A President's Reflections

Off to Seoul

Posted on February 14, 2012

I am writing this post while 32,000′ in the air over the vast, empty expanse of the arctic.  I’m on a Korean Air flight for a quick trip to Seoul for the graduation of the first group of students at Seokyeong University (SKU) to complete the SNHU partnership program in Korea.  We offer the whole of our four year Business Administration degree at SKU, a terrific option for Korean students who want an American college degree, but cannot travel to the US.  SKU is awarding me an honorary degree and the rigors of the journey aside, I am quite pleased to be in attendance and of course gratified at the honor.

If you disregard the notion of 14 hour flight times, this is a “quick” trip with a Tuesday evening arrival and a return to NH on Friday.  While I grumbled a bit at the lack of wifi on board the plane, the long international flight might be one of the last places to really be cut off from the world for a while.  No emails, tweets, instant messages, emails, or phone calls.  It takes the first five hours of the flight to for device detox, but it is eventually liberating.  Instead of constant communicating, I actually could take the time to carefully reread the NEASC Visiting Team Report and draft our official response.  I wrote recommendation letters and caught up on a variety of higher ed reading that had been piling ever higher in my study at home.

It got me to wondering how much “busy-ness” in our hyper-networked world is really just noise and not very productive work at all.  Not very deep realationship maintenance either.  I probably get 150 email messages each day and a anywhere between 20 and 40 text messages and rarely do any of them need an immediate reply.  Yet I find myself often breaking away from some other task when I see a new email pop up, some 175 or so daily interruptions of some other activity.  Moreover, many, if not most, people send an email with the expectation of an almost immediate reply.  I was away at a recent meeting and my iPhone battery had run out, so I was out of touch for maybe three hours until I recharged the battery on the ride home.  Someone wrote, “I thought something happened to you.” For three hours of being out of touch?  While I appreciate their concern, I think it was really a way of saying “why did it take you so long to answer my eight emails?”

We have all seen people tune out of a meeting and even a conversation to glance at their smart phone.  I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it.

Our family tries to take its vacation weeks all together when we can, to really detach from work and normal life.  Most of the time I get very disciplined about not taking my phone or computer, unplugging (while obviously leaving behind emergency numbers).  It takes a while, but soon one’s mind slows down a bit, stays on task (even if that task is something like making the perfect Moscow Mule or grilling or comparing suntan lotions), and the world feels less frenetic.  It’s a bit cliche, but one starts to slow down and observe the world a little more closely.  I wonder if our constant connectedness results in less actual connection to the world arounds us, the task before us, and the person across the table.

Unplugged in-flight and looking out the airplane window, the arctic landscape is awe inspiring — endless white with wind and ice created patterns dancing out to the distant horizon line.  One of the flight attendants stopped by to look and said, “Gorgeous, isn’t it?”  Flying has become so awful, so joyless, that a moment like this reminds one of the magic of flight as one soars above the planet.  By the way,  Asian airlines are a reminder of what service used to be like on American carriers (I’m talking to you, US Airways, American, and United).  Graciousness, good food, spotless interiors, and attentiveness.   On a recent domestic flight the scowling attendant tossed a bag of peanuts my way and could barly muster a “hello” when we boarded. 

I look forward to my brief stay in Seoul, a city that I quite like.  The Koreans seem to combine much of the graciousness and aesthetic of Japanese culture with the energy and entrepreneurship of the Chinese — a perfect blend, to my taste.  I love sampling the latest consumer technologies (they are always racing ahead of us), while reminding myself that Korean poets were writing 1500 years before the first European settlers arrived in North America, had an onservatory in the 7th Century, and has a ceramics tradition that goes back some 8000 years. 

But what great technology.  My hotel room has a touch pad to control everything from the lights to the temperature to the curtains.  However, the real highlight is the toilet.  It scares me a little.  It has a control pad as well and an array of buttons with dubious symbols.  From what I can discern, the seat is heated, the water temperature can be adjusted, it has a built in bidet function, and auto-flushing.  I’m not sure about one button, but if I am reading the symbol correctly you can either wash your dog in the toilet or the toilet will take it for a walk.  Not sure. 

Either way, I’m drinking as much water as possible just to “drive” the thing.

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