You know when you are getting old because progress seems to speed up, hurtling headlong to the horizon, leaving whole generations running to even stand still. As paper maps, Space Hoppers and Compact Discs are right-clicked to the recycling bin of social history, we know that they will make an interesting media post for the younger generations in years to come, probably entitled ‘share, if you know what these were used for’.
Since we are mentioning social media, it’s worth thinking how this technology, and the internet in general, has been immensely disruptive. Not only has it almost seen off traditional print media, it is showing no signs of slowing down. Newspapers, printed books and written letters are all struggling to maintain a hold. Why pick up a book, when the instant download, click and send, cloud of knowledge is all around? Real-time broadcast media is suffering too, on demand bulletins can be summoned from a device at any time of the day. Why would anyone need to make time to sit and listen to, or watch a particular programme, when it can be played back from the internet at any time of day or night? I’m not attempting to sound like a bona fide Luddite, there are many bright sparks from the bonfire of technological innovation which make life much better, like the advances in medical technology, the ability to predict and prevent illness, the way in which we can understand more about nature and the effect we have on the planet, these are all wonderful. We live in an age of great progress. It is indeed a great time to be alive.
One great innovation is the ability to speak with and see loved ones on the other side of the world almost instantaneously, this is a huge innovation for billions, but by no means all people.
It was one of those ugly grey winter days in South Wales. I was cold. I had managed to get to the deck of a ship between gusts of icy wind. After my ID had been checked, I stood in silence, listening to him speak.
The seafarer spoke with a mixture of anger and despair about his family life, and how from a distance of ten thousand miles, everything he held dear and precious was slowly unravelling. He felt helpless.
“They don’t work at sea” he said, waving his mobile phone close to my face. “Useless! Not good at all.” Then, he just looked at me, his face was a mixture of anger and despair, “I tried to contact them, I tried” he said. Then, as the next blast of icy wind crossed the ship, he waited to see what I would say. I said nothing. I took the phone from his hand and put it on the bench next to the security station, where all visitors sign in.
I arranged to take him and some other crew to the Mission to Seafarers Centre, where they would do what seafarers usually do – get some refreshments and speak to me or one of the volunteers for a few minutes, so as not to seem rude. Then, they type the all-important password into their tablets, phones or laptops, enabling access to the free WiFi. Then this disruptive power, this exponential growth in technology, works for them and with them. It catapults them straight into their homes, so many thousands of miles away. They see live images of their loved ones, gaining clarity as the buffer fills and the network traffic management shares the precious data between those present and connected.
I sometimes watch their faces as they speak. Something important is happening. The volunteers at the Mission Centres know this too. There is a quiet attentiveness, waiting to see if the seafarers need help. We know that our guests are lost in something important, catching up with family news, sharing stories, listening to and seeing those who miss them. Sometimes, in a language we don’t speak, they are trying to repair relationships that distance and time have devastated.
Of course, the frustrated and windswept seafarer was right, mobile phones just don’t work at sea, apart from prohibitively expensive satellite phones expensive monthly bills. A few miles from land the signal from their mobile phone dies, slowly and frustratingly. For the remainder of the voyage it serves as an expensive photo album, where you can stare at the unmoving faces of family, until the signal slowly reappears and they come back to life. The lucky few seafarers have access to some satellite data with more progressive shipping companies, however this is rarely enough to do more than send a few emails or pictures. Meanwhile, in our streets, cafes, public places, even buses and trains, those of us ashore have free wifi, should we wish to connect, we have this option, this choice, because we are being taken along with the wave, this exponential growth in technology.
Seafarers have benefitted over the last few decades from free WiFi and more innovative ways of delivering welfare and support, it’s just that this huge wave of technology hasn’t hit them. When your children and partner can connect and speak with relatives living on the other side of a world at the speed of light, and you are incommunicado for up to fifty days, it’s as one seafarer explained “they understand, but don’t understand, at the same time, sometimes they forget us because life moves so fast. This is why free WiFi is better than free beer”
Port-side WiFi will help with ships that discharge so quickly that the crew can’t get to our centres. Asking the question of shipping companies about the slowly reducing cost of satellite internet will eventually bring more communication to the ships at sea, and the continuing welcome the Mission to Seafarers provides in some of the most remote ports will keep families talking, because without communication things get complicated quickly. In other parts of the world, our family centres will continue to provide help and support for the families of seafarers at sea, and of course, we will keep doing all we can to advocate for those who need prayers and action.
Mark Lawson Jones
Ports Chaplain -Wales
Mission to Seafarers