Since I’ve written quite a bit about how electronic technology is transforming travel, I enjoyed reading “GPS and the End of the Road,” Ari N. Schulman’s essay in the Spring 2011 issue of The New Atlantis. In the essay, Schulman posits that GPS devices, along with “location awareness” apps like HearPlanet and Layar, are diminishing the sense of freewheeling travel discovery and possibility portrayed by writers like Jack Kerouac.
“How would new technology of location affect an On the Road today?” Schulman writes. “Can we imagine its characters, and by extension ourselves, escaping into the Western night, navigating by GPS and choosing where to go with Yelp, supplied with surrounding-relevant multimedia by GeoTour, encountering city streets with their iPhones held up and overlaying the view, and still having the same adventure? Something about this image is absurd.”
Schulman illustrates how Mark Twain’s Huck Finn uses the river as a metaphor for adventure and discovery and escape. As technology constrained the possibilities of river travel in the 20th century, this symbol gave way to the metaphoric “road” of Kerouac’s novel. “Seen in the right way,” Schulman writes, “what the two novels show us is not the virtue of quitting civilization, but the freedom that comes from finding our own way through a world that is not of our own making — and with it, a glimpse of the possibility of reaching out beyond our everyday selves into something greater.” By contrast, the hypothetical “GPS-enabled, location-aware adventures of Sal and Dean or Huck and Jim somehow sound dreary before they have begun, filled with anticlimax, boredom, and restlessness.”
GPS navigation, in its present form, …dulls our receptivity to our surroundings by granting us the supposed luxury of not having to pay attention to them at all. In travel facilitated by “location awareness,” we begin to encounter places not by attending to what they present to us, but by bringing our expectations to them, and demanding that they perform for us as advertised. In traveling through “augmented reality,” even the need for places to perform begins to fade, as our openness to the world gives way to the desire to paper over it entirely. It is an admission of our seeming distrust in places to be sufficiently interesting on their own. But in attempting to find the most valuable places and secure the greatest value from them, the places themselves become increasingly irrelevant to our experiences, which become less and less experiences of those places we go.
The argument that the experience of a place is something that “must be worked for, achieved in stages and through struggles” isn’t new (it’s been around since at least the advent of trains and steamships), but Schulman points out how 21st century technologies are transforming our lexicon for engaging with the world:
If feeling “connected” for us means inhabiting the virtual realm, then what we most long to connect to is not what is in front of our eyes. When we speak of feeling “disconnected,” then, we are confessing that we have become displaced: we are losing interest in and forgetting how to inhabit real places on their own. This displacement produces restlessness — but of a very different sort than the restlessness that motivates the traveler to go forward into the world. In fact, this restlessness is opposed to the traveler’s impulse: it seeks its relief not in the real world but the virtual.
Schulman’s full essay is online here. For an inverse perspective — one that explores how digital technology could be broadening the lives of normal folks in Africa — check out J.M. Ledgard’s essay “Digital Africa” in the Spring 2011 issue of Intelligent Life magazine.
Social networks have made a dramatic impact on travel. During my first backpacking trip in 2004, I relied on e-mail addresses to stay in touch with the new friends I was making. I once met a girl in Paris. Later into my trip, I was shocked to run into her at my hostel in Edinburgh. What a small world!
That kind of thing would not have happened today. We’d have added each other as friends on Facebook, she would have put a status update on her profile saying she was in Edinburgh, and I’d have messaged her before my arrival. Since people change e-mail addresses more often than their social networks, adding people is a safer way to stay in contact. Work and school e-mails are notoriously temporary.
The travel startup Tripl created an infographic that appeared in TechCrunch: More Americans are on Facebook than have a passport. A sad statistic, indeed. The infographic says 50% of Americans connect with friends and family on Facebook, while only 37% hold a passport. It continues on to say that 72% of travelers access social networks while on the road. As someone who’s waited in line at hostels while guests are checking their Facebook feeds, I was surprised the number wasn’t even higher.
On the flip side, the statistics say that only 7% of travelers use mobile internet on the road. I think that’s due to the lack of universal standards in networks. Your mobile phone in one country often won’t work in another, because your telecom carrier handicaps your phone. That and the absurdly high cost of roaming charges. From interacting with backpackers, very few use mobile phones abroad unless they’re living abroad. I usually leave the phone at home and solely rely on public computers to reach my friends via the Internet.
In brighter news, it seems like about half of the users said Facebook photos inspired their trips, and also makes them visit friends who are living overseas. I will say that a trip is much richer if you have someone to meet up with over there, who can show you around.
How do you use social networks when you travel? Are they more help or hindrance? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
In my last couple of blog posts, I waxed poetic about the life of a digital nomad. As a counterpoint, here’s a fine article that appeared in the Orange-County Register: Digital detox for a trip to Italy. Gary Warner, the newspaper’s travel editor, decided to cut off the electronic umbilical cord for an entire vacation. With today’s gadgets and social networks, many of us have become used to (addicted to?) instant feedback from our friends. Going cold turkey can be tough.
Warner is no Luddite and tech-basher. He does acknowledge how technology can enrich travel and make it more convenient. However, he does point out a big danger: technology can bring home on the trip with you, with all its attendant baggage and stress. In his words:
I found the computer and phone gave me an agitated feeling. My body might be on the road, but my head was at my desk thousands of miles away. Even GPS had stripped away the serendipity of getting wonderfully lost. Did I really need–did I really want–the “least time” route from Skye to Inverness?
Warner’s observations are similar to the ethos our own Rolf Potts trumpeted in his book Vagabonding. An over-reliance on things like the Internet might blind us to the exotic locale we came all this long way to discover.
Here are some things I do to moderate my dose of technology:
–Leave your devices at home. This is the most drastic step–but also the most effective. It’s easy to resist temptation when it’s “out of sight, out of mind.” I’ve done all my trips without carrying a laptop. Internet cafes are everywhere, even in some of the least developed countries I’ve been, like Burma. You can get online when you need to.
–Get online early in the morning. People are asleep, businesses are closed, so you’re not missing out on anything. If you check e-mail sometime later in the day or evening, you risk losing your chance to meet cool new people or have an unforgettable experience.
–Batch your Internet time. Compress all your activity into one hour or two, and then log off once your time is up. When you start racking your brain for websites to look up, it means you’ve finished your necessary business and should get offline.
–Read, but don’t reply. I’ve easily wasted hours by writing blow-by-blow accounts in e-mails to friends. Unless it’s really urgent, it’s better to postpone replying to every message you get.
–Don’t get caught up in documenting every aspect of your trip. With blogging and social networks, it’s easy to get sidetracked by “recording” your travels with photos, video, and text updates. Rather than living our travels. This is why I always write posts on my travel blog after I’ve returned from a place, not while I’m there. While I do keep a travel journal, I strictly write bullet-point lists of key events and details, not full-length stories. I save that heavy-duty writing for my blog (Marcus Goes Global). Your record-keeping style may vary, though.
Have you ever been cut off from the Internet for an extended length of time? Were you excited to get online and see all the messages from your friends? But have you ever been disappointed by what was in your inbox? Warner sure was:
Of course, I re-toxed as soon as I got home. Though it was past midnight when we finally came in the door from the airport, I pulled my devices from the drawer and fired them up. More than 1,200 emails, more than 1,000 tweets from feeds . . . When I scrolled and clicked through it all, I found I had missed absolutely nothing that mattered.
In a way, this reinforces that we can live without technology. Warner’s home life didn’t collapse while he was unplugged. For more, please check out Rolf Potts’ interview with Gary Warner.
Have you met people who couldn’t seem to get offline? How do you keep from over-using technology? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
It’s been many years since I’ve heard someone make a call from an airplane using those seat-back phones: “Hey, you’ll never guess where I’m calling you from.” I suppose that’s part of the allure for calling or tweeting from remote places. Recently, mountaineer Kenton Cool tweeted from Everest’s summit, and then called his wife. If you thought Everest was one of the few places that were immune from social networking, you can cross it off your list now.
Only a few years ago, I was completely off the grid when I visited my home in Honduras. I’d have to take a boat ride for an hour to use the telephone—when it worked. Cell service was nonexistent. Now, I can email from my place while looking at three cell phone towers on the nearby mountains.
Lamenting the days of getting off the map and away from technology is a waste of time. Ultimately, it’s all under your control. Want to get away from email, Facebook and Twitter? Don’t use it. You don’t even have to leave your gear at home. Just determine when you want to connect and when you don’t. This week, I’m in Colombia and will be in the jungle part of the time. I’m relishing the ability to shut everything off and ignore my electronic leash.
How about you? Do you yearn to shout from the social network mountaintop when you’re connected in a remote place, or would you rather just enjoy and talk about it later?
Looking to take your work on the road with your travels? The technology is available. There is a lack of role models, though. It would be great if we all knew digital nomads we could learn from. What would you ask a successful one if you had the chance?
Enter Chris Jankulovski. The CEO of Remote Staff gave a behind-the-scenes look at his cool lifestyle in this in-depth interview on Mixergy. You have the choice of watching their video chat or reading the transcript.
Beyond discussing the tools of the trade, Jankulovski gives an honest and informative opinion on the ups and downs of working in this modern way.
For example, how do you focus on getting things done when you’ve got the world’s most beautiful scenery on your doorstep? How do you deal with the added complexity of bringing your family on the road? Jankulovski answers all of these hard questions and more.
Some of the most interesting parts were about how travel shaped his view on relationships. I won’t spoil it, but Jankulovski took a surprisingly direct approach to meeting dating partners abroad. Not the usual encountering someone at a hostel.
Have you worked remotely? Please share your experiences in the comments.
More and more of our data is digital. It’s valuable, and we should be as careful with our information as we are with our wallet or purse. Since these possessions are virtual, however, it can be easy to neglect them.
The New York Times had a great piece titled Threats to Traveling Data. While mostly aimed at business travelers, the issues raised apply to everyone who logs on in a foreign country.
The tech world was rocked by the controversial Firesheep. An extension for Firefox, it allows anyone to become a hacker by spying on anyone using a Wi-Fi connection. Eric Butler, the developer of Firesheep, intended to raise awareness of the gaping security holes in most websites. He succeeded, as the online community went into a frenzy. Here’s a commentary article by TechCrunch: Firesheep in Wolves’ Clothing.
Here are some tips:
–Bring your own computer. Internet cafés can be easily infected with malware, since anyone can use their public computers. Having your own laptop or netbook can reduce this risk.
–Don’t use wireless Internet. It’s much easier for hackers to tap into Wi-Fi vs. a hardwired connection.
–Only log into websites with HTTPS. This is a protocol that encrypts your user name and password, to prevent anyone else from seeing this data.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has created a web browser plugin called HTTPS Everywhere. This forces your browser to call up the secure login pages for popular websites like Facebook and Twitter. However, HTTPS may disable some popular apps from working.
–At the login page, always un-check the “remember me” or “remember my password” feature before logging in to the site. If you have many user accounts, you might want to take up a trusted password manager like LastPass.
–At the end of an Internet session, clear the history and cookies in the web browser. That way, the next person who uses your computer can’t find out which sites you’ve visited and your login details. For most browsers, you have to go into “Tools” > “History” > “Clear History.”
–Don’t use Windows and Internet Explorer. Since they are the most popular programs, hackers specifically try to breach them. With Apple and its devices overtaking PCs, it’s likely they will be increasingly targeted in the future. Some would say it’s already happening, and the company doesn’t admit the problem: Apple won’t give users free virus protection. (FYI: I use Ubuntu, a Linux-based operating system.)
Have you ever gotten hacked? Got more tips? Please share in the comments.
UPDATE: WorkShifting is holding a $10,000 contest for digital nomads. Details at Freedom Let Go contest.
The Internet and web apps have freed a generation of people to work from anywhere they choose. This is a relatively new movement, so it’s hard to find reliable information about telecommuting. Beyond technology, what about the other challenges? Some examples are loneliness, negotiating remote agreements with employers/clients, etc.
Enter WorkShifting. It’s a blog dedicated to helping people with the ups and downs of working from anywhere. While not exclusively about travel per se, digital nomads will find many articles that are loaded with useful advice.
Interestingly enough, WorkShifting is actually a corporate blog. It’s run by Citrix Systems, which provides networking and cloud computing tools. You’d never guess it from the site, since Citrix has been admirably restrained in promoting themselves. In addition, the blog is staffed by top bloggers and tech entrepreneurs, rather than just employees.
WorkShifting on Twitter is worth following. They find cool links from around the Web, instead of just trying to drive traffic back to the blog.
Are you a digital nomad? What websites and blogs do you follow? Please share in the comments.
It’s the dream of many vagabonders: to earn money online while working remotely. But as anyone who’s done a Google search for “make money online” knows, there are a lot of scams out there. Finding credible, honest information can be difficult.
That’s why it was so refreshing to read about a vagabonder who gave the straight scoop: Digital nomad, Jason Batansky tells he how traveled the world.
He outlines his methods and gives good advice. While Jason certainly believes you can fund your travels from working on the Internet, he avoids making outrageous claims of fast and easy riches. For a techno-age entrepreneur, his principles are decidedly old-school: finding a need, providing a solution, and offering good customer service. Good rules to do business by, online and offline.
On another tack, Jason was also upfront about the difficulties of long-term travel. He was forthright about how being on the road made him appreciate home more. An important lesson he learned about himself was the need for more of a permanent base, since he was not truly happy until he had more lasting friendships with people. While travel can definitely be exciting and magical, road weariness is a serious issue for vagabonders.
For more details, check out Jason’s travel blog, Locationless Living.
What are your thoughts? Are you a digital nomad? Please share your opinions in the comments.
Claire Litton wrote earlier this week about traveling low-res as a genuine option to lugging all those i-products around. The timing was right on the heels of my recent digital breakdown.
I probably should have known better than to plan to do a few social media updates and minor editing tasks while I was spending a long weekend in St. Kitts. My cellular carrier assured me that I’d be able to get service on the island, and I brought along my iPad so I could take advantage of the Wi-Fi in the common areas of my hotel. It’s not like I planned to spend a lot of time online. With all that availability, I’d just be able to connect when I wanted to.
What happened? No cellular service. (It turns out that I could have changed that by manually reprogramming my phone, but I had no idea. Lesson learned.) And the reliable Wi-Fi in the hotel? Not reliable. I spent the first 24 hours worried that I’d miss something. But then, I calmed down and realized that it wasn’t the biggest deal and others would understand.
I’m not proud that I’ve allowed technology to get the better of me. But it’s taught me a lesson: Plug in only when it’s essential and it means a paycheck that you can’t do without. Even then, if you can plan in advance to avoid it, do so. Technology may be convenient, but real relaxation doesn’t need a thing.
The rapid advances in communications technology are enabling people to work from anywhere. This can be a big relief for people who stress over choosing between traveling and their careers. Luckily, now you don’t have to give up either.
Six Revisions, a blog for web designers and developers, wrote a great article on How to set up an effective mobile office. It covers the hardware and web apps you’ll need to get the job done while on the road. Technology isn’t perfect, however. The piece does talk about some of the pitfalls and traps of not working in a traditional office.
The time difference can be a big headache. Imagine if your client is in a country that’s 12 hours ahead of where are you are now. You’d be perpetually be behind deadline. Or worse, the client wants to be able to call you for support, but they call you at 4:00 a.m.
For a more in-depth list of good tools, take a look at 50 essential web apps for freelancers. Published by the AppStorm website, this list describes web-based programs that can do virtually anything you’d need to get work done. Using web apps can free up resources on your computer. Another advantage is that if your laptop gets stolen or broken, your workflow is still safe. With everything stored in the “cloud,” you don’t have to worry about losing a computer. You can get back on the Internet and be working again in no time.
I’d like our readers to share their thoughts on this. Do you use a laptop or a netbook? I’ve heard some people get away with just having a USB drive with their preferred operating system and files stored on it. Or sticking with Internet cafes, although I’d be concerned about security.
When our Rolf Potts did his no-baggage trip, he only used an iPod touch with a roll-up keyboard to write for his RTW blog.
Anything we missed? Please post your suggestions in the comments.