new pace, safe in the knowledge that the important things I need on it will be there when I get back if I actually remember to take care of them and treat them as the commodities they should be seen as.

Stay tuned for more stories about new friends and, uh, the weather.