Mr Verstegen was an asshole. A man without manners. But he had a point.
The first time I met him, was when I happened to stand with my two fellow campsite couriers inside the reception of our employer on a French campsite. Verstegen excused himself to a newly arrived guest and said, 'I'm glad I catch you all three here at the same time. Guys, the wifi on the campsite is terrible. When you walk down the main street, all those poor kids are sitting there, desperately trying to talk to their friends back home. Parents can't check their finances, or even their email. All this, while you guys here have an awesome network that you refuse to share. Well, your competition has given me the password to that network and I will share it with anyone. Please, help those people. They are desperate! Help them!'
And he walked out.
Although Verstegen had been an asshole by jumping queue and demanding all three of us to listen to him without giving us a chance to reply, he was right in his observation. The "awesome network" belonged to our companies and was set up by the campsite to receive our bookings. The guests were all left with the other network, which couldn't handle too many users simultaneously. Kids were desperately trying to be in touch with their friends back home on a failing network. Every evening again, one could see them sitting on the boulders that lined the campsite's main road between the reception and the recreation area. They would sigh and curse in a dozen European languages at their screens, allowing frustration to grow on them.
It blew my mind, too. Not the slow connection - I would ride the bus to a neighboring village and pay €2 for a supersonic connection at an old-school internet café. No, what blew my mind was the change I was witnessing. It had been six years since I had last worked on such a big scale European campsite - the kind of site where thousands of families can stay at the same time, with large swimming pools and several bars and restaurants.
In 2007, the teenagers staying at these campsites wouldn't be in touch with their friends back home, but befriend each other. There was simply no free wifi and they didn't have such phones yet. One family would arrive one day with their teenage son and another family would show up with their teenage daughter and before you knew it, nature took its course and the newborn summer couple indulged themselves in a biology course behind the dunes, away from anyone who would make their cheeks look red of shame.
There were so many examples of campsite friendships. Dutch and Flemish boys engaging in a football match, Germans taking pride in checking out the local markets, international friendships that evolved from conversations in broken English... All this was back in 2007, a blink of the eye in all of humanity's long existence. Since the origin of our species, it has taken us until the 196o's to put 3 billion homo sapiens sapiens on the surface of this planet. In only 50 years time we have managed to reach 7 billion - yes, more than double that amount.
Technology moves at much the same speed. The 15 year old of 2007 is hopelessly old-fashion compared to the 15 year old of 2014, whereas the 15 year old of 1960 was roughly the same technological advanced kid as his 1966 counterpart: they both were limited to the pay phone. Technology, of course, helps us as a species. We couldn't (and actually we can't) sustain 7 billion people on our Earth without the aid of all the technological development in agriculture, the medical world and the food industry.
But it is somewhat of a concern to see how the kids on those boulders refrain from verbal interaction. Conversations are typed up rather than spoken. There are hardly any new friendships. Knowledge is no longer solely based on books, but also on the internet. Everyone can write a convincing psychological piece without being a psychologist. People look up their symptoms on the net and argue with doctors about possible diagnoses. And what about the great discussions in a bar after a few too many beers? People just Google what you tell them and verify it. It's an instant conversation killer.
When the mobile phones with internet had barely emerged and everyone seemed to obtain one at the same time, I sat in a bar in my hometown of Hoorn, the Netherlands, and had gone to the bathroom. When I came back, everyone at the table was absentmindedly staring at their screens. All five of them: nobody spoke for the next five minutes until one of them noticed that I was back. They all put their phones away and I almost felt guilty. Last autumn, I went to the house of a friend before leaving for Canada. The entire evening was spent on the internet and when finally the suggestion came up by the end of the night to go have a drink in a bar in the center of Amsterdam, I decided to go home. When somebody makes time for you, you don't spend time on the internet or with the television blaring. This is not an old-fashion manner, it's just a matter of showing respect - just as it's a matter of respect to not ask the owner of the house to turn his television off.
So technology in the hands of Average Joe is working in two ways: the people seem to become more anti-social, but it also makes us live longer and makes us more knowledgeable of the world around us and of our health. The greatest advantage in the social part of our existence may be that, despite that 15 year olds are now more capable of maintaining virtual friendships than real-life ones, materialism is no longer the standard. Yes, we all want to have the latest phone, but we all do have the latest phone. There's no longer a real competition element in owning something. In fact, owning the latest communication technology and downloading the latest apps is a primary condition to survive socially.
At this stage we are seeing materialism as a standard disappearing. As a standard, I insist, because greed - and therefore materialism itself - will never disappear. But materialism as a standard to distinguish oneself from the rest of the world is evaporating. We are shifting towards a society where you are no longer admired for your possessions, but for your achievements. And not even academically or in terms of a great career. These things are, like what was once considered proud ownership of the latest technological apparatus, nowadays readily available for most people. In the 1970's, a bachelor degree would lead to a great income and that would lead to a bigger car than your neighbor had. We are shifting away from that kind of patheticism, because most people now don't even want to own that big car anymore.
The achievements that are now in place to take pride in, are in adventures and sports. Just look at the rise of all these new kind of competitions: urbanathlons, Tough Mudder and Iron Man races and local events are more popular than ever. People see these competitions as an incentive to train for something, to get away from technology and see what they are physically capable of. Owning the fastest computer or the biggest car is something from the past, being faster and/or stronger than your neighbor is the new thing and much healthier, too. And even in that we now try to distinguish ourselves: almost everyone is able to run a marathon, so it's now a matter of finding the unique one that allows for even more boasting. Greenland's Polar Circle Marathon is just one of many unique events that participants can show off with to their friends back home.
And then there's travel. Commuting between the hotel and the beach is something from the past. People who now go on holiday want to learn new things and explore their talents. Cooking classes are increasingly popular, as are scuba diving lessons and surf camps. The grandparents, who used to sit on their balcony in Benidorm or Ibiza and stare out over the Mediterranean all day, are now ballooning, playing golf and go-karting. People are now seeking an element of adventure in their travels. Long hikes, descending the Zambezi River, reaching Everest Base Camp, paragliding: people want to come home and have a sense of accomplishment, a story that differentiates them from the rest of the world. The biggest car no longer matters, the wildest adventure does. Our needs for recognition are to blame. We are only human.
So is Mr Verstegen. Despite him being an asshole without manners, he had a point: desperate teenagers on a failing network on a French campsite need help. Where do you take your kids next? A Muay Thai boxing camp? On a jungle trekking? A whale-spotting holiday? A camping trip in the nearest forest? Or to a (French) campsite with wifi and boulders to sit on?