Lonely Planet Writer

Travel debate: has technology ruined travel?

Has technology ruined travel? Has our obsession with, and reliance on, gadgetry stopped us from being brave bounders climbing mountains and turned us into a horde of shuffling tweeters? To argue the question, Lonely Planet's US travel editor Robert Reid gets into the ring with Lonely Planet's Community Manager Venessa Paech.

In the 'Yes it has ruined travel!' corner, Robert says:

In the rockumentary 'It Might Get Loud,' White Stripes' founder Jack White says 'Technology is a big destroyer of emotion and truth. Yeah, it makes it easier... But that's a disease you have to fight in any creative field: ease of use.'

He's talking rock music, but I see travel as a creative field too. Going to a place and trying to find authentic experiences, be it hunting down a winner baguette, making friends at a soccer game, or watching the sun dip down over a lake. The best comes with time to pass, and time to absorb where we are. It's an analog landscape.

Certainly technology makes accessing information and documenting things easy. Digital cameras allow amateurs to take hundreds of shots till they get that Coliseum shot right. Smart phones can remind us the capital of Paraguay, and let us send instant-messages, tweets or capture video. But that's sort of the problem too. Convenience means we immerse less. Before email, when you were in a place, you were in a place.

I remember 15 years ago, having to hunt down public phones in India to give progress reports to my concerned mama back in Oklahoma. After several miscommunication hurdles in Udaipur, locals gifted me snacks in a long line in a post office. I munched and took a photo a cute handwritten sign that forbid weapons unless you were a Sikh, in which it was "OK to carry a sword on your person." A memorable hour or so of everyday life. And I can't imagine why I'd ever really need to go there now. I'd just send an email from the back of a cab.

Instant virtual access means less time to absorb your real surroundings. If you have just one or two chances to photograph that Coliseum with 35mm camera, and don't see immediate results, I bet you you'll look at the original longer. And probably see it better too. Technology may make travel easier, and I do use it, but our experiences come diminished.

And fighting the pro-technology fight, we have Venessa:

Ah technology. Everybody’s favourite straw man. When it’s not corrupting our youth and stealing our souls, it’s killing travel. In actual fact, technology is making more of us travel, further, than ever before. The age of the social web is the age of the niche – whatever our travel passion, we’ll find like-minded souls to help us make it happen. The online brains trust of traveler reviews and Google mapplications gives formerly nervous nomads the confidence to get up and go. Off the beaten track, once out of reach, is now within our grasp, with geo-smarts and real-time assistance from locals at your fingertips. Even if we’re offline when we get there, technology can make getting there smoother and richer.

Travelling alone can make some people feel vulnerable. The ability to access and manage flight details, transport schedules, instantly translate languages and check in with home while still on the road can transform trembling into intrepid.

In our unstable 21st century, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods and tsunamis are a devastating reality of our travelling lives and can create terrible chaos. Technology is a travelers ally here too, delivering critical updates, web access when it counts, and the chance to turn misfortune into opportunity (downloading free guides if you’re stranded, or connecting on Facebook or Twitter with nearby strangers for ride or accommodation shares). Like it or not, we rely on technology to plan our travels. Our gadgets and networks help us keep it together when it’s falling apart.

Has technology changed travel? Undoubtedly. Has it killed our wanderlust? Only if we let it.

Rebuttal

Robert: I use technology all the time. I fly with e-tickets, I tweet and email and blog, take hundreds of digital shots, edit videos with breezy software back home. To shun all technology is like marching into Agincourt without a long bow. It's the way things are going, and will continue to go. That's fine. But no matter how hard a few try to keep fires lit on travel's wanderlust, all that that accessibility and convenience - making it easier for more to go farther, do more - means we'll immerse less than we used to. We already are.

Venessa: Finding those white spaces amidst the white noise is travel at its best. But it's not technology that threatens moments of reflection and immersion. It's speed. Remember Clark Griswold? People were rushing through destinations, checking off the itinerary and the icons at breakneck pace long before the internet. Technology offers new ways to refract and reflect, giving us tools to set our own internal travel rhythm.

So what do you think? Let's hear it!