The Tourist in the Digital Age
After two recent trips (domestic and international), it was clear to me that we are now traveling differently compared to even 5 years ago. Our electronic gadgets, which have become a big part of our daily lives back home, are just as much a part of our leisure time and travel experiences. Thanks to a 7 hour flight home, I had some time to reflect on what this all means. The age of portable digital devices means some really exciting changes for the traveler, and some changes that don’t seem right.
Information – This one is pretty obvious and very clearly in the good category. If you are used to finding restaurants, directions, and random facts with your phone at home, then why wouldn’t you do this on the road? With the power of Google on hand, train schedules, a map of Manhattan, the Greek word for “chicken”, the royal French family tree and other facts are readily accessible.
Knowing that this access to information dwarfs what can be included in a paperback guide, many guidebooks are now offering enhanced online or downloadable features. For example, after paying a lot for a barely informative audio tour of the Harem in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, I went with a Rick Steves audio tour on my iPod for Ephesus which was turned out to be pretty good (and free).
As someone who revels in the pre-travel planning phase (I am the Daydream Tourist after all), I don’t see myself relying heavily on “in the field” research. That being said, opening hours can change, local signage can be poor and you may decide to be spontaneous so access to information is a huge help while traveling.
Communication Back Home – In Bergama, Turkey, we stayed at a beautifully renovated 17th century farm house. The simple rooms with a no-shoes-inside policy and the antique decorations gave the home a rustic, quaint feeling. Heading out to the porch to soak in some late afternoon sun, I found a middle-aged Australian couple talking to their teenage son at home via facetime on their iPad. via the farm house’s wireless. I had thought – in perhaps an ignorant, first-worlder sort of way – that there were many places that just didn’t have very good or pervasive wireless internet. Maybe these isolated places still exist in the most rural or the poorest areas of the world, but it seems like access is spreading and that a traveler can be emailing, posting, tweeting or talking face-to-face whenever they need to. Now it seems like sending postcards that arrive after you’ve returned is the quaint part of travel communication!
Going with the Swiss Army Knife – Imagine you have a bottle of wine. You have a wine opener with the little arms you push down and a Swiss Army knife with the fold-out corkscrew. I’m guessing you would pick the proper wine opener first. If that weren’t around, then of course you go with the Swiss Army Knife fold-out cork screw because its better than nothing. This is basically how I feel about combination technologies. The camera on a phone is great if you see a funny sign or a cute cat while on the go and have to take a picture now, but I cannot accept that this camera is sufficient when traveling. I’m sure people will argue with me about this, pointing out that the latest camera phone optics are much improved and that huge memories do not make image storage a problem. I’ve even seen people who only take iPhone photos when traveling, but I’m not convinced. If I am going to spend the time and money to travel, then I am going to document my trip with a good quality, dedicated camera.
Nor am I advocating taking 4 different gadgets so that you can read, call home, listen to music and take photos separately on dedicated electronics. I just think people should prioritize their gadgets and put a premium on ones that do their job the best rather than just doing more. I’m pretty sure my point-and-shoot sized hybrid SLR camera is easier to use, quicker and more convenient to carry around than the guy’s iPad above.
For this section, at first I considered writing about wealth disparity between tourists and locals because that actually is ugly. But then I remembered something that makes for a very ugly tourist – and person in general both at home and on the road.
I think I had a good time… – I’m going to take a hard line on this: you should take advantage of your travel to experience a new place, so control your gadgets! No more surfing the web at the museum, no more Facebook at the winery and definitely no more emailing from the pews in Notre Dame Cathedral! Sure, keep in touch with people back home (remember, communication = good), but what is so critical at home or at work that you have to be distracted from seeing some really amazing things around you?
This is an issue of self-control and habit. Staring at a screen at home, out to dinner with friends or in front of the Pyramids removes you from your surroundings and neighbors. This is fine if you’re on the bus reading email during your daily commute, but it is incredibly isolating in most other situations and if done a lot. When I travel, I like to try new foods, appreciate the sights (for way too long) and talk to locals. I want to know what people’s lives are like, what their opinions are and at the very least what they like about their own country and what I should see/do/eat/hear while visiting. Besides being an incredibly rude thing to do, I can’t imagine willfully isolating myself from that enriching experience, nor can I imagine spending my time with an app.
I went on vacation with Siri – I speak some French but have had no problems communicating on my last two trips to Greece and Turkey. I learned the basics before I went (thanks YouTube!), got a phrasebook and then made an honest effort to communicate. People appreciate it when you try to speak their language. And if that doesn’t work, it always gets a laugh when you have to pantomime utensils because you really can’t pronounce the word for “fork”!
We were having one of a typical, fun meal in Istanbul, joking with the waiter, asking for and ordering his favorite dishes, when I noticed a young American couple at a nearby table. They were huddled over a smart phone playing with a translator app. Our waiter stopped by their table and they completely froze. It was so sad watching them rely on their gadget to interpret and utterly avoid any natural interaction with this friendly man (who could actually speak quite a bit of English). They were suspicious, whiny and bickered over control of the phone. I wanted to walk over, take it away from them and say, “You are in Istanbul! Enjoy yourselves! You obviously came here because you wanted to see Turkey, but you are completely shutting it out by being scared and so over reliant on this gadget!”
Ultimately gadgets are only a reflection of their owners and their travel priorities. If you want a detailed digital guidebook with zoom-able maps, four gadgets that do one thing versus one electronic item that does four things, or to check Twitter at the Parthenon, then that’s your choice. Each traveler needs to ask his or herself, how does this gadget help me and how does it get in the way, because getting in the way defeats the entire purpose of leaving home. And really, what’s the point of traveling if you don’t pay attention or have a good time?
So what kind of tourist are you? Are you the Good, the Bad or the Ugly?