The end of being alone: how will travel change in an interconnected world?

Travel affords us a chance to see things many will only encounter in books, a chance to learn about ourselves and the world around us, but there’s another thing I’ve started to think is equally important — travel gives us a chance to be alone.

Not only are we yanked out of our familiar culture and thrust into something new, many of us do so by ourselves. Sure we meet people on the road, make friends, but for even the most outgoing travelers there are moments alone. Moments where there is nothing but us and the world.

Of course that’s rapidly becoming untrue. First television brought snatches of western culture to the rest of the world, and now the internet has percolated its way into the the farthest recesses of the globe. With tools like Facebook, Twitter and instant messaging available at every cybercafe on every corner of the world, it’s harder and harder to get away from it all.

The endgame is that very soon you won’t be able to physically get away from it all. Cell phone reception will be global, perhaps wifi as well. The internet, all your friends and all your distractions will only ever be but a mouse click away.

I’m not a Luddite, far from it. I love Twitter, I love Facebook and some of my best friends are people I met traveling and have kept in touch with via various websites. I like those connections, tenuous and frail though they may be.

But I also like to believe in the notion that I can escape them as well. Physically escape them. While I like the idea of a totally connected world and recognize its inevitability, I think there is also value in having a few dark spots on the map. Even if I’m not there, I think the psychological impact of knowing such places exist is valuable.

The problem is no one wants to live in those dark spots. Wishing there was no cybercafe inside that hut in Tanzania? Maybe you do, but villagers there don’t. They want, they need it. I don’t know about you, but I’m not volunteering my block as a dark spot.

So I find myself seeking out increasingly isolated destinations — Little Corn Island, Nicaragua, villages in the remote hills of Laos and so on — wondering all the while if what I’m really trying to get away from myself, my own habits.

Writer Rob Long went so far as to book passage on a freighter just so he could isolate himself enough to finish a script he was working on.

Why is it so hard to let go of home? The culture, the friends, the web?

Neil Swidey has an interesting piece about the need to be alone and difficulty of doing so in the Boston Globe that’s worth a read.

But here’s the real point: It is dulling our very capacity to ever be alone, or alone in our thoughts. The late British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott popularized the phrase “the capacity to be alone” in the 1950s, to describe a pivotal stage of emotional development… Yet today we’re seeing this capacity weakened, whether we’re in public places known for contemplation, like churches and libraries, or whether we’re just sitting by ourselves at home, losing the fight to resist answering our BlackBerries (just ask our new president) or checking our laptops for Facebook updates.

“We’ve gone from an American ethic that championed the lone guy on a horseback to an ethic of managing multiple data streams,” says Dalton Conley, a sociology professor at New York University and author of the new book Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got From the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety. “It’s very hard for people to unplug and be alone — and be with the one data stream of their mind.”

It is hard, though I haven’t figured out why. I’m old enough to remember the time before the web. In fact the majority of my life happened before the web, but those days seem increasingly vague, more like something I read about in a book than something I actually experienced.

And even though I know that to truly get away takes me changing my own behaviors and habits, I can’t help scanning maps of the world looking for some sort of blank spot. There are still a few, but they’re rapidly disappearing and I’m sure how I’ll feed when the fiber optic cables finally reach the last dark point on the map. It’ll be a few years yet, but it will happen. And then what?

[Photo Credits jiazi, Flickr and René Ehrhardt, Flickr]

Posted by | Comments (3)  | February 24, 2009
Category: Simplicity, Travel Tech, Vagabonding Life

3 Responses to “The end of being alone: how will travel change in an interconnected world?”

  1. joshua Says:

    I agree with Bob. Whatever the ubiquity of of telecommunications, we can always “choose” not to use them. I don’t think their availability changes this. Perhaps we are more tempted, but perhaps that is all the more reason to leave them behind.

  2. Michael Esposito Says:

    I remember that even before the Internet, I thought about the idea of whether or not I was blazing a new trail by traveling to a remote place, but even at that time it was evident that the world was interconnected. In 1980 I recall walking the street of a small, out-of-the-way village in Colombia and hearing Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy”? blaring out of someone’s window. Fast forward to 2000, I walked to a remote beach on a tiny island in the Caribbean, and no one was there, but hanging by the beach was a California license plate! In spite of that, it still is possible to relax, turn off the devices, and enjoy the places we visit – as long as we don’t let all of them get built on or paved over with asphalt!

  3. Karen Says:

    Moving to a culture where you don’t understand the language is a wonderful way to be around people and still be alone in one’s thoughts. Media doesn’t break through, overheard conversations don’t break through, and a nice ride on public transportation allows quality thinking and contemplation time where one’s attention isn’t devoted to the road.