Picking up speed

The spread of technology means Northern life is no longer so remote. But technology can be a double-edged sword…

My grandmother experienced the technological revolution before I did, without ever owning her own computer. Around the time I left Newfoundland and moved to Nunavut, cell phones were just beginning to find their sophistication. We missed the age of texting popularity and by the time touch screens had popped up, a whole gaggle of us had moved North, and were at least a full decade behind. We were creating our very own technological divide in the twenty first century.

It appeared to many of us who moved to the North that we were taking a step back in time. I admit it was a bit of a shocker when we returned to the painstaking dial up days. We had no cell phone service, no high speed internet, and limited bandwidth. Satellite television was as technological as we got. We were prepared to cut our losses and get ahead in a different way. We fully immersed ourselves in the newness and tranquility of the Arctic and surprisingly found solace in the most isolated of circumstances. We started to weave our own networks, mostly through dinner parties or community events. The only technological chat forum we participated in was MSN messenger or the local FM radio station – Arviapaluk – at lunch hour, by calling in to make the odd announcement or to send a birthday greeting.

I felt hugely disconnected from the technological metamorphosis, but appreciated that I was not a passive audience to my own life.

It made me think of my grandfather, once upon a time around the Bay, outraged and engaged by the banter featured each week on one of the open line radio shows. Even then, these primitive social networks have proved useful for those who could not access the latest of technology but needed to have their news.


Living in the remote North, I accepted that in the time it took to upload a photo or even to load a page, I could usually make supper, or wash a load of laundry. The wait time actually forced us not to waste time because we knew we could not just sit around for unreasonable amounts of time, waiting for this thing to happen. Our geography controlled us and denied us the limitless accessibility enjoyed by the rest of the world, or so it seemed.

It was not until I returned to the provinces a few years later that I noticed airport etiquette had changed significantly, and not for the better. One thing I had always appreciated about my trips back to the Rock was the almost guaranteed acquaintances you would make along the way. No longer were heads buried in books, or people striking up conversations. Rather, people were fixated on screens or typing on their computers or phones. Chins were tucked to chests, and attention focused inward.

This new alien social scene really threw me. I could not frequent a lunch date, a concert, or a phone conversation without the person I was with disengaging to share discourse with someone else. Maybe it was the spoiled attention-seeking child in me, but I found people more disconnected than ever. My decision to stay in the North was validated. I escaped the cellphone bills and at the same time learned how to downsize my photos and send updates regularly to keep my friends and family in the loop. I felt hugely disconnected from the technological metamorphosis, but appreciated that I was not a passive audience to my own life.

A necessary burden

Moving back to St. John’s for a one year leave, my husband and I rented a house near the University and discovered within the first week – me nine months pregnant, our three year old daughter in tow, separated for most of the day – that two cellphones were essential in urban life if we were to be sane, safe, and connected. Throwing all my pre-judgments to the wind, it did not take me long to get sucked in, suddenly technologically literate, and converted to the iAge. I found myself at my grandmother’s table, her anxiously waiting next to me while fixing a cup of Tetley, for me to give her the news from her eldest son in Ontario via incoming and outgoing texts. I would text until I lost service on a plane, and check updates in between breast feeding and watching my daughter’s gymnastics routines, and standing in line-ups. I was not as defiant of technology as I thought I’d be. In fact my defiance was generated by the fear of my weakness that accompanied it. Certainly, I sought it for its obvious convenient purpose but recognized it to be the demise of my secluded life.

It’s quite the paradox that the technology now being used to protect Indigenous language and culture is at the same time replacing the traditional way of life.

It was a relief to return to the simple and remote community we had left. Granted, it was bittersweet leaving my immediate gratification devices behind. It felt nice to be inaccessible when I required it without their constant interruption. We had familiarized ourselves with Facebook by this time, so no longer would we feel as cut off or out of touch. The bigger challenge was to be faced by our family and friends who would come to visit the year after and be appalled and amazed that we could survive in such a limited technological capacity. What do you mean you pay over a hundred dollars for 5 gigabytes a month? No unlimited downloads, face time, or streaming CBC Radio Two. How could one survive? We managed to pacify our technologically disabled guests and they were actually surprised by how many naps they managed to get on that trip. Forced into relaxation; it could be worse.

So, one can imagine the buzz that circulated this small town last week when it was announced that a 3G network is now available, for the first time ever. The tech frenzy has arrived in our coastal community and there will be no turning back. Today, Inuktitut is reaching limitless domains and establishing a recognizable presence through the internet and apps like tusaalanga.ca (used to teach the Inuit language) which is accessed by our bilingual six year old on our iPad regularly. It’s quite the paradox that the technology now being used to protect Indigenous language and culture is at the same time replacing the traditional way of life. Technology: always the double-edged sword.

Technology reinforcing tradition

Ironically, it’s the traditional ways in Arviat, whose preservation can be attributed to its sheltered location, which have managed to find their way onto the internet. Today, desperation often forces ingenuity. Local residents are selling everything online: their wallhangings, traditional kamiks (skin boots), amautiks (coats for carrying babies), on the Arviat Sell and Swap found on Facebook as a way to make additional profit and prevent hoarding. It reminds me of the good ol’ Salvation Army or Value Village shops found in St. John’s minus the painstaking dive into piles of stock or sifting through overburdened racks and bins just to save a dime. It is amazing what people are willing to buy. The recycling of items on Kijiji and eBay alone is not exactly a new concept but is being interestingly tailored for the Northern scene.

I think it is safe to say our youth are masterminding their own reality…

Although one might think the introduction of technology in its newest capacity would compromise the Inuit culture even further, I think it is safe to say our youth are masterminding their own reality and already caught up to speed. Just recently, two young Inuit men in this town were recognized for using technology and media to document their rich oral history and share the wisdom of their elders through interviews with people on the seven continents via the web. Some may get their backs up over the creation of technologies that we can hardly keep up with, but most of us cannot deny their power and potential to influence, if used the right way.

Northern life is no longer remote in every sense of the word. The losses and gains are experienced the same as anywhere else. The connectivity of technology can be spotty at the best of times, but the last thing people are is disconnected from each other, unless you choose to be, or networks fail. Reliance on technology has created a whole new pace of life, often riddled with anxiety and discontent when people lose signals. People admit to losing whole nights or chunks of their day playing with their tech toys and find themselves more vulnerable when off the grid. However, isolation has become an archaic concept in settlement life where cell phones, global positioning systems, satellite phones, and the internet connect people in whichever capacity they choose. Even if you don’t want to be found, someone will find a way to tag you.

If people in our community can grow their economy, and teenagers can watch and create inspirational messages, which in turn save their lives, one can hardly deny its relevance to people’s survival and the ability to keep cultures alive and thriving. The real testimony of tradition meeting technology was the cute little old granny I saw cruising by, chatting into her cellphone as she rode on the back of her grandson’s all terrain vehicle, being transported out to her cabin on the land to dry caribou meat. Such dichotomy of life! If the elders have given in and are along for the ride, I guess we really have no choice in this matter, other than to put our helmets on.

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