During my current 4 week journey along the West Coast of USA from San Francisco to Seattle and onwards to northern Alaska I’ve been wondering … has the proliferation of affordable mobile technologies isolated travelers or connected them in new ways that weren’t possible before?
I’ve traveled a lot around the world during my life, especially during the last 10 years when laptop computers, smartphones, ebook readers and touch screen tablets have become much more affordable and commonplace.
Until now I’ve often chosen Hostelling International / Youth Hostel Australia for my holiday accommodation because they are generally affordable, clean, safe and friendly places to stay, leaving me with the majority of my budget to spend on museum tickets and outdoor activities.
I usually travel alone so it has been nice to spend time in HI/YHA common rooms or kitchen areas to swap travel tips and chat with people from around the world to learn about their culture and country.
Unfortunately it is becoming very common to enter one of these areas and find them full of people being alone together, each focused on wearing headphones to listen to music, playing games on a tablet, messaging and using social media on their phone or laptop etc.
So far during this trip I’ve sometimes managed to find one or two remaining tables where travelers are situated who actually want to talk with each other. At other times there has been no one to chat with.
On the other hand having all these technologies available to travelers has enabled communication and connections that were not possible 10 years ago.
For example last year during a visit to Darwin I met a friend I’d made on Twitter through the shared interest of bird and wildlife photography. When I sent him a message saying I was visiting his city he kindly took a few hours to show me a few places where I could see local bird life.
We conversed as if continuing an existing discussion between friends who had actually seen each other in real life many times before, rather than for the first time.
More recently during this USA trip I met another online friend made through my work as a technology journalist. When I reached Seattle we had a great time discussing a wide range of topics while watching a Seattle Mariners baseball match.
Since owning high quality digital cameras is so affordable and mobile or WiFi internet access is available even in small towns it has been possible to regularly share trip photo highlights on Flickr with friends and family every day or two.
In comparison 10 years ago I took photos with a film camera which meant taking photos had to be rationed because it was very expensive, required buying film and processing it afterwards into paper 6×4 inch prints.
When disaster struck a few days ago and I missed a shuttle bus I used my smartphone with an American SIM in it to make a few calls, find a taxi, estimate the taxi ride cost and direct the driver along the fastest route to the next shuttle bus stop 37 miles away.
Ten years ago I would have been equipped with paper maps and had to find a phone booth to make calls using a phone card, making it very unlikely that I’d have organised alternative transport in time.
A lot of media coverage about mobile technologies is from a black/white perspective that they are inherently terrible for society or the techno-utopian view that they are fantastic in every way. The reality as with most topics is that the real answer is nuanced shades of grey.
Balancing the pros and cons, I think that technology has isolated travelers in some irreversible ways but it also has the potential to connect people in new ways that weren’t possible before, if you put in the effort to discuss shared interests over the long term with people who live in other cities and countries.