Has Technology Desensitized us to Authentic Travel Experiences?

The triple pat: Left front, right front, and right rear pocket; keys, phone, wallet. I do this every time before I walk out the door. Certainly others have to do this I wonder. My right front pocket is a little bit more worn because of all the times I’m grabbing my phone. I check it before I put in my pocket, then again before the end of the driveway, another time at the end of the street, and again at the end of my five-minute walk to the beach. I don’t even get calls on it. I’m just using it in Central America for WiFi. One week in Coco, Costa Rica and I already have the public WiFi spots figured out. I check it for what? I’m not dating anyone. It’s the Christmas holiday; why would anyone be trying to reach me? For what then? It’s not until I get to the beach that I see my LCD light blink, alerting me of a new notification. It’s nothing more than a spam message on Twitter.

Sunset in Costa Rica

Think about the real moments of satisfaction in your life. When were they? Was it while sitting at your desk at work? Maybe writing emails on your home computer? Uploading photos to Facebook? Reading blog comments possibly? These types of tasks may just be minutes at a time, but by the end of the day or week add up to hours. But are these when memorable moments take place? Draw on your most recent memorable moments. What is the footprint of technology in them? Maybe it was a girls weekend, summer beach vacation, an afternoon outdoors with your children, a night out with a significant other, or a major sporting event. How present is technology during these moments? It’s not like you’re going to be lying on your death bed and your final words be: “If only I would’ve tweeted more”.

I recently asked the question: Why don’t Americans use their vacation days? Not just why people don’t use them, but why they don’t use them to travel. Here’s how it works: You get paid to not come into work. I mean EVERYONE played hooky when they were young and weren’t compensated for it, yet when we grow up we’re not going to do it when we now get PAID for it?

I’d like to suggest another possibility of why Americans don’t travel: Travel experiences for many people are no different than that of staying at home. Exhibit A: How many times do you hear news stories or see headlines come across your social media feeds of another livid traveler who has racked up an outrageous phone bill due to roaming fees abroad. What’s the highest so far? Anyone hit six digits yet? Exhibit B: “I know it sounds bad,’’ said Wallace, of Roslindale, as she worked on her laptop at Panera in Brookline, “but seeing if I had an e-mail was more exciting than looking at the sunset.’’ That’s what one young woman on vacation at North Carolina’s beaches was quoted as saying in this article about connectivity being a part of the travel experience. Another person in the same article states: “Connectivity has to be part of the travel experience now.” Does technology really have to be a part of the travel experience? What would you miss if you went 12, 24, 48 hours, or even an entire week without technology?

“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.”–James Michener

In college I lived in Africa for a summer. Many of the guys I hung out with were particularly fascinated with my life as an American. Their rooms weren’t decorated with posters of top-heavy models as you might would expect, but rather posters of lavish homes, cars, and buildings. I didn’t have much, but what I did have they were envious of: A car (an ’89 Mazda Protégé), my own TV (a 19″ TV), and a cell phone (A Nokia, the ones that come with the Snake game on it). There was such a curiosity about them. If you’ve traveled abroad to a different culture, then you may have experienced this yourself. But maybe it is me, who instead should have been fascinated with them.

New York Public Library

This isn’t a technology slam. That would be a double standard. I have this travel blog, a Tumblr blog, Twitter, Facebook, several photo apps on my phone, camera, camcorder, and GPS. I recently wrote about virtual relationships and about how so many of my closest friends of the last year have been a result of Twitter. However, technology doesn’t win the day. Technology is the imitation and not the real thing. Yes, technology can connect, fill a void, enlighten, and satisfy, but it reaches a ceiling. I’m not after traveling virtually, having virtual sex, meeting people only online, or having a virtual database of Wikipedia knowledge. I want to use technology only as much as it extends into the real world around me. I want experiences. I want to climb mountains, win over friends, go on dates, surf waves, speak different languages, eat new foods, and see beautiful sights.

It’s my last week in Costa Rica and I’m going out for the rest of the afternoon and evening. I slide the door behind me and do my triple pat before locking the door. I hesitate. My right pocket is empty. I smirk, lock the door, and walk away. I photographed, shot video, Twitpicked, and Facebooked a lot of Central America sunsets, but none come close to the sunset of this evening in Coco, Costa Rica. The orange, pink, and purple colors all mixed together. The thinly dispersed clouds. The sail boats on the horizon. The kayakers crossing back and forth just in front of me. And to my left and right, two dogs sit beside me, pausing briefly from time to time to lick their paw or chase their tail, but looking out across the water with me for nearly a half-hour. Beautiful, glorious, majestic? No. No words can quite describe this sunset. I didn’t get a photo of it. I didn’t tweet  it or post something on Facebook. I only wrote about it, longhand, in a notebook so that I would have at least something to draw on the memory of. This is the first time I’ve even spoken of it.

A few hours later, after dinner and a couple drinks with newly formed friends at my favorite beach bar, I walk back home and immediately open up my laptop. No missed Skype calls, no unread emails, no new tweets, no new Facebook notifications.

Header photo from derekb on Flickr.

To make myself feel a little better, I did write part of this longhand, and without the accompaniment of music or TV. However, I also wrote part of it while listening to my “Inspiration” playlist, which included tracks by the Doobie Brothers, Mumford & Sons, Jay-Z, Coldplay, Sufjan Stevens, and Flogging Molly. I even tweeted a couple times while writing this, which included an Arrested Development joke. I also indulged in a bowl of frosted flakes. However, it too was the imitation, and not the real thing. Nonetheless, I’m offsetting a morning chock full of technology with both a lunch and dinner engagement today. I feel so grown up. If you didn’t like anything you’ve read so far, maybe you’ll like this additional reading. Or at least this sick goal by U.S. Women’s National Soccer player Alex Morgan. If nothing else, there’s always money in the banana stand.

Additional Reading

17 Comments on “Has Technology Desensitized us to Authentic Travel Experiences?

  1. “Technology is the imitation and not the real thing.”

    Spencer, despite all I’ve written about how valuable my virtual realm is — and how fusing it into my daily life is becoming increasingly important — at the end of the day, I agree 100% with your statement above.

    My recent trip to England sans BlackBerry was an enlightening experience, and I plan to leave my phone again on my next big trip. I’ve thought about this trip to the UK in comparison to my other recent trips to Berlin, Granada, Lisbon, and Ibiza, and I already feel, with its many “untweeted” moments, that it will fill my memory in a different way than those other trips. I’m not quite sure if that makes sense, and I plan to write about it in time, but I do feel that absence of technology will shape that travel experience in my mind differently than the ones that were constantly shared/monitored via tweeting/Twitpicking/blogging. I’m not sure I’d go with the word “desensitize,” but technology certainly affects a travel experience. Somehow.

    Seems many of us are thinking about these same themes and ideas (I read Candice’s social media piece, too), and I’m continually inspired by yours and others’ thoughts on these topics. It’s great!

    Thanks for considering my post as “additional reading.” :)


    • I’m definitely not going to remove it, but I certainly want to re-consider how I’m using technology, especially when I’m with others, like friends, and when I’m traveling. Since I use it so much for work, I walk a thin line, but I want to be more cognizant of this with upcoming trips. Always appreciate your thoughts on the matter Cheri!

  2. Totally agree with everything in your third-to-last paragraph. I use technology as a tool to enhance my relationships, but not as the be-all, end-all. Facebook is mainly to keep in touch with real friends, Twitter is for my blog and my online networking. I once dated a guy who never took his cell phone into a restaurant with us on dates–when I asked him about it, he said it was because that time was only about us. I thought it was a really sweet gesture–and now I know that when I want to focus on real experiences, I need to leave the technology out of it. I’m becoming more and more grateful for this time sans iPhone because it means that I’m not on my phone nearly as much–and thus can enjoy the company of real people and the real experiences that surround me. Some of my favorite memories are those that I was able to experience without taking a photo to remember it :)

    • Thanks Christine. Love your thoughts on the matter. I think this is becoming an increasingly important topic to discuss. I’ve become better when out with friends and family with my phone. Leaving it in the car or putting it on vibrate. I’m finding that I’m not missing really anything that important and am not even that important to begin with to be on it as much as I am. I like technology and use it so much for work-related things, but am trying to navigate how to better use it.

  3. As someone who refuses to get a smartphone, I’ll admit that I don’t understand the level of “addiction” that people have with their phones. I don’t even take my phone to work. I don’t know why I have a phone, honestly.

    When I travel, I do love to take pictures, but it’s 3rd on my list of important things to do. The first is to see the sights and the second is to eat great food. Clearly.

    That being said, when I am home, I do have my computer open to facebook because I absolutely love it. However, I live alone and so my addiction to facebook (while at home) isn’t stealing time from the people in my life.

    • I like your thoughts here Diane. It’s certainly not a requirement or necessity like much of our culture I feel like is going towards. I think there really needs to be more balance. I like technology, but I’m trying to be more cognizant. Like I alluded to, I feel like technology is filling these holes that we want filled in our life, but at the end of the day it’s just a copy, and is never even close to being the real thing.

  4. Two years ago when we embarked on our travels, we ditched the phones. We have not had one of our own since and I don’t know that I ever will again. It is so freeing to not be attached to it – and when we are out and about, we are “out and about” – no checking for msgs and the like.

    I’m still very attached to the net though (obvs), but even here in Ireland we’ve been detaching slowly. It used to be that it was the first thing we turned to in the morning and the last thing at night. Now, without wi-fi in our cottage, we’ve had to detach a little. It took some adjustment, but again, I do feel much freer for it…it’s easier to fall asleep and not worry about checking, just one…more…time.

    (What is it about your posts that inspire me to write a novel for a comment?)

    • Write away Dalene! I love your comments. Ireland is a good place for detaching. I like what you said about being freedom. I took a long weekend in Costa Rica off of all technology and it was amazing. I came back to a ton of emails, but it was so refreshing and I felt like it was an enriching weekend because I spent more time out, seeing places, and talking with people. I want to do more of that when I travel.

  5. Have you read the book “Better Off”? It talks about a guy’s quest for a cord-free life, and he does attain nirvana, in his own way. I get severe sensory overload with too much texting, typing, any gadget ing (actually I wrote a similar post on this too). love the narrative, and the food for thought. Time to shut off the computer now :)

  6. So, so, so true!!!!

    Two things:

    I recently happened upon a FB conversation among travel bloggers about people who had chosen *not* to go somewhere or left early because they weren’t able to be “plugged in,” and a large number of them admitted that they had, in fact, left a place because they couldn’t get online. This is terribly sad to me. Many of these people “travel” for a living, but they won’t venture to those places that potentially offer the best travel experiences simply because they’re a long way from anywhere … physically and virtually. As for me, I choose to work ahead a bit and then get the heck off of technology at least a few times a year. It’s absolutely essential for my sanity.

    Secondly, I’m also a member of a Facebook group for soon-to-be, current and former Peace Corps Kenya. Someone recently asked about what kind of technology to pack and whether it was safe. They listed different types of hard drives and lap tops and GPS systems. In my opinion, serving in the Peace Corps is among the more “authentic” travel experiences a person can have simply because of how long the commitment is and the fact that you live in a community at the community level. But how can a person really experience that if he or she is on Skype or Twitter or Facebook all the time? I can’t imagine having served like that. We had a wind-up radio so we could catch BBC news. That’s how we listened to the Olympic games and election returns, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

    • Love your comment JoAnna, especially the first part. The next few days I’m working my ass off so I can take 4 days off of work next week while I’m traveling. That’s just crazy to me that someone would leave because they can’t be connected enough. How much are they really missing? I think they are probably missing even more, in my opinion, experience-wise, because they are leaving a place early. At that point, why are they traveling. Only to keep their blog up and running? To tweet me and tell me that in cased I missed it, they have a new post? Thanks for the insight!

  7. I personally think there are a ton of reasons why folks don’t make use of their vacation time….mostly bad….but in today’s world it’s about income pressure. It’s not so much the money to spend on the trip but the “time is money” factor. The reality is that whether running your own business or working for somebody else, time away can be a huge setback…especially in this economy.

    • Unfortunately you’re right Steve. This is something I’ve learned a lot about lately, is letting go of some of that attitude. I would much rather be happy and take time to do the things I enjoy, then kill myself for an extra couple hundred dollars. I hope to see this kind of mindset change, but I don’t know if it will.

  8. Spencer, I have to wryly laugh. Not at your clear and semi-troubling cell-phone-based OCD, mind you…but at the fact that it’s a quiet Saturday, my husband’s out of town, I have no plans, and yet I’m sitting here at my laptop combing through my social media accounts and reading your wonderful post. While I began doing this without a trace of irony, I now see that what I really should do is put myself and my dog in the car and go find an adventure.

    After all, I share the same message: workaholics, get thee out of Dodge and do something else with yourselves for awhile. Thanks for being my louder voice of reason today!

    • Life has a funny way about it doesn’t it?! Just trying to make the world a better place Melanie :).

  9. Thanks for the great article. I’m planning a long (3-year) round the world trip and I go back and forth on whether to bring a netbook with me or not.

    The pros for bringing one are obvious. With so many hostels now offering free wifi, it’d be much easier to update my blog, skype with friends and family, research on activities and destinations, etc.

    There are quite a few cons as well. The main one is that I always found a computer (or a smart phone) to be a sort of comfort zone for me. If I’m lonely in a strange place, I can always take out a laptop or a phone and feel a little less isolated. But a big part of traveling is to take myself out of the comfort zone, to go out and try to meet locals and other travelers. In the end, facebook looks exactly the same on your computer at home or in a hostel in India.

    If it was a shorter trip, I’d definitely not bring a netbook with me. I guess I can just bring one and sell it if it starts to get in the way of me fully experiencing the trip.

    • Thanks Kevin. It’s different for everyone. When I was in Central America I had my computer because I needed it to work, but I wouldn’t take my smartphone out with me. I did the first week and then saw it as the distraction it was and then it opened up to so many conversations and experiences when I didn’t have my eyes glued to my phone.

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