Expanding Our World, Limiting Our Experiences?

If you ask me what I want to do with my life, I will say that I want to be in a position where I am lucky enough to be able to spend a lot of time traveling. Travel has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I believe that it has been the single most important thing that has shaped who I am today. Travel makes me happy, as it is both a way that I inject change into my life and a reminder of something bigger than myself, both key aspects of happiness that were discussed in the movie “Happy” (1). That being said, travel, and the way that I experience it, has changed as dramatically as I have. For example, I remember when I was around eight or ten, I would take stacks of books on family road trips out West. Even more recently during high school, I went on two service trips during which I did not have access to the internet for two weeks. These experiences are completely unimaginable today. During the most recent spring break, I went to Madrid, Spain. I had several movies downloaded onto my iPad, and rarely was without Facebook at my fingertips. Even on the eight hour plane ride, I didn’t read, like I would have done in the past. Instead, I watched movies. Furthermore, while I was in Madrid, I was lucky enough to experience many aspects of a different culture, from things as simple as eating lunch at three in the afternoon, to bigger things such as a different language. (Which, luckily, I spoke.) However, my culture that I had left an ocean away was never truly more than a few taps away on my iPhone. I believe that technology has had an irrevocable effect on travel, and though many of its effects are positive, there are many negative aspects what we may tend to ignore. These negative aspects are something that we need to have more awareness of, in order to truly appreciate our surroundings.

When I talk about technology and its effect on travel, I wish to refer to its ability to affect the way that we experience a place. Of course, to analyze this, it is important to consider what it means to experience while traveling. Does it mean interacting with those who live there, making an impact, leaving a footprint? Or, does it mean keeping our distance, taking photos, looking through museums and leaving without a trace? I tend to lean towards the first option. Travel is a way through which we access new perspectives and expand our horizons, something that can even be scary at times, perhaps because “in our culture of simulation, the notion of authenticity is for us what sex was for the Victorians – thread and obsession, taboo and fascination. (2) However, as I (and I am sure many others) travel in search of connection despite our initial reservations, I cannot forget the ways in which we are already connected through technology. After all, it may even be possible to say that “what people mostly want from public space is to be alone with their personal networks. It is good to come together physically, but it is more important to stay tethered to our devices.” (3) This tethering from technology affects many aspects of our travel experience. After all, what do we need to do in order to fully experience a place? Do we see as much as possible? Or do we find a place where we can watch people pass by and go about their days? (In this case, I tend to split the difference and do a little of each.) Technology can help us to accomplish both of these tasks, but what effect does this have on our trip, and furthermore, ourselves?

Of course, technology is not all bad, and in many ways it is a resource as vital as oxygen when it comes to moving throughout the world. In this day and age, “the family circle has widened. The worldpool of information fathered by electric media – movies, tel-star, flight – far surpasses any possible influence mom or dad can now bring to bear.” (4) This globalization has been ushered in by technology that quickly becomes more and more advanced, and overall I view it as a privilege to have access to fast and efficient methods of movement. For example, the airplane, something that we perhaps take for granted, or even as an annoyance, is something that did not even exist one hundred years ago. Yet, this technology is indispensable when planning a vacation overseas. It enables me to travel from Ohio to Europe in less time than it takes to drive to Florida. Without the plane, the train, the car, or even the bicycle (for the more intrepid among us), travel would be dramatically different, and perhaps a foreign concept for the average individual.

It isn’t just the “vital” technology that improves the travel experience these days. There are countless new web-based technologies that allow us to tailor our vacation to our preferred specifications, and help us to simply do more, connect more, and live more. At the very basic level, wi-fi gives us internet access everywhere, which permits us to harness the internet’s many resources. (At least, it’s available in most “American” restaurants overseas -I have noticed a distinct lack of free wi-fi in Europe.) Beyond wi-fi, Websites such as Google Flights make traveling to our destination cheaper, which in turn permits us to spend maybe another night there, or take the short day trip to a little town about an hour away. Other technologies such as Airbnb and Couchsurfing combine cost savings with enhanced connections. Both provide relatively inexpensive lodging for the average traveler, while at the same time facilitating connection on both ends – the traveler is often able to stay with someone who lives in the place they are visiting, giving them deeper roots in the community, and the host is able to interact with someone from a completely different area, allowing them to see their home through different eyes. Furthermore, social media, something often decried as a destroyer of true connection, can be viewed as a technology that has had a positive impact on travel in the modern age. Instagram allows one to share photos of your experiences with those who may not have the same opportunity to travel, or those that want to see reminders of a place they have been to. People even use social media to plan vacations, getting inspiration for upcoming journeys, sharing their plans with their friends for suggestions, or using sites such as Tripadvisor to find activities (5) Facebook, Whatsapp, and other similar communication tools make it easier to stay in touch while out of the country, with 74% of Americans using social media on vacation (6), even though most cell phones do not work internationally, at least not without paying exorbitant prices. This, however, may even be changing for some – the European Union wants to end roaming charges for its citizens as they travel throughout its member countries. (7)  This change is not uncommon with travel technology. New frontiers are being explored with wearable technology and travel, automatic payments, and translation software. (8) As technology changes, travel will change with it, and in my eyes the vast majority of these developments and changes are for the better.

That being said, technology has also brought about many negative changes that take away from our experiences while traveling, either overseas or domestically. Even looking at the way we plan vacations with sites like Tripadvisor, we may put too much stock in negative or positive reviews, and forget to consider what we expect from a destination. See, for example, this one-star review of the Grand Canyon, titled “Grand Canyon is Crap!” – “I’ve been to a number of so called landmarks in my time – but what the hell was this? Just an overblown sandy ditch. Really don’t get the fascination! Took two hours to get there – should’ve stayed in my hotel and watched a DVD instead…” (9). Clearly, perception is everything, and this perception can skew experiences if we put too much weight into others’ experiences.

Photography, something generally considered as a great way to make our own mementos of our vacations, can also impact travel in a negative way. In “Alone Together”, Turkle discusses the possibility that “archiving might get in the way of living” (10). In the case of travel, photographing might get in the way of experiencing, and might even allow us to mislead those who see our archives. See once again the Grand Canyon (11):

Beautiful, right? Serene, peaceful, empty. Exactly what one might want from a National Park. However, other photographs tell a different story. (12)


There are typically many tourists at places such as the Grand Canyon, and while tourists are obviously unavoidable, people may tend to forget about their presence when they see pictures such as the one above, and be disappointed when they show up expecting solitude. Beyond the potential misleading nature of photography and post-processing (something I am admittedly guilty of myself), the entire action of viewing our surroundings through a lens, or through a phone screen, takes us out of our environments. After all, McLuhan declares that “media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of  sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act – the way we perceive the world.” (13) It would be foolish to say that photography has no impact on our travel experience. We may spend more time searching for the perfect shot, the perfect filter to maximize likes on Instagram, instead of letting our mind be the camera, and preserving what we see in our heads for recollection on a day when we feel a little bit more wanderlust than usual. It can even be asked, “if technology remembers for us, will we remember less? Will we approach our own lives from a greater distance?” (14) Social media’s negative effects, and the way that “life in a media bubble has come to seem natural” (15) may even be considered an extension of those from photography, with archiving getting in the way of experiencing, and true face-to-face connections being rejected in favor of those that come through a screen.

It is obvious that technology has had a far-reaching effect on travel, both enabling its existence and limiting the experiences possible while on the road. For me, the important thing to remember while traveling and harnessing this technology for my own use is awareness. I believe that through being aware of our actions we will more easily be able to see their potential consequences, and make decisions based upon what our desired outcome is. Technology can be so useful while traveling, making us safer, helping us communicate, and helping us explore. In fact, it is even hard to scratch the surface of the tools we have available to us while traveling, the number of resources is so vast. However, as we have seen with new technologies in the past, there may often be outcomes from the use of technology that we don’t realize until it is too late. Therefore, when it comes to travel and technology, I preach being aware of what we use on a daily basis. Maybe, you can even put the Google Maps away for a little while and just walk and see what you find. After all, it is okay to rely on technology, in this day and age we all do to different extents. However, as in all things in life, we need to seek balance, and seek to be aware of the choices we make, even unintentionally, and their consequences.

Endnotes:

(1) Happy. Dir. Roko Belic. Wadi Rum Productions, 2011. Netflix. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

(2) Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Perseus Book Group, 2011. Print. (4)

(3) Turkle, 15.

(4) McLuhan, M. (2001). The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press. (14)

(5) “The Impact of Social Media on Travel and Vacation Planning | Vacationing the Social Media Way [Infographic].” MDG Advertising. N.p., 6 Aug. 2012. Web. 28 Apr. 2015. <http://www.mdgadvertising.com/blog/vacationing-the-social-media-way-infographic/&gt;.

(6) MDG Advertising.

(7) Strachan, Donald. “How Technology Will Change Travel in 2015.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 29 Dec. 2014. Web. 28 Apr. 2015. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travel-advice/11316023/How-technology-will-change-travel-in-2015.html&gt;.

(8) Strachan.

(9) H, David. “Nature Is Crap!” Rev. of The Grand Canyon. n.d.: n. pag. 8 Jan. 2015. Web. 28 Apr. 2015. <http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g143028-d103752-r248232755-Grand_Canyon-Grand_Canyon_National_Park_Arizona.html#REVIEWS&gt;.

(10) Turkle, 305.

(11) Grand Canyon Sunrise. Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. <Happy. Dir. Roko Belic. Wadi Rum Productions, 2011. Netflix. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.>.

(12) Mandel, Pam. Pictures of People Taking Pictures of People at the Grand Canyon. Digital image. Nerds Eye View. N.p., 4 June 2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2015. <https://farm4.staticflickr.com/3864/14158297779_0473c8ce5f_b.jpg&gt;.

(13) McLuhan, 41.

(14) Turkle, 300.

(15) Turkle, 16.

The Core Message: Awareness leads to Deeper Experiences

One thing I definitely struggled with during the in-class discussion on Wednesday was defining the core message of my final essay. After all, I tend to view many things in shades of gray, rather than black and white. For this reason, can I say that technology should be avoided while traveling for the sake of experience? Or should I go the opposite direction, saying that technology should be used as much as possible to facilitate the experience? Like everything else, my true beliefs lie somewhere in the middle, because there are benefits and disadvantages to both sides. For this reason, I believe that the core message for my final paper is “Awareness”. It’s okay to rely on technology for some things and eschew it for other things, but we need to be aware of the choices we make and their consequences. For example, when traveling it is very easy to take the simplest option and catch a cab from the airport to the hotel. In fact, for many people this may be the best option while burdened down with luggage. However, it may be better for others to take public transportation – it’s not quite as simple, but it gives you the first glimpse of life in the city you are in, the first hesitant steps into a new ocean of culture.

Exploring this message, for me at least, is relatively simple. I want to make the reader think about their past experiences, and to make them start asking themselves questions. For example: “What will I want 5 years from now, the picture of the whale taken with a crappy cell phone camera, or the memory of watching the animal in motion, taking in the experience of watching it thrive it its natural environment?” This was a question I asked myself when I was in Alaska, watching the hoards of people lining up with cameras off the side of the ship, hoping to get the “shot”. These questions are what help me to explore my theme, because even outside of travel, nearly everyone has experienced a situation in which either they or someone they were with was too preoccupied with documentation than with experiencing.

Of course, I want the reader to explore the positive effects of technology awareness as well. For example, I view Airbnb as a newer travel technology that is almost overwhelmingly positive. It can easily connect travelers with locals and give them a “truer” experience. In this case of technology bring positive experiences, I believe that awareness is necessary in order to find opportunities similar to Airbnb. Many people aren’t aware of its existence, and may simply “default” to choosing the hotel where you return every night to a generic experience that can be replicated in your own backyard. Along this vein, there are probably even better ways to connect with the place you are visiting that are even better than Airbnb or couchsurfing – I just haven’t had the opportunity to discover them yet.

Overall, to me my paper’s purpose is to make people question their experiences, and to make them consider how their current methods can change to experience places more deeply, and avoid the technology black hole, while still accessing its good points that can improve connection.

Personal Reflection – Traveling

“I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list”

I feel that this topic, travel and technology, was an inevitable theme for my final paper. I have spent a lot of my time, especially in the past six months, either traveling, or planning my next adventure, whether it is just an hour away to Hocking Hills, or across an ocean and several continents to Paris, and then India. Travel has become such an integral part of my life that it would almost be foolish to choose a different path for my final paper – I have even incorporated it into my other classes, writing my “autorretrato” (self portrait) for my Spanish class on my identity as a traveler, and continuing the theme throughout my other compositions, focusing on interconnection and changing perspectives. For some reason, travel has been a common thread in my life for as long as I can remember, so it just feels natural to explore the topic in depth, and to approach it from a different angle.

What’s weird is that it is hard for me to specifically pick out a part of my identity that makes travel so important for me. I have always valued freedom, freedom to do what I want, freedom to follow my dreams, freedom to have room to breath, and I feel that travel follows that value. It could be a consequence of growing up in Ohio, where the cloudy skies in the winter feel like a suffocating blanket, that drives me to explore and experience more. The lack of diverse landscapes could be the driving force. My travel bug could also be a result of my parents, and their influence. I remember going with them to COSI as a kid, getting to experience a taste of the things that the world offers us. They were also the ones who took my brother and I all over the country when I was going through elementary and middle school, and it’s because of them that I have had the opportunity to go out west and hike through national parks, and experience places that I don’t have the words to describe, because they just take your breath away. I recognize how lucky I am to have had these experiences, and it is partly because of those experiences that I feel the need to continue to see more, travel more, and do more.

However, if i had to name one intrinsic part of me that makes me want to travel and explore, it would be the fact that I read constantly. (Or, at least, I did. Now, I read when I have time.) When I was younger, though, I devoured books. I knew the librarians quite well, and would go and check out stacks of books every week or so. Those books gave me so many different ideas and perspectives, and so many different pictures of the possibilities that exist in the world, that they still influence me today. I feel that this reading has taken me everywhere through the eyes of others, and now it’s time for me to visit these places and to see them through my own eyes, and to share my perspectives.

Essay Outline: Travel and Technology

  1. Introduction: My experiences traveling, and my personal interaction with various technologies that both aid and inhibit experiencing a place.
  2. What does it mean to experience a place? Does it mean interacting with those who live there, making an impact, leaving a footprint? Or does it mean staying away, taking photos, looking through museums, and leaving without a trace, leaving no part of yourself behind?
  3. Moving beyond what experiencing a place really is, what do we need to do to achieve this? Do we hit the ground running, trying to see as many tourist sights as possible? It might be better to sit in a café somewhere, taking in the atmosphere, watching how people in this new city go about their day. It might be best to go to a place as mundane as a grocery store – you will probably learn more about daily life in Madrid from the farmacías than you will from visiting the Museo del Prado.
  4. Technologies that help make travel possible – the positive impact of technology on travel.
    1. The Basics: Planes, trains, and automobiles. These technologies have been around since before I was born, but they are vital. They are the things that enable me to go from Columbus, Ohio, to Europe in less than 12 hours (if I time the flights correctly). Without them, travel would be much more difficult, and impossible to maintain at the rate it is now, with people coming and going from all places at all times.
    2. New technologies: Airbnb, couchsurfing, Google flights, high speed trains, social media, Cameras. These are all technologies that help to facilitate the process of travel. They make lodging cheaper (or free!), make travel cheaper, and speed up the process. It makes traveling a more streamlined experience, one that is faster and more pleasant for the consumer. They also help to connect the traveler with their environment. With technologies such as airbnb, couchsurfing, and even social media to an extent, you are able to live and interact with those who are familiar with whichever city you are in, and it adds an extra dimension to the experience that would probably be lost if you had stayed in a beige box in a high rise hotel. Social media may also help you to give a window to those that would otherwise be unable to see certain places. Along with that, cameras in all their forms help you to remember the trip, and share the experience with people around the globe.
  5. Technologies that inhibit travel/interaction – negative effects of the influx of technology on our lives.
    1. Social Media – things such as facebook, instagram, twitter. Do our experiences become more about making people jealous, or gaining meaningless likes, as opposed to really seeing something and taking it in?
    2. Cameras – with a camera at our fingertips, does what we take pictures of become less significant? When we have a camera roll of 700 photos, what is worthwhile and what isn’t? Who determines this?
    3. High Speed Trains – though generally good, could it be said that they prevent one from seeing lesser-known areas, or the seedier sides of countries? Additionally, do they feed into the culture of instant gratification that we have built worldwide.
  6. Conclusion – final thoughts on the positives and negatives of technology when traveling, and ways to harness its power without negatively impacting ourselves.