With social media, you can feel like you’re never alone, no matter where you are. Even when you travel. You now have the chance to comment on the latest picture of your friend’s dog/baby/dinner while you are five thousand miles away. But alas, humans have not evolved as fast as tech toys, and we are still terrible at multitasking. Every minute scrolling through your Facebook feed is a minute lost in the land you presumably looked forward to seeing, smelling, and experiencing.
But, writes The Atlantic’s national correspondent Robert Kaplan, the loss of undivided attention is what threatens travel the most. In this month’s issue, Kaplan reflects on the effect of hyperconnectivity on travel in his essay “Being There”:
“Travel is like a good, challenging book: it demands presentness–the ability to live completely in the moment, absorbed in the words or vision of reality before you. And like serious reading itself, travel has become an act of resistance against the distractions of the electronic age, and against all the worries that weigh us down, thanks to that age. A good book deserves to be finished, just as a haunting landscape tempts further experience of it, and further research into it. Travel and serious reading, because they demand sustained focus, stand athwart the nonexistent attention spans that deface our current time on Earth.”
If that statement resonates with you, then should we leave our smartphones and laptops home before we travel? (Gasp! No Facebook?) It comes down to viewing social media/email/texting as tools versus viewing them as one’s oxygen. Twitter, to me, can be a useful tool. I enjoy reading tweets from travelers and fellow travel writers who are verbalizing some of their first impressions. Each tweet is like a little narrative, a bite-sized thought. You may have even read my tweets sent from @darrinduford when I am on the road. I find a travel tweet akin to a quick, complete thought in a journal, except instead of scrawling the thought down with a pen, the author thumbs it out (clumsily, in my case) on a touch screen or taps it out on a laptop. And it’s a journal everyone can read instantly.
I should qualify something I wrote above by stating that I enjoy reading friends’ travel tweets when I am at home. I save little time for reading them when I am traveling. There will be plenty of time to catch up on their tweets/posts/etc when I am back home. So when I travel, I am mostly a sender as far as social media goes. I am sure I have offended people by giving the impression that I ignore their social media feeds when I travel, but that is not the case. The travel writers out there will (hopefully) understand, and might even employ similar “attention management.” Does such a thing exist? I believe it does now.
Such isolation has bitten me, however. In this age of electronically disseminated information, I have missed receiving notification of deadlines for compilations and writing contests because I have mostly neglected my Twitter and Facebook feeds. On the other hand, I consider such isolation a sign that I have successfully lost myself in a place. Getting lost means you have left the script of preconceived ideas, and, better yet, the place now has your undivided attention.
Is being a sender a horrible thing? Ten years ago, we were all senders. Senders of postcards, that is. When we were traveling, we did not receive others’ postcards because, well, we were far from our mailboxes. And that was okay. Travel tweets can be considered modernized postcards, a medium where a picture from one’s camera can become the picture on the face of the postcard. And the postcard is conveniently sent to all one’s contacts at the same time. As an added bonus, they all receive it immediately.
And about that immediacy thing: when I tweeted about the uniquely Panamanian mix of classic rock and reggaeton I had heard on a bus in Veraguas back in March, I sent the tweet about twelve hours after I had stepped off the bus. Earlier in that day, I was either a) nowhere near a wireless signal and felt no particular urgency to find one, b) engrossed in the activity of a fishing village, c) tucking away shrimp al ajillo, or all three. Only after I had returned to my hotel room very late at night, had called my wife, and had already had my fill of corny Spanish-language game shows (La Muralla Infernal takes the cake) did I begin checking email and tweeting, since there was nothing Panama-related I felt I’d miss. Now, after I have revealed this piece of information in this blog, would any of my followers care? Does the timestamp of a travel tweet diminish its cultural value? I would imagine not.
And take, for instance, when I recently tweeted about digging a roots reggae show in Ithaca. I tweeted about it the next morning, and said so in the tweet. Why? Because, well, during the event, I was enjoying the show with my wife–the colorful lights bouncing off the sweaty foreheads of the musicians, the bobbing dreadlocks in the crowd, the syncopated drum beats keeping the room undulating as if it were a single organism. Imagine that. Enjoying a live concert. Do people indulge in that kind of old-fashioned activity anymore? The time it took to shoot a couple photos of the band was about as much time as I was willing to sacrifice to technology. What benefit would I gain from tweeting during the event? To make my followers jealous?
Up until two years ago, I never brought my phone when traveling internationally. And I still have never lugged my laptop out of North America. I find it a cumbersome liability that requires too much babysitting and marks me as a target for theft, especially when I can just utilize a PC at the internet café around the corner. Especially in Latin America, internet cafes are easy to find and incredibly cheap (for the most part). And many non-chain hotels have a PC or two with free internet access in the lobby, although internet speeds can vary quite a bit. Internet cafes have the added advantage of giving an opportunity to speak the local language to carry out the transaction.
So, from this travel writer’s perspective, I don’t think it is necessary to enter a self-imposed social media blackout on the road. At least not a complete blackout, although I can see how it could be helpful. It’s a question of discipline and what you aim to get out of travel. Let’s face it: it is much more difficult to observe a place, to interact with it, to absorb its flow and rhythm, when one’s snout is shoved into a smartphone screen. Then again, it’s difficult to walk down the sidewalk without bumping into everyone when one’s snout is shoved into a smartphone screen, but that doesn’t seem to stop many people.