In the southern waters of the Gulf of Siam off the coasts of Surat Thani and Nakhon Si Thammarat, a bit over halfway to the Malaysian border, lies the Chumphon Archipelago, and in this archipelago lies a legendary trio of islands.
The largest of this legendary trio, Koh Samui, is the elder statesperson of the group and has long reigned as a major world tourism destination, attracting people with its beautiful clear aquamarine hued waters lapping upon exquisite, long white sand beaches.
Its neighbor, Koh Phangan, was once a haven from Samui’s mainstream tourism, and backpackers went there to do yoga on the beach (sometimes in the nude!) or for the full moon parties (which were then unorganized - no tickets sold).
The smallest of them is Koh Tao. Not only is it small, just a smidgen over twenty square kilometers, but it is marked by steep hills, like turtle shells, bluffs, and small beaches at which the shoreline is often covered by a thick layer of coral.
Development crept up slowly on Koh Tao. Everything was steep: the roads were steep and snake-like, resorts had to be built on the sides of the hills, walking within the resort compound (say, from the beach to your room) meant traversing a formidable amount of stairs several times a day, and all that colorful coral prevented people from swimming and playing in the water.
But Koh Tao is incredibly beautiful. At many of its beaches you can simply don a snorkeling mask, stroll straight into the water, and whammo! you’re staring at whole teeming cities of colorful coral with their aquatic citizenry going about their fishy business, like envisioned crazy spectacular sci-fi metropolises of the future, all types, shapes, sizes, and colors of fishes, and turtles, sea snakes, sharks, and rays, and schools of fish nibbling their daily meals on the coral or jetting right past you or even just lolly-gagging hanging about in the middle of the water, and all of that is right there at your resort room’s doorstep, a few short steps (literally) into the water.
But as with all sights in Thailand that are breathtakingly picturesque, and in fact as we close in on eight billion people on this planet, all beautiful natural sights anywhere, Koh Tao inevitably has been heavily, intensively developed. Tourists (like myself) are blasted out to the island on powerful high-speed triple decker catamarans, and on every lush green hill’s bluff is more than one private luxury resort offering sweet ocean views. Private resorts sprout like poisonous mushrooms in the verdant Thai climate. This once sleepy island has metamorphosed into a bustling hub of touristic business.
Koh Tao has become identical to everywhere else. Not geographically, for its natural oceanic splendor is distinctly unique, but in its identity.
Travel was simple back then
At the turn of the 20th century, Koh Tao was a relatively out of the way place. It took a long slow boat to reach, and only people who were interested in snorkeling or scuba diving went there. It was less developed, and at that time that meant something. There was less access to everything; newspapers, movies, TV, telephone service (remember, landlines were still primarily in use), and at many places, electricity was restricted to certain hours. It was less connected to the outside world, more isolated.
Probably you brought with you a book, a notebook, and a portable CD player (or even cassette player) with a handful of CDs, and that was it. That was all you had for entertainment. When you stayed at a place like Koh Tao, at least temporarily, you were out of society’s loop and off the grid. Current events, the latest sports scores, your family and friends’ doings - you knew none of it, and they of you.
You were on a gorgeous tiny tropical island in the south of Thailand and the rest of the world might have been on the moon. People back home might ask What’s the news with him? And they would reply Well, last we heard he was on some island somewhere in Thailand. That’s all we know. In this exchange was evoked a sense of mystery, adventure, daring, and wonder that you had disappeared on such a far-flung exotic beautiful place, for who doesn’t want to drop out and vanish on a tropical island?
And then technology took over....
Now we cannot see the world in a grain of sand because our eyes are blurred by the smartphone’s screen that we carry in our pockets at all times, everywhere we go. Koh Tao is now fully connected, Online, WI-FI enabled, and wired into the All-At-Once, which is as it should be, as is everywhere on our planet.
We carry the world in our pockets. Smartphones, tablets, laptops, mini-laptops, 2 in 1 devices, smart watches, smart cameras, smart glasses; we do not leave home without them.
It is crucial that we upload photos and videos; stream movies online; watch video clips; share cool stuff; like and thumbs up stuff we like and unlike and thumbs down stuff we dislike; keep ever up to date on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram; write long rants on Facebook and disregard others’ rambling rants.
We upload amazing selfies of ourselves looking good in cool places; look at porn.; check the latest political events, the latest sports scores; check our work email; work online; write a post for our blog; make a video for our vlog; window shop online; play offline games or play AR and VR games; gamble and bet; look at porn.
We can read reviews of the restaurants, hotels, bars, and sights that we might go to; book hotels and flights (again always assiduously and diligently checking and comparing multiple websites’ reviews); look at maps; scan photos of potential destinations to decide if they’re worthy; swing through 360 degree photos; listen to music from a subscription service such as Spotify or to our own saved content; watch Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, Amazon TV or our own preferred media provider.
And we want to do it whenever we want because we can do it whenever we want because we have the phone in our pocket and the tablet in our bag, so why not?
We have become the medium. The Online, All-At-Once provides endless wonderful distractions always especially suited to our personal proclivities; a ceaseless cosmos of delights, vast variety, endless options, everything on demand and imminently easy - open a tab, follow a link, and if we dislike the content then close the tab and don’t follow the link: it’s pure instant gratification, and it’s incredibly easy, easier than getting into our car to go the McDonald’s drive-thru, because now we can order McDonald’s to our house through a delivery service - no need to even get in the car!
The technology has created and enabled this. It is wonderful, it is amazing and it is a new world, and we are an extension of the technology. If the Online, All At Once is predicated on ease of consumption and on-demand, then so have we become. Our attention spans are shortening; our abilities to listen to all sides, consider the facts, weigh the evidence, predict potential consequences, and evaluate processes are weakening as a reflection of our technological world: our minds are analogues of the technology with which we are ceaselessly involved.
We have lost our identities; we are lost to ourselves. We are but a series of endless reactions to online stimuli. Before we have time to think and form our own perspective on anything we are looking to see what our family, friends, and peers said; what the reviewers said; what the online influencers said; what the experts said.
What we believe to be our own thinking is but automatic reactions to the ideas of others. We are automatons, mindlessly scrolling the online, posting our own half-formed opinions and sharing instant gut reactions to others’ opinions with a lack of self-control and emotional self-awareness. It is not possible to be our authentic, genuine selves when we are constantly bouncing off each other, like mindless ping-pong balls, with little time nor inclination to self-reflect. If you agree with someone then you keep them in your circle and if you disagree with them, no problem, with a click and a blip they’re unfriended and disappeared. We talk so much and listen so little.
This is the shape of our society and of things to come. There is no escaping it. It is not that the youth have lost their attention span and that the youth are too engrossed in technology. We all are, all of us. There is no one to blame, there is no escape, no reversal, and no way home. There is no longer any place to go to get away from it all, like Koh Tao, because we are the medium. A robin red breast in a cage puts all of heaven in a rage, and now we willingly put ourselves in the cage. A new breed is being spawned.
At my resort on Koh Tao, as I recline in the chair on the balcony on the bluff on a sweet beautiful sunny day, gazing down at the transparent green turquoise bay below, listening to the swish-swash of the waters tenderly lapping upon the rocks, whose surface is flat as a laptop in the motionless afternoon, I consider uploading my photos of the day. Photos I took on my smartphone. It would be good to get them up into the Cloud. I like my Cloud, where I store everything safely for all eternity, freeing myself from worry of loss.
I should share some photos with my loved ones as well. Swoosh-swash go the calm waters.
A dragonfly buzzes in the bushes before me, birds chirp. I glance up at the puffy white clouds above. In a new and sudden turn of thought, different from past experience, I slide into an easy, softly conscious decision. The photos can wait to be uploaded till I get home.