“I’m haunted by how tempting it was to … travel the globe, and travel through life, in a thoroughly customized cocoon. I’m not talking about the chain hotels or chain restaurants … carbon-copy refuges for unadventurous souls and stomachs. I’m talking about our hard drives, our wired ways, ‘the cloud’ and all of that. I’m talking about our unprecedented ability to tote around and dwell in a snugly tailored reality of our own creation… We tune out by tucking ourselves into virtual enclaves in which our ingrained tastes are mirrored and our established opinions reflected back at us.” (Traveling Without Seeing)
When I went on study abroad 14 years ago, I had no laptop, I had no phone. I’d never been on a plane before and I knew no one. It was one of the best experiences of my life.
Obviously, it was a different world, a different time, and I’m now a different person. It was pre-9/11, it was pre-smartphone, it was pre-wifi. But God, it was glorious.
Since then, I’ve traveled to many places with many types of technology. Sometimes, not having the right technology on hand has been bothersome or downright dangerous. But much more often, having a smörgåsbord of technology at hand has caused me to be less present. I can’t say for sure that I missed out on amazing moments – how could I know? – but I think I probably have.
When I travel, I don’t want to be beating my record at a game or seeing what people I don’t care much about have posted. I doubt anyone really would prioritize electronic experiences over the ones they’ve saved time and money in order to have. But that’s what we do.
I’ve found myself alone where I didn’t speak the language and didn’t know where I was. Quite a few times, actually. (You could argue that this is a slightly self-destructive stubborn streak; I guess. You could argue that it’s a tendency to challenge myself; I would. I put myself in situations to remind myself that I can get out of them. I make sure I remember what I’m capable of.) Having a safety net is what makes the difference between a test and an act of stupidity – and a smartphone is almost always the best (most compact, most complete) safety net I can have.
But how do I – how can I – use it when I have to and not when I don’t? How can I see the line; how can I define those boundaries? It’s a bourgeousie problem to have – we drown in information, an embarrassment of riches that can help us in any situation, and our problem is being properly choosy.
It being a nice problem to have doesn’t mean it still isn’t a problem, though. We need to draw these lines, to stake out these boundaries – every day, not only when we’re away.