Is being connected making it harder to connect?

I recently read an article by an author worrying that our smartphones and other gadgets are becoming an extension of our brains, so that when they’re not available, we’re helpless and unable to function properly. It reminded me of an experience I had while stranded on a train for three days in rural China.

In January 2008, as part of our trek around Asia, my wife and I boarded a train in Hong Kong and traveled to Beijing, a journey of more than 1200 miles. The train was one of the nicest I’ve been in, clean and airy, private rooms with ensuite bathrooms, and electric outlets in each car. But of course no Internet, and we didn’t have cell phones for China. However, the journey to Beijing took about 24 hours and was pleasantly uneventful.

After a week of sightseeing in Beijing, we boarded the train for the return trip to Hong Kong. The first few hours went as expected, but then the train ground to a halt. We assumed it was just a minor problem, but the minutes turned into hours and it was almost 12 hours before the train moved again. This pattern would continue for three days, with us sometimes sitting for 24 hours on the track without moving. None of the train staff spoke English (or were willing to), so we didn’t really know what the issue was. I was bored and frustrated within a few hours the first time we stopped, so I wandered down to the dining car to have a beer. That’s when I met the old-timers.

The first guy was an elderly British man who taught at the university in Beijing. He was a big guy, a little gruff, and with that utter lack of concern that probably only comes from living in China for years and being used to these sorts of snafus. He spoke enough Mandarin to determine that the cause of the delay was weather-related, but that was the only info he could get out of the staff. Another elderly man, also British, took to joining us in the dining car and the three of us spent the better part of the next few days chatting over beers.

I don’t recall if it was a lack of reception or what, but for some reason their cell phones weren’t working properly, so we were effectively cut off from the outside world, so all we could really do was drink and talk.

And talk they did; they both had led fascinating lives, lived and traveled all over the world, served in the military, had multiple interesting careers. They told me about their travels, their jobs, their families. And we must have drunk cases of that shitty Dutch beer.

The level of connectivity and reliance on gadgets does worry me sometimes, but not because I wonder what will happen if it’s missing. People adapt quickly, so I doubt that losing access to our technology would be more than a temporary frustration. No, I worry because I wonder what we’re missing because we have the technology in the first place. The chances of me talking for hours with an elderly gentleman today are effectively nil, unless there’s some kind of blackout. There’s just too much to do and see online for me to wander down to a bar and spend a couple hours talking to a total stranger. And it’s not just me, either…all the strangers are busy too. Even the old-timers are on Facebook now.

I don’t recall a lot of those three days, but I do remember those conversations in the dining car, over lukewarm cans of Dutch beer. And thinking back now makes me feel…wistful? I have a sense of sadness, because maybe these kinds of opportunities for connections were once around if you looked, but now they’re disappearing altogether.