When Technology Taints Travel

My newest enemy...

Back in 2006, I called my parents from my semester abroad in a phone booth. I had a little digital camera and a phone that could only text and make calls. There was – gasp – no camera on the phone. Twitter had just been born but Instagram was four years down the road. I didn’t have a Gmail account.

Life was good.

Living in Paris and backpacking across Italy, taking weekend trips to Stockholm, or planning spring break in Prague were all done in the most rudimentary way possible: with paper and people.  It was a hipster approach to travel without even trying to be hipster. I was just broke. I had invested in or borrowed a few guides, but I mainly relied on people in the places I went to visit to find out the things to do.

I vaguely remember sitting in my school’s library searching things, and maybe I read a few posts on TripAdvisor, but I mostly booked accommodations and flights and the rest was figured out on the go. I even remember using the SNCF travel agency to book trains. Those were the days.

Now, still living in Paris but weighed down with a few more tools, I have an easier time figuring out where to go, but it’s almost to a fault. Don't feel the need to cite the endless list of ways technology helps us travel, because I embrace it. I know technology makes travel better in many ways from letting us dream more to bookings to sharing tips afterwards. 

But still, it’s become more difficult to visit a place and enjoy it as the 20-year-old me did – innocently and spontaneously, where everything was a source of wonder even if it wasn’t a top-rated attraction or restaurant that needed to be documented. It seems we might have taken our love of technology too far when we travel.

Fortunately, I can take the blame for, and ultimately change most of my own complaints about travel and technology. I don't need to bring my phone or camera. I don’t have to look up everything on TripAdvisor, and when I travel abroad, I usually don’t stress too much if I’m alone. I remember eating a crappy pizza in Luxembourg in 2009 and being the happiest little devil in the whole city. It was forgettable food but a memorable experience because I did it on my own. And I didn’t have a smartphone to record the moment. Just a notebook and a pen.

Just as Picasso intended...look through your screen, not directly at the canvas...
Observing – and often working with – tourists in Paris makes me realize that not everyone is able to resist the temptations that an increasingly digital world is throwing at us. People want to Instagram every moment, tweet every absurdity, research every step of the way without ever looking up from their iPhone. And to these ends, various forms of technology have crept on the scene that make traveling through Paris easier while also degrading the experience.

Take the selfie sticks. They might make taking selfies easier (the selfie is another issue to discuss elsewhere) but they also make it easier to ignore the place around you. What happened to the days when you’d ask a stranger to take a photo of you and your friend in front of a monument? The selfie stick, like self-check-out lines, are making it easier to avoid talking to actual people. Why go anywhere, then?

I’m not the biggest fan of Yelp and TripAdvisor. Of course I use them, but I hate that we can’t travel anymore without checking the ratings first. I never had a meal that was so terrible that I could vomit, and the less-memorable ones made for good stories later, like the seafood pizza I ate in Stockholm when my travel companions refused to eat reindeer with me. I dare you just to go into a restaurant and try it, with no expectations, and try to enjoy yourself. I dare you.

Digital cameras are fantastic for photographers, but for tourists, they can quickly turn a fun photo-op into a nightmare. It’ll take ten tries to get the perfect photo. On the 35mm, you only had one chance. Two if you carried a lot of film. You didn’t have to waste precious travel minutes screwing on a fake smile. You just took the photo and then used your eyes to experience the moment. Digital cameras make it too tempting and easy to live half of a trip through a lens. And you don’t even have the surprise of the prints to flip through weeks later.

This is where we're at...

A super convenience that I’m guilty of taking along, the iPad should come with a user manual for travelers. Lighter than a laptop, it’s great for any work or school trip where you need a reader or a word processor. But for the casual tourist, please leave it at home, or at least in the hotel. Mostly because it is not a camera. But when you hold it up at the Louvre in front of the Mona Lisa, you are making it that much more difficult for people behind you to see it. And you look ridiculous. Use your eyes. Google a picture later and upload it to Facebook if you must, but other tourists don't want to see the world through your screens.

And Wi-Fi, now available almost anywhere you go in Paris (well, sort of), is one of the reasons these devices are ruining travel. We want to get that picture and capture that perfect moment so we can upload it to whatever social networking platform will run on a sluggish Wi-Fi connection. Then we hop to the next hotspot, log on, and see how many people liked it.  

Just...enjoy it.

So while we can all share our albums in real time, do we really need to? What is gained by others knowing that you were in front of the Eiffel Tower fifteen minutes ago? If you think anyone really cares, it’d be best to think again. In the same way that fifteen people will like this blog post on Facebook, I’d be surprised if any of them even read through to the end. But technology has made us dependent on the validation of others. Our experiences don't seem to matter as much as the attention they collect.

In the end, travel should be about you and the place you visit. If you’re going to invest time and money into travel, you might as well invest a bit of yourself, too. 

Part of getting away is doing just that, leaving your life behind for a few days – something that we should be so lucky to do.