Travel Has Been Completely Transformed by Technology. Is That Good or Bad?
If I could go back in time to travel the way people used to, would I?
Michael and I have arrived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, but Michael’s been having problems with his sim card, so he doesn’t yet have coverage on his phone. A few days ago, he wanted to do some wandering in the morning before I got up, and he asked if he could take my phone.
“Sure,” I said. “We’re in a new city, and I don’t want you to get lost.”
But when I woke that morning and found my phone gone, I had a bit of a panic attack. I didn’t mind being phone-less for a few hours, but I did think: What if Michael loses my phone? What will we do then? My whole life is in that thing!
Michael returned an hour later, and my phone was safe and sound.
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But it got me thinking about how much travel has been changed by the existence of smartphones — and technology in general.
We made our plane reservations online, from Seattle to Kuala Lumpur, and also uploaded all the needed documents and even checked in for our flight the day before.
We checked out hotel reviews and made online reservations for lodging at the Seattle airport and here in Kuala Lumpur, also notifying the latter of our post-midnight check-in time.
At the airport, much of the security and boarding process is now automated, and on the flight itself, we both did work on our laptops, read downloaded books on our Kindles, and watched our chosen movies from hundreds of choices on the airline’s individual entertainment units. The screen also kept me abreast of our exact flight progress.
At the airport, we used my phone to call a rideshare — an app called Grab here in Malaysia — which showed me our entire route in advance and also took care of all transactions. We’ve since used rideshare to get all over the city, never worrying about having to find a taxi.
We researched the city online, checking out more reviews, making reservations, and/or buying advance tickets to all the places we want to visit. In many cases, we bypass ticket booths entirely, and in some places, there is no ticket booth. It seems pretty clear that this will soon be the norm, at least in wealthier countries.
We’ve arranged pick-up and transportation to our next destination, Penang, where we’ve also booked our apartment there. Airbnb gave us a ton of information and also allowed us to ask very specific questions and negotiate a price that was satisfactory to both parties.
When out and about in the city, we’ve used my phone to navigate where we’re going, making it impossible to ever be “lost,” and we’ve checked online reviews of the restaurants we’ve eaten at. We sometimes order food online for delivery too.
At night, we’ve watched exactly what we wanted on our laptops — even American streaming services, thanks to VPNs. Sometimes we hook our laptops up to apartment and hotel televisions, but I can’t think of the last time we actually watched their programming.
We’ve met up with a number of friends who happen to be in town, most of whom we originally connected with via social media. All these rendezvous were coordinated via our phones.
Michael’s taken God-only-knows-how-many pictures on his new Pixel phone, all of them now stored in the cloud — and he uses Adobe Lightroom, an online program, to do all of his photo editing magic.
And, of course, we’ve kept in touch with American and international news via various news apps, and we’ve stayed in touch with various groups of friends via messaging, video, and social media.
I’m sure no one is shocked by any of this. It’s all obvious stuff, the kind of thing we all do all the time now, at least in wealthier countries.
But come on! Our lives have been completely transformed by all this new technology. Fifteen years ago, modern smartphones barely existed. Now Michael didn’t even want to leave our hotel without a connection of some kind — and I absolutely didn’t blame him.
It’s partly because the world has adapted to all this new technology, making smartphones increasingly essential. When was the last time you saw a working pay phone or an actual phone book — or even a real atlas or roadmap? And we’ve also all responded to these technological changes, with much less of an ability to create and imagine mental maps.
When it comes to travel, you had to interact more with locals before because you had no choice. Beforehand, you knew much less about each other too. There was a lot more mystery in the people and the places you visited.
I was surprised by the emotional reaction I had when my all-important phone was out of my own control, even for just a few hours. Currently, almost seven billion people own a smartphone — an astounding 87% of the world’s population. This is way more than the number of people who have flush toilets (60%) or running water (74%).
Are the changes that come from all this new technology “good”?
When it comes to travel, I think many are, sometimes ridiculously so. For the consumer, using a rideshare is so superior to the inscrutable and ridiculously corrupt taxi industry that it’s almost laughable.
Technology has made the entire travel experience much, much easier, and so much more convenient — which is why so many more people are doing it now. Twenty-five million people took an international trip in 1950, and 1.4 billion did in 2018.
And sure, there have always been “nomads” of some kind, but “digital nomads” as we know them today basically require all these digital advancements.
Technological changes have also brought the world closer together — made us much more connected, given us more information about each other, and also, yes, made us far more homogenous. Globalism is happening whether any of us like it or not.
Which means this is a good place to point out some of the problems that come from all this new technology: overtourism, the over-exploitation of resources, and increased economic inequality (at least in some places, by some measures — it’s complicated).
In short, technology solved a hell of a lot of our problems, but not all of them. And it also created entirely new problems. A couple of weeks ago, we all learned that depression and suicide are way, way up among young people in the United States, in part because of Covid and school closures, sure, but come on — it’s obviously all about the damn phones.
When it comes to travel, here’s another question worth asking: has technology made leaving home so incredibly easy, and made the world so much more homogenous, that travel has become a fundamentally different experience than, say, sixty or even twenty years ago?
Of course, when something is gained, something is always lost. And opinions always vary on whether the changes have been good or bad.
At dinner the other night, a good friend — a feminist lesbian in her late 40s, and also a big technophile — said something that surprised me: “I love all the new technology, and I use everything. But if I had a chance to go back to the 80s, before all these new changes, I think I’d do it.”
I told her I was surprised to hear this from her.
“People are more in touch now,” she went on. “People are always in touch. But people were more connected back then. There was a much stronger sense of community.”
I nodded, even if we both quickly agreed that all the usual caveats apply — that these things aren’t necessarily true for everyone, and that different races, genders, and out-groups had different experiences then and now. As always, life is complicated.
But having lived before and after the massive technological changes of the last few decades, I knew exactly what she meant. People do connect less now, even if people are far more connected. The epidemic of loneliness in America? The rise in nationalism throughout the world? The political insanity of America’s last eight years?
To my mind, these things are also directly related to all the recent technological changes.
I remember the time before pretty clearly. Sometimes I watch new movies or television shows set in 70s and 80s, and I think, “The portrayal of this time period is about as accurate as the way Egypt is portrayed in that old movie, The Ten Commandments. It shows the bad and the ridiculous, but it completely ignores the good.”
Then again, historical fiction is like science fiction: it’s not really about different time periods. It’s writers using different time periods to mostly express contemporary values.
Life didn’t seem simple back in the 80s, not at the time. But compared to now, it was absolutely simpler. And this is more than me looking back through the miasma of nostalgia: I’m talking as a gay man who was then living through the thick of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Traveling the world for the last six years, I’m struck by how, for all their problems, communities almost always seem much stronger outside of the tech-obsessed United States — more like America used to be. People interact more. Families are much tighter.
But, well, when something is gained, something really is lost. When it comes to technology, I really do think it’s been too much change too fast. I love the conveniences — and all the great bells and whistles — but it’s obviously caused some very serious social problems.
So how would I personally answer my friend’s question? If I had a chance to go back in time and live the rest of my life from the 80s onward, would I do it?
No. I recognize that travel absolutely was more exciting and adventurous back then, but I couldn’t give up the conveniences and safety of all this new technology. And despite America’s terrifying collapse in community and social trust, I would refuse to surrender all our hard-won social progress, which is also at least partly due to the new technology.
That said, ask me again in five years. Depending on what happens next, I could still change my mind.
Brent Hartinger is a screenwriter and author. Check out my new newsletter about my books and movies at www.BrentHartinger.com.