During my recent trip to Chicago, I was talking with one of my friends about how our digital gizmos — cellphones, tablets, laptops, and so forth — have changed the experience of travel. In some ways, they have greatly enhanced travel in terms of access to information, safety & security, and keeping in touch with folks back home. But at the same time, I suggest that they have sapped some of the adventure out of travel by shrinking the world so much that it’s harder to get that sense of exploring the Great Elsewhere.
You could be visiting a wondrous National Park, while talking to a friend back home on your cell. You could be gazing at a beautiful European cathedral, while texting a family member with a reminder to water the plants at home. You could be sitting on a beach with the Pacific Ocean before you, while reading an e-mail about a pending project.
The fact that our electronic gadgets now tend to follow us everywhere is hardly a cutting-edge insight. But I submit that we haven’t fully appreciated the trade-off between the advantages of instantaneous communications and the sense of being away that even the most modest of sojourns once could deliver more easily.
Perhaps you have to be of a certain age to get this. If you are old enough to have experienced travel during the B.C.E. (Before Cellphone Era), then it’s much more likely that you understand where I’m coming from.
My most formative travel experience was a semester abroad in England back in 1981 B.C.E. Now, I would’ve killed to have access to something like the Internet back then, when even long-distance international phone calls were student budget busters. But I also know that the sense of distance I felt, while sometimes a source of homesickness and anxiety, was part of the grandness and personal growth of the experience. It also was a time when the art of letter writing was not lost on us, and daily mail deliveries were filled with anticipation. Quite a different experience than checking your inbox.
Sometimes our gadgets create interesting twists. A few summers ago, I was part of a storm chase tour in the heart of America’s Tornado Alley. While the storm we were on showed promise of developing into something big, the real action was back in Massachusetts, where a freak severe tornado captured the weather headlines for the day. Two of us on the tour were from Boston, and we followed the breaking news with cellphones and iPads. Cool that we could do this, but it distracted our attention from what was right in front of us.
We can’t go back on this one. Oh, I suppose it’s possible that on my next longer trip, I could leave behind anything that has a microchip and requires recharging, but I know darn well that I won’t. And try as I may to ration my time online, I’ll be taking regular looks at my e-mail and favorite Internet sites. Even progress has its compromises.