Admitingly, I am a lucky guy; I get paid to travel the world. As an author, (I am always researching!) but more so as the Event Director for the around the world travel adventure The Global Scavenger Hunt. I am seemingly always on the move, and I notice things.
One awful trend I have watched evolve is the rise of a virtual wall of technology. And the unintended consequences of this techno barrier separates not only travelers from each other, but travelers from the main reasons why we travel in the first place -- to immerse ourselves in other cultures and to trust strangers in strange lands.
Let me explain further.
What I have witnessed, be it at hostels, rustic eco-lodges, resorts, chic boutique or upscale five-star hotels alike, is travelers not so much traveling, but alone immersing themselves in a self-imposed social media e-bubble. Call it the Wi-Fi Lobby.
Decades ago, the grand lobbies of the world's glamorous hotels were wild scenes -- some would say romantic -- where fellow travelers from around the world coming and going mingled together. Everyone talked to each other and exchanged ideas, suggestions and winks. You made fast friends and met future mates too...travel and otherwise.
Nowadays, travelers are still hanging in lobbies in far flung destinations, but instead of mingling, they cocoon themselves off: Instagraming and Tweeting followers, Skyping or FaceTiming their friends and updating Facebook. In effect, they are maintaining existing cyber space relationships at the expense of kindling real-life new ones. We have traded face-to-face social interaction with remote social networks. The magic of travel dissipates.
Sadly, this e-bubble doesn't just occur in the lobbies of hotels and hostels around the world. It occurs more frequently now during our travel and explore times too. With Smartphone's in hand and earbuds firmly inserted, travelers today are living in a post-tourist world where they are only physically there and decidedly not mingling or immersing themselves (asking directions, learning about the destination, listening to indigenous sounds, talking with locals). The immediacy of technology is affecting the travel experience.
Make no mistake, I am no Luddite. The communication and technological advances of the last decade have been nothing short of marvelous and revelatory. Yet, when that technology builds walls between people, instead of breaking them down, it becomes an issue.
We have become dependent on travel apps to tell us what to see and do, where to stay and what to eat and how to get there -- rather than actually exploring and discovering those things on our own. There is noticeably less personal interaction. There is a TMI overload (over 17,000 plus travel apps...and growing) that leads to an overwhelming type of traveler paralysis. Oddly, the same group that eschews guidebook orthodoxy doesn't have a problem crowdsourcing information.
It seems that information comfort (or at least the perception of knowing something) has replaced good old fashion DIY independent traveling. Yet real discovery occurs only when you venture outside your comfort zones -- exploring terra incognito.
It is hard to get lost when your Smartphone's GPS won't let you. It is hard to allow absence make the heart grow fonder when you are connected 24/7. Can't read the menu? There's an app for that. Why leave home if you are not going to open yourself up to new tastes, new ideas and new people?
Indeed, the certainty travel apps and our personal electronic devices offer us has replaced sweet serendipity. The essence of traveling.
From where I sit today (in a cafe in Laos) it looks like it will only get worse; with GPS tracking algorithm-based systems like Google Glass and so-called augmented reality (AR) travel apps coming on line offering travelers omnipresent connectivity -- a never-ending stream of "vital" information answering your every travel-related question. Indeed they will anticipate your needs. Is remote control tourist next?
So, what to do?
A growing backlash is brewing (a.k.a. off the grid vacationing), like the Slow Food movement of the 80s backlash against fast foods. It will address the paradox of our era: The more we are connected 24/7, the more we desperately want to unplug. Indeed, we do need to unplug (or at least shut the damn things off for a while and stow them) when traveling, to enjoy the moment and the serendipity of travel.
We will see. What say you?