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Voluntourism 2.0

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Photo: Yi Lu/Viewstock/Corbis

Technology, of course, has transformed every aspect of travel—and that includes voluntourism. While building houses, teaching English, and implementing water-filtration systems and food programs have traditionally laid the groundwork for volunteer opportunities, technology-based positions are quickly becoming standard.

Clearly it’s something the locals respond to; I saw their obsession with technology everywhere. Children jump into rivers wearing iPhone boxer briefs. They grab tourists’ cameras to gauge the light meters and play with the filters. Pinching and zooming are practically second nature. And it’s not just kids: at Kulen Mountain’s sacred waterfall, monks pose in front of the mossy rocks and snap selfies on late-model iPads.

This phenomenon is hardly confined to Cambodia. Nicole Delma, founder of Fond Group and an activist and volunteer working with Grassroot Soccer in the shanty townships of Cape Town and Zimbabwe, had a similar experience. “All of the children know exactly what an iPhone is, and they all know how to use it,” she says.

So volunteers in tune with the latest tech advancements are in high demand. My roommate, a photographer and graphic designer, ran a packed Photoshop and InDesign workshop overrun by enthused teens clamoring for positions in the computer room, often pushing and shoving to get the best seats and even shouting when the class was even one minute late.

The irony? Half the classes were canceled due to computer meltdowns and rolling blackouts. And many students were like Sita, who lives in such poverty that his home doesn’t even have a door. So while the kids loved learning how to manipulate images of their favorite celebrities and K-pop stars, it’s unclear how those skills could change their lives in any real way. Some 85 percent of Cambodians are farmers who make less than $300 per year. And the same is true in those iPhone-obsessed South African shantytowns, says Delma, where many of the kids don’t even have shoes or running water.

So what's the point? In Cambodia, at least, Internet infrastructure is growing, as are the number of shops dedicated to computer and mobile maintenance and sales. “Being able to teach an internationally lucrative language, like English, is even more valuable if one can also teach computer skills,” said Nick Mihaljevic, Director of TESOL Teacher Training for LanguageCorps, a Massachusetts-based organization that trains teachers and sends them abroad. “And it’s those skills that can open doors to job opportunities that children in low-income communities would not have otherwise.”

The emphasis on technology seems too wild to be true in a land where the latest news travels by word of mouth only. But perhaps it isn’t wild at all. After all, I’m hardly the only one to have brought my iDevice abroad. Tourists, volunteers, and voluntourists—wittingly or not—have all been technology evangelists. We lend the locals our iPhones. We Instagram their pictures. We revel in their interest in our machines, as it matches our interest in them, and fall victim to this symbiotic relationship. We love them, and they love us, as long as we have our toys to share.

Of course, the locals know exactly how this technology obsession blossomed. “The tourists made it so,” says Amok, my 29-year-old Cambodian-born teaching assistant. “There is no advertising, no billboards, not even TV, but the kids know all about what’s new.” They know so much, in fact, that they’ll be disappointed if an iPad has only Angry Birds and not the game’s newest iteration, Angry Birds in Space.

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