Has technology really ruined the experience of travel?

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Recently an article was published on Thrillist arguing that the Internet and social media has ruined travel. The author concedes that the Internet has made it easier to make travel as cheaply as possible through great things such as multi-airline rate comparisons, but then makes the case that the ability to access the Internet at the click of a button and research a place has made her own nostalgic idea of travel an impossibility, and something to mourn for that reason.

I think it will be helpful to tackle each of her points in turn and then offer a more realistic (and arguably much more enthusiastic) perspective on the way that technology has changed the experience of travel.

Firstly, the author says that because a lot of us are expected to be on call while on holiday – responding to ‘urgent’ emails and such – that we are no longer able to enjoy travel, and by definition, we can no longer be on ‘vacation’. While it may be true that it is difficult to vacate work if you have to worry about an email from your boss, I think this applies to a minority of people, those in more managerial positions, not to most people who take paid vacation. Also, even if it were true that this were a growing problem, which it may very well be, it is more an issue of work culture than the Internet. Blame should not be directed at the ability to easily and quickly access emails, but at a job which requires you to work when you really shouldn’t be working.

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Secondly, the author believes that we have lost the ability to be ‘lost in the moment’, what with this narcissistic obsession with constantly taking selfies and documenting every ‘worthwhile’ experience on social media. As she puts it, “You, as a human, are nothing more than a walking brand, and that brand must be in constant communication with the world.” I found this point interesting. At once, I both agree that there is this undeniable itch to share travel experiences on social media (you only have to look at my own Facebook posts), but at the same time, I think her conclusion that travellers have become nothing more than a ‘brand’ and that nothing is experienced ‘in real life’ is exaggerated.

There is no doubt that there are those few who rather than admiring a place are more concerned with documenting that place and sharing it with the social media community. And even for those who still share travel photos on Facebook or Instagram, which is most of us if we’re being honest, there is a reason why we all do this. For example, one study found that positive Facebook feedback is seen as a ‘reward’ in the brain, and subjectively it is easy to notice that dopamine hit that comes from seeing more likes on your latest photo album. But even though many of us can become addicted to ‘social media fame’, as the researchers phrase it, the problem has more to do with how social media is used, and perhaps how frequently, as opposed to social media itself.

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It is certainly possible to still ‘live in the moment’ and document the experience; to appreciate where you are and to share that experience with family, friends, acquaintances and even strangers who might themselves feel motivated to seek out similar experiences. Being concerned about getting the perfect photo and looking forward to sharing that photo for positive feedback can detract from fully experiencing a place, but, if you are aware of this tendency, you can mitigate it by taking your time and not rushing around just snapping photos of something and moving on. (The worst case I saw of this was in an art gallery in Medellin, Colombia, where I noticed this woman going up to a painting, taking a photo, and then moving on to the next one. Why would you rather look at a photo of a painting on a screen at a later time when you have the original right in front of you?)

The author also argues that there are no ‘undiscovered places’ and is annoyed by the fact that famous attractions are receiving, surprise surprise, more tourists! I understand that trying to appreciate a landmark while being stuck in a crowd of people extending selfie sticks in every direction isn’t that enjoyable, but you can’t really complain when you yourself are a tourist in that place, and therefore contributing to the crowdedness. Perhaps more people are travelling than ever, but I don’t see why this should be something to moan about. If the author just wants to be the first to discover something for herself – whatever that means, since pretty much all of the planet (if we discount the oceans) has been discovered, then she can be accused of the same narcissism she herself is attacking.

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This attitude of trying to get off-the-beaten track is a kind of travel snobbery which I don’t think most people who espouse it take seriously. If you really want to go where no-one has been, you can go to rural Mongolia, although you might not be travelling as comfortably as you’re used to. Or you can go to a random housing estate in London – no tourists go there, trust me. There’s a reason why Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat are flooded with tourists, because they’re awesome and people want to see them. Rather than wish to live in a time when hardly anyone visited these places, and therefore when it was much more expensive and difficult to visit them due to lack of tourist infrastructure, you can take steps to avoid the crowds. Visit in the off-season or shoulder season, or wake up before sunrise to get there before anyone else.

The author goes on to complain that technology has made it impossible to be by ourselves when we travel. I don’t see this as something to complain about. Travelling alone for extended periods of time can be daunting, and not having the ability to catch up with friends and family back home can make you even more homesick than you otherwise would have been. Even if you travel with a smartphone, there will still be extended periods of time when you are alone, surrounded by people whose language you can’t understand or speak. This can be an important way to learn to enjoy your own company, but I wouldn’t personally see it as preferable for this to be the norm. The fact that I can talk to friends and family if I’m feeling lonely or homesick is not a pitfall of technology, but a way to make long-term travel more appealing and sustainable.

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The author says that we have forgotten how to “engage in real, actual, human-to-human conversation” because of social media, which again, I think is exaggerated. It may be true that if weren’t glued to our screens at times when there are other people around, that we would feel more inclined to talk to people, but this is not always the case. The reason we are glued to our phones may just be because many of us need a break from the constant social interaction. 10 years ago it may be that we were glued to a book instead of a screen, which I think is more of a problem.

Again, if the Internet and social media were making us more anti-social (you can see it with a group of people collectively looking at their phones in a hostel or over dinner) the issue lies not with technology itself, but with how it is used. And let’s not forget all the ways that Facebook increases social connectivity with other travellers, by allowing them to stay in touch, make plans and even meet up years later when plans coincide.

One of the author’s most ridiculous points is how we don’t know how to find food without using the Internet. I don’t think this is how most people find somewhere to eat. Most seem to use recommendations from other travellers or staff at the hostel. But even if the Internet is used in this way, why is this an issue? Why is it better to waste time walking around until you find somewhere that might be good, instead of looking up a place that you are much more likely to enjoy, and therefore save yourself the time and effort. It’s not just a matter of the Internet making us lazy, but making it easier for us to enjoy the experience of travel, without the stress, indecisiveness and hunger which can easily be avoided.

For me personally, if I didn’t use the HappyCow website, which lists all of the vegetarian/vegan places to eat in each city/town, then it would firstly be more difficult to find places to eat, and secondly, I would’ve missed out on so much amazing vegan food. I would say that it’s precisely because of the Internet that food has become such a memorable part of my travels. Reading blogs about vegan travel, using Google search (and then Google Maps to find a particular restaurant instead of getting lost) has most definitely improved the experience of travel for me.

And finally, the author argues that we no longer know how to explore because of technology. In her view, because we can research a place before arriving this means that we have lost the ability to ‘discover’ a place in any true sense. While I agree that it may not always be the best idea to travel with an “action-packed itinerary hitting on all of the ‘bests’ and ‘mosts’ as told to you by the Internet” (but for some people this is how they enjoy to travel), this does not mean that research, preparation and creating a list of things you would love to see or do ruins the experience of travel. In fact, if it weren’t for the Internet I’m sure I would have missed out on a lot of experiences I’ve had, purely because of the wealth of information online, available in travel blogs, Reddit, Facebook, TripAdvisor and Google search.

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Going to a country without planning anything might work for the author in question, and perhaps it would be an interesting personal experiment to try, but I don’t think it suits most people. At the very least, it is worth knowing where you are staying and how to get there from the airport, otherwise you are just adding an unnecessary amount of effort, stress and time to the situation at hand. The fact that hostels can be researched and booked online is I think a massive plus in terms of how technology has changed the experience of travel. Instead of walking into a random hostel, or even a place recommended by a Lonely Planet guidebook, you can stay somewhere that you know will be clean, be the best value for money, has breakfast, reliable Wifi, AC, spacious rooms, friendly and helpful staff who speak English, and what the vibe is like – not everyone wants to stay in a party hostel on a noisy street.

Now that I’ve addressed all of the author’s points, I would like to offer a different and less pessimistic perspective on how technology has affected the experience of travel. In an article about the inter-section between philosophy and technology, blogger (and friend) Matt Bluemink highlights that modern technology can be viewed as pharmakon (an ancient Greek term from which derives the word ‘pharmacy’ derives from). Pharmakon can be translated as ‘drug’ and which means both ‘poison’ and ‘remedy’. If we use the ideas expressed in Plato’s Phaedrus, technology can be thought of as dualistic or pharmacological in nature – it can either serve us in our favour or create pitfalls for us. Ultimately, it is how we utilise technology, and how mindful we are of its effects on us, which will determine whether it improves or ruins the experience of travel.

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