“Does technology make travel less interesting?”, asks Guardian journalist Vicky Baker in this article and on her blog. It’s a question we so rarely asked – maybe because it’s so tricky to answer. (After all, it’s technology that is allowing us to even ask the question, making hypocrites of us before we’ve even started).
So what are the dangers of our travel-gadget habits – and what can we do about them before we truly lose our way?
(Personal disclaimer: I love technology, and I hate technology. I hope that’s clear. Thx).
1. Gadget Block
I’ve talked about this elsewhere, but since I’m not one to miss an opportunity to repeat myself…
If you’re photographing or camcordering everything, there’s a big piece of metal and plastic between you and the world. And you’re looking at that, rather than the scenery. The irony is that in doing so, you’re neglecting the best technology you have available – your eyes and your mind. Both can do a better job than any complimentary metal-oxide semiconductors, microprocessors or charged-coupled devices.
Use your gadgets to back up your experiences, not to have them.
2. Compulsive Tweeting
I hate what social media has done to me. Thanks to Twitter, I now have something I call Pokémon Brain – an unhealthy compulsion to capture everything I see in 140-character bursts. It’s easy to shrug this off when life is dull, which is why I rarely tweet while at work.
But travelling? Everything is bewitchingly novel and you just want to tell people!
What you end up with, over time, is what Ellie Gibson at Eurogamer has coined Narrative Tourette’s. Everything must be described, as if your life is being written by Tom Clancy. This explains the glut of minutae-tweeting that plagues so many Twitter accounts. I just had lunch. Now it’s time for coffee. Mail arrived: bills. I have had a haircut – it’s now shorter. Or the inane questions. How do you like your tea – strong, weak or just right?
Translate this into a travel setting and it’s easy to lose yourself….
Can see the ferry!
The ferry is nearing.
The ferry still hasn’t docked, but it closer.
Ferry’s nearly docked!
Ferry has docked – woohoo!!!
Oh – wrong ferry.
3. Power Hunger
Can there be anything worse than packing for a day’s travel and seeing your camera or phone battery is on its last legs?
Well, yes, there are many things. But for geeks (myself included), it’s the bottom falling out of their world. The death of hope, and the end of fun itself. The next few hours become a hunt for power, an agonised session on the rack until the electron coffers are refilled and everything can feel good again. It addles your behaviour. Train travel becomes Musical Chairs as you hunt for a seat with a wall socket. Airports become treasure hunts. And all the online fun and all the recording of unrepeatable experiences you’re missing gets multiplied in your mind until life is one big party you’re not invited to.
There are two solutions to this problem.
The other is to explore the feeling of getting Off.
(You may find this highly enjoyable).
4. Cone Of Ignorance
Ten years ago I was in Hull, on a bus. It was so full that people were lining the central aisle, looming over us lucky seated people in a faintly disturbing way. Nobody was speaking, not just because they were English but also because it was so full to be truly oppressive. Apart from the roar of the engine – silence.
That is, until a teenage schoolkid at the back saw someone he knew, stood up excitedly, pressed his face against a tiny ventilation window and screaming “OY, MALLY, YOU’RE A C***!”
I’ve always considered this a metaphor for people speaking on their phones in public. In the early days of mobile phones, the technology was new, so everyone felt self-conscious enough to either move out of earshot or lower their voice to a murmur. Now? It’s commonplace to bawl into your handset, recite personal details, laugh like a drain..anything you’d do in the confines of your own home, except actually in people’s faces. (Even more annoying? When these folk look up and catch your eye, seeking social validation for their obnoxious public broadcast. I’ve always thought this is the perfect moment to shoot them).
If you’re in public and you’re speaking with a friend on the phone, remember you’re also speaking into a small plastic-metal box in a large room full of strangers.
5. Shallowness of Field
If you have a gadget with a backlit display, the best way to conserve power is to turn the screen brightness down. Sadly, this renders most portable technology useless when the sun is out. (Most, but not all). So you’re faced with two choices – push the brightness up until it’s shining like the Eddystone Lighthouse, or dial the juice down. Either way, your eyes will suffer. If it’s brighter, the glare is tiring them – and if it’s dimmer, you’re squinting.
There’s another reason why compulsive gadget users have bloodshot eyes. It’s to do with the ciliary muscles that tighten when eyes are focussing on something close to the face. They can’t focus indefinitely. If you don’t want to turn into Mr Magoo, your eye muscles need to relax occasionally.
The good news for travellers is that their lifestyle provides the perfect method – looking at distant scenery.
(And no, the latest Elder Scrolls game doesn’t count).
6. Hummingbird Brain
If you use the Internet regularly and you can’t identify with this, you’re fooling yourself. This is all of us, more and more.
I used to be able to sit for hours, letting my eyes and my thoughts wander, recording the results at a comfortable, self-reflective pace. Then it became an hour, tops. Then quarter of an hour. Now I’m twitchy after five minutes. My mind flits hither and thither, sipping this, dipping into that, never still. It’s as skittish as a hummingbird, and it wants to be everywhere. All at once.
“Learn to multitask,” productivity gurus told us. But what happens when we need to multitask to be able to function? No more undivided appreciation of sunsets, amazing cuisine, loved ones. No digging deep. We bounce across the surface of our lives in all directions – and sink without a trace. This worries me. (Deeply).
7. Google First, Ask Questions Later
Back in the day, the human race used to know stuff. Then it started relying on a collective digital memory called Google. Consequently, humans reverted to being mindless bags of warm liquid that needed internet access to “think”.
Seriously, what did we do before Google? And what would we do without Google?
There’s no denying it’s a boon for travellers the world over. It’s instant access to the hive-mind of curated knowledge. But it oh-so-easily becomes yet another form of gadget block. You’re not using your mind because you’re assuming someone has done it already, and better than you ever could. Good for getting out of a spot – but as a survival strategy? See you at the shallow end of the gene pool, guys.
Google isn’t there to tell you how to think. It’s there to tell you if you’re right or not (if it even can).
8. Disconnection Panic
Here’s my classic morning routine:
- i. Wake from a delicious dream of conquering the world, jackbooted troops strutting, tanks rolling through the Channel Tunnel, etc.
- ii. Batter at my phone with an outstretched arm until the alarm stops bleeping.
- iii. Curse my life.
- iv. Reach for my phone again.
- v. Check my e-mail.
- vi. Check Twitter.
- vii. Check my e-mail again. (Because maybe it didn’t work the first time, and my e-mail job offers from Lonely Planet and Reuters need that second click of “Check Mail” to come through properly).
- viii. Curse my life.
- ix. Stagger into the bathroom, flinch at what the mirror shows me, stagger downstairs, make myself a coffee strong enough to pit metal, do a couple of pressups and then collapse on the carpet, weeping in agony.
- x. Check my e-mail.
As you can see, it’s a pattern – and not one that travel corrects, either.
But being connectivity-conscious all the time, being supremely aware of how long it’s been since you checked your e-mail and your favourite social media sites, is wearying. It dulls you. It also robs you of the thrill of anticipation. Nothing to look forward to.
So, as perverse and as painful as it feels at first, relish the feeling of everything going to hell online because you’re not there. Wallow in your misery – and accustom yourself to it, until you really, truly want the internet again…
…but you don’t need it.
Gadgets always seem slightly more marvellous than they are. We love novelty and clever thinking, and we’re so very good at fooling ourselves we need the latest innovations (see: Capitalism, history of).
The very worst piece of technology I’ve ever travelled with was a travel-iron. I bought it specially for a trip to Italy, where I needed to iron a few shirts upon arrival to attend a wedding. Surprisingly heavy for a useless lump of crap that failed to heat up enough to even warm my hands, my travel iron ended its days being ritually bowled into the sea by an infuriated Englishman wearing a very crumpled shirt. (I then went and borrowed an iron from hotel reception. Lesson 1 of travel: They Have Stuff Abroad As Well).
Don’t take anything just because it’s clever. Take the things you need – and if they don’t fit in your luggage, get them enroute instead.
10. Doing Anything That Makes Anything Easier
We’re not designed to have it easy. We don’t thrive that way. It applies for labour-saving gadgets – it applies to travel. After all, one definition of travel is Deliberately Engineered Uncomfort. And sometimes, isn’t that the thrill of it? The fact that you’re physically as well as mentally challenged?
Gadgets, hi-tech transport, airconned pampered luxury…they all make travel easier. But don’t assume that’s the same thing as better. It may be – but it’s worth asking that question every single time. After all, the ultimate easy option was staying at home – and look at what a bad idea that would have been.