Are electronic connections more global?

A few years ago, while spending two months in Rome, I had excellent Italian lessons from Cecilia Mancini, who was then just starting out as a teacher. I learned yesterday that she now offers those lessons via Skype. And that brought to mind what I heard at a party in Yokohama a few weeks ago, from a number of foreigners who had initially come to Japan to teach English. Until recently, they said, it was possible to make good money here as a private English teacher, if you were good and marketed yourself well. Today, this is much more difficult, and they blamed the diminished circumstances of expatriate English teachers on cheap overseas competition. One can now get very cheap instruction from the Philippines, they said, via Skype. There was some sniffiness about the fact that their Filipino competitors were not native speakers, but I’m sure that these expatriates would also be undercut by mother-tongue teachers from Pittsburgh or Adelaide who are now able to offer their services to the world without getting dressed, much less bearing the various costs of moving to a foreign country.

Which brings me to two thoughts. One is a resolution to resume Italian lessons. The other is to ask whether the ability to deliver language instruction intercontinentally, via Skype, makes the world more “globalized”, or less. Globalization, by some definitions, means increasing global connectedness; improved electronic communications are often put down as a leading cause of such connectedness. Language instruction via Skype will undoubtably lead to an increase in the number of international connections. But it will also displace some face-to-face connections with electronic ones; the global tide of expatriate ESL teachers that has risen over recent decades may now be falling.

If you are reading this we are both beneficiaries of an electronic connection, and I don’t want to knock it. But face-to-face connections are different. How many people do you know who live in a well-connected electronic cacoon? We’ve all seen couch potatoes become experts on the hunting and mating habits of charismatic macrofauna through watching nature shows; as a result their global connections are in some respects greater than their neighbor who pursued biological knowledge through the alternative path of gardening, and yet the couch potato’s relative loss of connection seems, to me, too obvious to spell out. I would feel much poorer without the political and economic information I am able to find quickly on the Web, but in finding this information I also encounter a lot of little echo chambers in which apparently well-educated and sober people, drawn together across vast distances, engage in discussions whose narrow-mindedness, repetitiveness, vitriol and ignorance would be hard to sustain in the flesh. We all know that e-mail is a dangerous medium, an invitation for mis-understanding and hurt feelings.

The point being simply that electronic communications are different: they go a long way quickly, but they also lose something. So I am not convinced that the displacement of expatriate foreign language teachers by a larger number of Skype teachers – even if that means many more teachers and more people learning foreign languages – will make the world more connected or, if you will, more “global”. It will mean fewer face-to-face connections, more electronic cacoons. I’d write more but I need to see about that Italian lesson.