Technology’s Other Edge

by Keith Savage · 9 comments


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I just finished riding the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia in less than 40 minutes. Thanks to Google Russia, desk-bound wanderers can make the 5,000+ mile journey without having to parse a single Cyrillic sign. The Guardian wrote a thought-provoking article last week that questioned whether this kind of virtual travel will replace the real act of travel. In a follow-up post, Andy of 501 Places compared the Google version of sliding past Lake Baikal to his own experience riding the Trans-Siberian Railway 15 years ago.

For those who love to travel, “virtual travel,” whatever that comes to entail in the future, will never replace actual travel. While cool, watching a 40-minute video of Siberian countryside roll past the window of a train is not how my imagination conceives of virtual travel. I love the process of traveling: the planning, the transporting, the navigating, the communicating. Sightseeing, relaxing near the pool, and eating out are just slices of the greater travel pie, and it would be difficult to classify myself as a Traveling Savage if I didn’t love it all. Perhaps people who don’t like traveling will really dig this so-called virtual travel. Will folks even consider themselves to have traveled to the places they watched, like “oh yeah, I’ve been to Vladivostok” after seven minutes on the Google train? Mmm…nah, don’t think so.

Upon reading the Guardian’s article, my first thought was not about virtual travel, but rather how technology is changing the way we travel. I’d had the same thought as I researched an article on Edinburgh’s watering holes and used Google Maps to locate the pubs I visited last summer. The ability to map just about any place in the world and view it at street level is mind-blowing. Let’s take a collective moment and appreciate our existence in a sci-fi novel.

[moment of silence]

Now I’m a gadget geek. I’m an early adopter quick to get new toys. I spend the vast majority of my time in front of a monitor when at work and play. What I’m trying to say is that I love technology. But it can be a bit of a toxic friend when it comes to travel. Here’s why:

  • The mystique. The number of travel-focused apps, photo galleries, information sites, and virtual mapping toys available to travelers are nearly irresistible prior to the trip. What’s there to resist? I never would have said this five years ago, but I think there’s value in limiting your exposure to these tools. The line is indistinct, but too much investigation about a destination can drain away some of the mystique and the excitement you feel when you arrive. The last thing you want is a feeling of familiarity when you step off the bus.
  • The moment. How many times have you cut short your appreciation of a vista to bust out the digital camera and capture it? Or futzed with the video camera in the midst of a particular hilarious event? In my experience, far too often. Especially when the moment would have been much more satisfying if I’d just taken it at face-value and appreciated the fact it was happening.
  • The maintenance. What will you find in many travelers’ packs? Smartphones, laptops, e-readers, and iPods just to name a few. With SIM cards, flash memory, adapters, and chargers, technology is needy, and travelers spend heaps of time searching the local markets and shops for these techie accoutrements. That doesn’t even include the time you spend cussing out your dead phone and ensuring everything is sufficiently charged.

Do you feel technology is wholly good for travel? What technology couldn’t you live without? Which devices or services do wish never existed?

Original photo by The Hamster Factor via Flickr under Creative Commons


JoelNo Gravatar February 23, 2010 at 11:57 AM

I’m a gadget geek, too, but have only a few I can’t live without when I’m traveling. And that’s because I believe they enhance the experience rather than detracting from it. The key is to not lean on it to the extent that it becomes a distraction.

A brief preview of the “gadget” post I’m planning:

Camera: enables sharing and memories of the experience (I don’t have a vid cam, but my point and shoot does cover off on video for those brief moments).
iPhone: for navigation, jotting down notes, currency exchange and other math and general communication
Laptop: keeps me connected – I like sharing the experience while I’m living it, as well as communicating to hopefully connect live with others who are in the same area.
iPod: because as much as I appreciate the sounds and sights of a region, sometimes I just want to feel the comfort of my own music
Garmin Edge 705: cycling in the middle of nowhere may not REQUIRE a GPS, but I love that it records my trip so I can display it on a map with little muss or fuss.

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Jackie Rose (@letssitoutside)No Gravatar February 23, 2010 at 11:32 PM

In the past few months of talking to travelers and noticing changes in the atmosphere at hostels and such, I’ve concluded that I am not the average traveler.

When I travel I take my cues from Paul Theroux (check out Dark Star Safari), and light out. I enjoy disappearing with no phone or computer. For my most recent trip to Antarctica and South America, I opted to carry my grandpa’s 35mm Pentax K1000 because I knew the cost of professional film and the weight of the camera would keep me from mindlessly taking pictures.

I don’t even carry my camera all the time because I don’t want to see the world around me in frames. I’ve never kept up a blog when I’ve traveled because I like to get into the experience and not worry about packaging each day or week into a witty little post for my friends and family.

I can’t imagine using any sort of GPS on any trip. For me it would take the fun out of exploring and the adventure out of getting lost. That is one of my favorite parts of the travel process…getting lost then finding your way out or into something else! Sure, I use paper maps when hiking, but for the most part I like to wander and have found that (in general) if you ask someone where to find something, they will help you.

Many places I’ve been to are very rural and have unreliable sources of electricity. In Ghana the town I stayed in lost electricity for weeks at a time. I was in Antarctica last year and no one was connected to the web for two weeks, much less tweeting like @Bus2Antarctica. How do people who carry their computer go trekking?

Also, in a lot of places (Burkina Faso, Indonesia Argentina), it felt slightly inconsiderate and even unsafe to carry expensive electronics. Riding a public bus where they put your bag on the roof with goats, you run the risk of being stripped of your luggage if you flash an ipod or a digital camera. In similar locations it can be culturally insensitive to use a camera. I do a lot of volunteer work with orphans and people in need of medical care…I’d feel like a jerk if I saw them dealing with extreme poverty, snapped a photo of it then went for a walk with my ipod.

Ah! That was a lot. I’m working on my own blog post about this. There’s a little bit about it in my latest post (listed as my website). Thank you for this post!

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Jackie Rose (@letssitoutside)No Gravatar February 23, 2010 at 11:40 PM

One final thing!

I try really hard not to delve into the web of information before I travel. Before I went to Antarctica, I avoided all information about it, except where and when to board the ship. I went to Indonesia completely on a whim. My parent’s offered to buy me a plane ticket for my college graduation so I picked a country that was far far away. Ultimately I got myself into a little bit of trouble (Jakarta during an election is not exactly safe for a solo, female, American traveler), but it all worked out!

So yeah, I’m all for limiting exposure to info.
.-= Jackie Rose (@letssitoutside)´s last blog ..I don’t want to be a violinist or a travel writer. =-.

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Sofia - As We TravelNo Gravatar February 24, 2010 at 2:26 AM

That reminds me of a movie I watched the other day called ‘Gamer’, where people spend their whole lives playing this video game that is like an improved ‘The Sims’. You can choose this character, which is a real person, and do whatever you like with it.
For them, this is better than the real world. It’s easier and more convenient.

There have been many movies lately talking about the same thing, how we are beginning to blur the lines between reality and imagination, how we don’t care about if something is real or not, we don’t see the difference.

I don’t think there’s anything to worry about though. There will always be a different experience travelling in real life than in a video game.

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KeithNo Gravatar February 24, 2010 at 11:42 AM

I’ll have to check that movie out. It sounds interesting. I agree with your thoughts, Sophia.

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JoelNo Gravatar February 24, 2010 at 8:30 AM

Great post, Jackie – I liked reading your perspective. I’ve come to the realization that there are many different ways to travel as there are travelers. For going to the locations you’re going to, it sounds like you have it down and it’s good advice. I’ll re-think things if I expand my circle beyond the small, European towns I’m planning on taking up (short-term) residency in.
.-= Joel´s last blog ..The 12 pieces of free software I can’t blog without =-.

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KeithNo Gravatar February 24, 2010 at 11:55 AM

Great comments Joel and Jackie. You guys seem to have two very different travel styles, and I think it’s great that you’ve found styles that suit you well.

Interesting points about the presence of high-end technology in third-world countries. This thought must cross travelers’ minds at some point during the planning, but I’m guessing it’s squelched fairly quickly. After all, how can travel bloggers blog without laptops and cameras? I see that you don’t want to be a professional travel blogger. If you don’t mind me asking, what is your profession?

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Jackie Rose (@letssitoutside)No Gravatar February 24, 2010 at 9:30 PM

Hi All,

It’s definitely interesting to see how we all have a different approach to travel. In the US I like my computer and cell phone, and I bet if I was traveling in Europe or urban Asia I’d want both items with me.

My profession: Physical therapy patient. Kidding, kind of. In September 2009 I started a masters program in international public health, but I’m taking this semester off to recover from a 4th operation on my wrist, which I shattered when I fell off a roof in Argentina last March. Before grad school I worked as a nanny or in marketing when I wasn’t traveling and volunteering. Once I finish school I plan to work abroad in public health program implementation.

Hope all is well!
.-= Jackie Rose (@letssitoutside)´s last blog ..I don’t want to be a violinist or a travel writer. =-.

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KeithNo Gravatar February 27, 2010 at 7:43 AM

Ok, so what you bring depends on where you go. Interesting angle, and one I’ll need to think about more.

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