Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

How technology helps emigrants and hinders immigrants

The internet is a great resource for planning migration but can hold people back when they arrive, writes Glenn Kaufmann

Mon, Sep 16, 2013, 00:00


Glenn Kaufmann

In today’s world, it’s almost too easy for immigrants to stay in touch with the folks at home. While I hate the, now so very tired, “Skype has changed the face of immigration” discussion, there is something to it. And it’s not all good. Modern technology and travel have made it possible not just to emigrate when you have to, but because you want to.

Relatively cheap and ubiquitous air travel has made it easier for people who must emigrate (for reasons of persecution, or dire financial straits) to go almost anywhere on the planet. That’s good. But immigrants like my wife and I certainly do not have to move overseas. Dublin was one of several options, made more attractive by the fact that we’d always wanted to live overseas, and Ireland would let us do that without having to learn a new language (mostly). If we were to run that scenario past 19th century immigrants, they’d laugh at us. Those were people who left because their other “best” choice was abject poverty, or worse. And they emigrated knowing that they would probably never go back, and may never have contact with family again.

Email makes us soft. How bad can emigration be? What’s the worst that can happen? Today, most of us can always stay in touch and send for money. Or, if it all goes pear-shaped, just go home. I know that’s not an option for all immigrants, but it’s certainly an option for many of us. Modern technology often takes the stakes out of making the choice to emigrate. And knowing that we don’t necessarily have to make our new life work out, what drives us to make it work at all? I do it because I genuinely want to stay. I like the life here. But I know of many immigrants (and not just “expats” – a word that already has a particularly insular connotation) who barely make the effort, preferring instead to associate almost exclusively with others from their home country/culture. I wonder how their outlook would change if there were no Internet, and only the occasional accommodations in steerage open to them.

You may be thinking that all of this is leading up to me suggesting that we can still use technology to prepare ourselves more thoroughly for the work of assimilation before we emigrate. Well, I am. Technology is a wonderful tool, and an aid to experience. But it’s just that, an aid. It is not a substitute for experience.

The Internet is a terrific resource for language acquisition. It can also aid the emigrant by making rules, regulations, and documentation readily available. Gone are the days of thumbing through out of date guides at the library, or writing off to the consulate and waiting six weeks for a reply. The volume of information available, can, and does, make the rudiments of immigration easier. So, yes, technology can help smooth out the wrinkles in the immigration process. But I’ll also caution emigrants that this too offers false hope. It’s false hope not simply because the Internet is fraught with specious information brokers (which it is), but because you cannot possibly Google your way through emigration.

Immigration and the attendant adjustment is a process so staggeringly complex that it touches on every aspect of our lives, from the basics of choosing a new brand of nail polish, to the nuances of religious choice, and deeply held convictions about forms of governance. But, ultimately, immigration is about personal interaction, and shared life experience. It’s about exchanging currency for a baguette, not checking the Paris bread app. Life on the ground will always move faster (and slower) than technology. The Internet can never prepare you for the fact that your new neighbors have a penchant for J.R. and Sue Ellen Ewing, or explain why, decades later, the TV show Dallas has such a bizarre hold on local pop culture. The truth on the ground will always be different.

After two years of living abroad, my personal rules and technology advice for emigrants are:

1. Use technology as a starting point, but don’t rely on it.

2. Use technology to sustain old relationships, but not at the expense of building new ones.

3. Trust your own instincts and experiences more than online “experts”.

Glenn Kaufmann is a Dublin-based American writer. He writes about modern migration at An American in Dublin, and his online portfolio can be found at He wrote a piece last week for Generation Emigration on the differences between emigrant expectations and immigrant experiences.