Technology and the change of travel culture

The author re-visits nostalgic past travels which are no longer possible due to world-wide culture changes wrought by technological advances.

1. Intro

The world has changed.

Unfortunately, most people who are going to read this sad lament will never have known what they missed.

Technology tries to make things faster and easier, but never looks at what has been lost along the way. What starts as an advantage or convenience eventually becomes a necessity. And when it becomes a necessity, the corollary is that something else was replaced – or lost.

In many places, you could simply strike up a conversation with someone and have some tea for a few hours. Now the smartphone dominates everywhere.1 Did you know that a mere 15 years ago that without knowing anyone or anything, someone could live in India in relative luxury for $2 / day? In 2012, it had gone up to $200 / month. And now, it might be up to $500. That, perhaps, is caused mainly by economic changes.

Perhaps I’m the wrong person to write this as I have hundreds of stories to tell and many travelers have only a few2 My motto after all was, “If you’re lucky, why not use it?” When travelling, I only booked one-way (or cheaply changed) tickets because I never would know when I would come back. , but I believe we’ve passed an inflection point and that the previous experience of travel is no longer possible.

And that’s what this post is about.

2. The Decline of Hospitality

TJ’s 1st law of travel- Never book a place to stay.

Why not have some faith in the universe and let it decide?

So imagine a time without a mobile phone. Where the only way to send an email was to go to an internet cafe, download an ssh client to the machine, and login to your server. Or use hotmail if that was your thing. If you wanted to go somewhere, you either needed a map or to talk to people. If you wanted to meet someone, you decided a time, and then you went there at that time. Schedules were strict, but the days were never packed like today. And people occasionally took time out of their day to talk to each other.

In my opinion, the main part of travelling is meeting people and experiencing the local culture – not seeing sites. Quite frankly, meeting locals used to be pretty easy, even for me3 I’ve always felt that I was a friendly guy, but, well, I never had much luck in interacting with random people when I was younger. Once I was suckered into fundraising door to door. I made a grand total of $0 after fifty houses and had the police called on me. So for the next time I went out, I was chaperoned by a small asian girl. We hit $150 after 5 houses. I’m extrapolating that I probably didn’t look very friendly. . It has always been very easy to congregate with other travellers, but making friends with the locals happenned frequently also. People would be standing around and literally waiting, so it was very easy to strike up and maintain a conversation – and even learn the language. With mobile phones and the uber-connectedness of the world, this is no longer so easy. The world moves so fast and with so much urgency, who has time to loiter and have a conversation? And even after that, why would a local want to talk to a stranger when they can talk to someone who they already know?4 Unless, you’re maybe a mark or target to get ripped off.

Looking back 20 years ago is like looking at an alternate reality. I have no idea how anyone managed to do anything. I can’t even remember how I met up with people for social events, let alone managed to move to a different country without knowing anyone or booking anything.

2.1. Story

In university, I was awarded a scholarship to study math in Belgium5 I didn’t apply for it, so I still have no idea how in the hell that happenned. ., and a few days before the start of the new semester I packed a bag, booked a one-way flight, and informed a few people that I’ll be out of touch for a semester (or two), but I’ll be in Belgium if they want to visit.

And, of course, with rule #1, I didn’t book any place to stay.

Somehow I managed to go to the wrong city (Leuven - dutch), figured out how to get to the right city (Louvain - the french one), met a girl on the train who miraculously spoke fluent English, and found a place without ever staying in a hotel or hostel.6 Paperwork is my kryptonite. I had waited too long for the international accomodations anyway.

Was I unreasonably lucky? Perhaps.

But whereever I went, there was a general nature of kindness and hospitality. I never worried when I was travelling because if you were in a bind, a stranger would see the situation and help you out or even offer a couch to crash on while you figured things out.

2.2. Reliance on technology

Everything changed with the internet, mobile phone, and Airbnb. You can’t count on the kindness of the local population anymore since they see so many more tourists. Sure, you can still travel and meet other travellers and have a grand old time. But no longer can you go to Istanbul, spend hours drinking tea in some random shop, get invited back to their home for dinner, crash the night, and then go on your merry way. The locals are certainly not as trusting or as kind as they were 20-25 years ago.

I never travelled with a guidebook either, so I was forced to talk to people. Now with digital-connectedness, there is no need to talk to anyone, and in the name of efficiency, you actually can’t talk to anyone. It’s expected that you use the smartphone to figure things out. Before if you arrived in a location and it was late, the owner would probably just let you sleep in the lobby, but now it’s expected you can find another place. In fact, pre-booking is needed far more often.

I’m not sure if this is correlation or causation, but there’s definitely some relationship between technology, the number of travellers, and the relative accepted risk. Even the most risk-averse of my friends were forced to take risks as everything was planned before the trip. You could plan all you want, but once you landed in that foreign airport, who knows what would actually happen. Afterall, the best-created plans rarely survive contact with reality. Maybe you wouldn’t be able to find the bus stop that would carry you up the mountain because there’s no google street view and you didn’t know what a bus stop looked like. It happens. Since there is less risk and it is easier to find things, there are more travellers in more remote locations than ever before. Travelling to Europe was very easy, travelling in India was very hard. I can’t really think of a spot where it is hard to travel now.

And on a different note, there was a secret society of travellers who were willing to help - no strings attached. Travellers took care of their own. Eventually in 2012, I found out that the secret society had a website and it was called Couchsurfing. Literally, you could go and crash on a stranger’s couch with a click of a button. A community of serious travellers and it was extremely safe. I hosted quite a few strangers in my attempt to pay forward my luck.

But alas, the tech industry took something original and unique and tried to monetize it. The original community died an ignoble death (on that site at least) and now from my understanding Airbnb hosts are more friendly and gracious (for a fee).

So in 20 years, smartphones, maps, and rental apps have almost become a necessity. Travellers with guidebooks used to annoy the locals, but now this has been multiplied 100-fold. It’s easier to travel to remote locations than ever. The general goodwill, curiousity, and kindness towards visitors (in non-touristy areas) has been converted to thinking of them as an avenue to make money. Am I the only one who noticed?

And, even more devastating, it seems that people now rely on technology rather than each other. Human interaction has been monetized.

3. The Increase in Lawfulness (and Decrease in Goodness)

It was also a time where it was ok to be chaotic-good. Rules didn’t matter so much as intention of the act.

For example, Captain America starts off Lawful-Good in the first movie and then develops into the Chaotic-Good bearded black suited Captain America who doesn’t give a damn what the government or law or accords said.7 So much more can be said about the story arc of Captain America and Iron Man. Incredible writing and character development.

With all the monitoring, recordings of interactions, and general witch-hunts led by our new age of surveillance, no wonder people are less inclined to do good or even say what they think is right. It can get you in trouble or get you fired. There’s hardly time to explain a misunderstanding, a mistake which you learnt from, or even apologize. It’s a scary time for normal people. Everyone will screw up eventually, except now it may effect you for the rest of your life due to the web.

For instance, could you make Tropic Thunder today? With the use of blackface and the prolific use of the word retard, I’m fairly certain that everyone involved would be skewered.

Dear Interweb,

Text is not a good substitute for tone or intention.
Please give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
Also, please pick another target for your recreational outrage.


Semi-normal person

3.1. Story

So that now brings us to the first part of the second half of the original story.

Remember I made an offer that people could visit me in Belgium?

The reader probably skimmed over the sentence earlier, but trust me, I barely remembered I had made that offer. Especially, when the protogonist of our story showed up at my doorstep from Canada while I was trying to figure out when my exams on quantum scattering and algebriac geometry were supposed to be. The conversation went something like:

“Ummmm, how did you find me?”

“Well, I knew you were in Belgium and I figured you were at a french university. Then when I arrived at the train station, I just asked for TJ and someone brought me here.”

To this day, I have no idea how a guy who couldn’t speak a lick of French managed to find me by saying my name at a train station without having any contact phone number or even knowing if he was in the right city. And on top of that, this was his first solo trip anywhere outside Canada. I’m guessing with a few degrees of freedom, someone found someone found someone that found someone that actually knew me. I’m not even sure if this serendipity can occur in 2020 since everyone has a smart phone.

Regardless, my point stands, hospitality to foreigners/strangers was a real and tangible thing. Communities were formed in person with effort - not online with a few clicks.

“So now that you’re here, let me figure out my exam situation, but I’m pretty sure I have 4-5 days. We can leave tomorrow. Also, you know rule #1, right?”

No, he didn’t know about rule #1, but he went along with it. He had just finished exams and was more open to spontaneity post-breakup with his high-school sweetheart. And so we decided to go east and a few adventures later, we ended up in Geneva to visit CERN, which was definitely an exciting time for a pair of uber-nerdy physics students. But we needed a tour and we certainly didn’t arrange anything. Luckily for us, a post-doc was on their way out, let us in, and gave us a quick tour.

“So, should we start looking for a place to stay tonight TJ?”

“Why don’t we just stay at CERN in this office?”

And after a few days of uncertain sleeping arrangements, our protagonist finally broke down and said, “No, we’re not staying in CERN. Are you bloody insane?!?” Even though I argued against it since you never really know where you’re going to end up, after an additional bit of wrangling, I agreed to buy a hostelling international membership.

But alas, the night was still young. I’ll continue the story later, but how are two random people going to crash at a particle collider nowadays? My guess is that there would be some type of security incident. In fact, I’m sure most of the teenagers that grew up in the before the 10’s would probably be in massive trouble on a weekly basis in today’s environment.

Privacy is foundational to freedom.

4. Being in the moment

TJ’s 2nd law of travel - there’s only law #1, but if you really want a second one, keep a journal.

Writing is great way to keep track of the days and how you’re feeling. Having some pictures is great, but the problem is that even now, I can’t remember that I should take a picture!

I’ve never quite understood how people manage to take pictures. You’re fully engrossed in the moment, and suddenly, oh yah, I need to take a picture? Never quite made sense to me. Why not just go into a hi-def virtual reality instead? Cheaper and more convenient, too.

This is definitely not the old normal. Human behaviour has been massively modified:

  • smartphones are a great tool that have been co-opted to capture our attention with notifications and infinite content. There’s no historic equivalent to this.
  • people are documenting every aspect of their lives and posting to instagram for a bit of fame? A few years ago I went to Cambodia and there were more people taking pictures than actually being in the place.
  • information is readily available via search - there’s no longer any need to talk to people
  • does anyone even remember the dull ache of boredom?
  • isolation is easily combatted with the small dopamine hits from social networks.

There’s a small movement now where I think people are realizing that all these changes are really not that great for living a satisfying life.

Regarding travel, I wouldn’t recommend travelling without a phone now, but imagine going to a new country as a solo traveller without any lifeline back home.

It changes you. At first you’re scared to leave the room you’re in. But eventually, the boredom sets in. You go out and talk to people. And then you realize life is life, realize everything is just fine, and let go of the fear. You can be ok with not being constantly distracted. Life is really dull sometimes and that’s ok. You can talk to strangers and spend your time picking up 80 words of a new language so that you can explore wherever you are. You can hitch a ride in the back of an onion truck between cities. You can help a farmer with their harvest and spend the night. You can compliment someone and make their day.

Life happens when you’re not looking.

4.1. Back to the story

Our protagonist was tired of not knowing where to sleep at night and so we headed back to Geneva. We registered ourselves in a giant hostel with over 20 rooms.

Well, there was no point going to dinner without company, so I proceeded to knock on every door in the hostel.

Yes, another advantage of living in the moment is that you don’t worry about how embarassed you might be 30 seconds into the future.

We met the 6 girls from Duke, the Australian couple, a pair of Canadians from Montreal, etc. However, only a young British chap decided to join us for dinner. And so we went over to grab some pizza and planned on the second phase of the night - beer on the beach.

Eventually, someone pointed us to a store where we could get beer. Unfortunately, it was just about to close, but I caught the eye of someone and I pleaded our case to no avail. And no, there were no other places that were open. The story of some poor foreign students coming to Geneva for the night didn’t seem to be touching enough and we congregrated outside the establishment figuring out our new plans.

A few minutes later, someone came out and gave us several cases of beer. Today, that person probably would be fired because they would be caught on camera. Back then, it was just a minor inconvenience for them, but it made our night. Goodness would trump lawfulness in that moment at least.

Now the story has served the thesis of being in the moment and how people are more lawful and less good when being watched, but there’s one more point regarding rule #1. We booked the hostel, would we even use it?

So we made our way to the beach, set ourselves up, and continued our night. Lo and behold, many of our fellow hostellers also made their way to the beach, but without alcohol. They, too, had tried getting something, but everything was closed. To make a long story short, we had around 10 people join our impromptu beach party. Our protagonist and this girl from Montreal really hit it off. We ran out of beer at midnight. I heard loud music down the street and figured we should move ourselves to the club or party. At 4 am, the two girls said they had to start packing - they were leaving on a train to Venice. And, yes, coincedentally, we were also leaving to Venice on the very same train!8 Actually, I had to make my way back to Belgium to write my exams…I was cutting it pretty close.

So, no, we didn’t use the hostel. And the story does continue, but to summarize:

Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy has heartbreak. Boy goes on a random trip to Europe and visits crazy friend. Boy meets another girl with wingman help. Boy travels all over with girl. Boy returns home feeling better.

5. Conclusion

I feel sad that it is certainly not possible to experience travel in the same way today. And I don’t even consider myself adventuresome!9 I once lived by a lady that biked alone from Johannesburg to North Africa. One of my good friends spends time in the Arctic and getting his socks stolen by the indigenous tribes in whatever jungle he happens to be exploring. Another had to escape Egypt to Sudan on camelback. Meanwhile I turned down a chance to be inside the pyramids on the winter solstice of 2012. That would have been wild - I still have no idea why I declined.

The technology changes in the past 20 years have changed how people interact with each other. Anecdotally:

  • the amount of hospitality has decreased in the world due to people being busier and talking to each other less. People rely on technology rather than each other.
  • the amount of goodness has decreased while lawfulness has increased due to increased surveillance.
  • the amount of people living in the moment has decreased due to attention grabbing and addiction causing smartphones.
A leaf on the wind
Unseen in digital world
Who knows what was missed

Times have changed yet again, so don’t follow TJ’s 1st law of travel. It was meant for a different time without world-wide pandemics.10 And it’s clearly the product of a deranged mind.

But for those that have a sense of adventure, I’m very curious. For those in their early twenties, is it possible to travel without a smartphone, internet, or guidebooks anymore? Let me know at contact at sheer tj please.

Date: 2020-12-06