This Is Why I’m Not Taking My Phone To India Tomorrow
Technophobe: To Be or Not To Be
I’m leaving for India tomorrow, and one thing that I’m not packing with me is my iPhone. Yes, that very same phone that I use to take pictures with and to then upload to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The same phone I use to check my multiple e-mail accounts every 10 minutes or so when I’m not sitting at my computer or, gasp, out of cell range. The same phone I use to listen to my daily podcasts, check in on the news while I’m waiting in line, respond to text messages within minutes of receiving them, upload videos using Vine, check the hourly weather forecast, and to find out where I am and how to get to where I’m going using Google Maps. In other words, I’m going to attempt not to be distracted while I’m traveling.
Now don’t get me wrong, as anyone that knows me can attest, I’m the opposite of a technophobe. I was one of the first people to upgrade my phone to the iPhone 5 when it was released. I much rather text than to have to sit on the phone and carry on a normal conversation. I run this blog, which if anyone who maintains their own site knows, it’s not for the digital faint of heart. I even have a Reddit account. Suffice it to say, there’s little in the digital world I haven’t adopted — except for a couple of exceptions.
If you walk into my bedroom, you’ll notice that there are stacks of books lying around. Those are the ones I haven’t read. In my closet, stacked on top of each other next to my out-of-season clothes, are the books I’ve read (at least the ones I’ve read in the past six months or so). Take a look in the closet of my old bedroom at my parents’ house or their storage area above the garage, and you’ll find boxes and shelves full of my old books. Given that we’re several years into the e-book era, one may ask: Why would you carry on this Baroque tradition of reading text on dead trees?
It’s not because I like clutter, but it’s because I like books. Specifically, I like the experience of reading physical books rather than those on a screen. I’ve read a few books on my phone while toiling away in the subterranean depths of New York’s subway system. I had a pleasurable experience reading White Fang during a stretch of the winter of 2012, and I even re-read a free digital copy of Siddhartha on my phone last summer (as incongruous as that may seem). But even then I could tell, the experience wasn’t the same. The words didn’t sink in as well for me. The story didn’t seem to capture me as much as I was reading it. And when I was done, as odd as it sounds, the pleasure of getting to the last page and finishing the book was completely missing as I simply hit the “Home” button after finishing. Essentially, I think traveling with a phone is like reading a book on a tablet.
Technology Has Changed Travel the Past Five Years
Most of my international travel has occurred in the past five or so years, an odd time when phones transitioned into things that flipped into things that did everything. When I traveled to Argentina and Chile in November of 2007, bringing a phone with me didn’t even cross my mind. My Verizon Razr flip phone wouldn’t work in Mexico let alone Argentina. Besides, everyone I knew was aware I’d be traveling, so they wouldn’t bother calling or texting me. Other than that, I had my camera with me, and the hostels I stayed at all had computers. What use would I have for a phone?
As each year went by and phone technology changed, I ran into a few inconveniences by not having a phone while traveling, but nothing dire. There were the occasional instances in which I was to meet someone at some fixed location, and when I or they were running late, we couldn’t just shoot each other a text. This resulted in one of us having to wait a few extra minutes in the dark. No big deal.
I remember a time in Cartagena when I met a backpacker as I was exploring the city. We had lunch and wandered together for a bit. When we parted in the afternoon, I suggested that they meet up with me and a few friends I had made at the hostel for dinner later that night. Not knowing where we’d be going, I suggested they simply meet me in a certain square at 7 p.m. How quaint is that? A fixed meetup at a certain time, made in person no less, rather than by text or Facebook. It was like I had stepped into some sort of black-and-white travelogue featuring Ingrid Bergman and Jimmy Stewart. Today, if that happened in New York, we would’ve exchanged numbers or friended each other on Facebook. We would’ve then texted back and forth until a time and location was finally set. Then, inevitably, because we were both on phones, someone would be running late. But no worries, we would have just shot a quick text: “Runnin l8, b there in 20.” Not that that’s bad, but it’s a different experience, one that lacks the spontaneity and commitment that people felt for years.
Besides the quaint notion of predetermined meet-ups, when you travel without a phone, it’s inevitable that you become more aware of your surroundings. No longer do you fret about snapping a picture for Instagram, or about checking in on Facebook to see what other interesting things your friends are doing at that exact same time. When you’re traveling around country “X”, un-wired and un-harnessed from the digital world, a funny thing begins to happen: You suddenly find yourself actually there. You take in your surroundings without distractions. The smells become more pungent, the sounds become clearer and the experience of being there becomes actually real rather than a digital abstraction.
A Scientific American study revealed that even small digital distractions (those lasting less than 3 seconds) can significantly affect your focus and memory. Just as in having to enter a random string of letters while in the middle of an unrelated task (as what occurred in the study), constantly checking your e-mails or updating your status or snapping a picture can severely impact your experience while traveling.
Think about it: Recall all those thoughts you had while walking in a crowded market in a foreign country. What type of fruit is that? I wonder where the seller is from? How is it that this market exists here whereas a supermarket would’ve replaced this if we were one country over? What would it had meant if I had been born here? These strings of thought come naturally, and they often come in sequence to one another. To interrupt these thoughts with your phone would act as an artificial braking system to your own thought consciousness, and even worse, would impact the memories you have after you leave.
Am I Really “Going off the Grid”?
That’s all find and good Matt, but don’t you spend an inordinate amount of time wandering around a city taking video of yourself talking to the camera and shooting B-roll for your travel videos? Isn’t that just the very technical distraction that you’re speaking of? Yes, it’s true, I don’t exactly go Robinson Crusoe when I travel. I have a pretty good camera I picked up a couple years ago, and I use it often to take pictures and video probably much more than the average traveler.
I really like taking pictures, and I like doing video even more. And yes, there are plenty of times that I waste a good amount time in some incredibly scenic spot overlooking an ancient Mayan temple or wandering a little-visited food market fidgeting with my camera and setting up shots of myself pretending to nonchalantly take in the beauty around me. But like I said, I am wrapped up in this tech world to a certain degree, and travel pictures and video is a very important part of this. However, I am at least aware of these distractions. Therefore, whenever I travel, I am sure to at least put some time aside (usually at night) where I decide to leave the camera home and I will not worry about missing a certain shot while I’m out and about. You can’t document everything, and even if you could, you shouldn’t.
Second, I can justify some use of this technology by the fact that it has often enabled me to explore and see more than what I normally would have. Creating travel video has allowed me to interview an archivist at the Guinness Factory in Dublin, explore parts of Montreal that I had missed before, and even wake up early after a rough night out in Quebec City to explore its Old Town — something I probably would’ve skipped if not for the internal pressure to get that segment of my video.
In other words, knowing that I will be distracted by technology, I make sure that that the technology will at least be an enabler and a facilitator of experiences, rather than the opposite. It doesn’t always work out that way, but I at least try.
So, yes, it’s guaranteed that I will get lost much more often since I will not have Google Maps in my palm to help guide my way. I will likely have more difficulty meeting up with new friends I make along the way, and I will miss out on responding to some e-mails right away, but I’m fine with that. It’s in those experiences — being forced to ask a stranger for directions, mistakenly wandering into a neighborhood that you otherwise would have missed, spending time exploring rather than e-mailing — when those true travel experiences occur.
For those of you interested, I will be live-Tweeting my trip here: @TheExpeditioner, and updating TheExpeditioner.com with pictures and video along the way. Just don’t expect them to be timely — I’ll have to wait until I’m back in my room on my computer to post anything. My phone will be turned off and at home.
By Matt Stabile
[India Phone by Dipanker Dutta/Flickr]
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matt Stabile is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Expeditioner. The Expeditioner was founded in 2008 and is headquartered in New York City. You can read his writings, watch his travel videos or contact him at any time at TheExpeditioner.com. (@TheExpeditioner)