I can browse the furthest corners of Earth sitting on the couch scrolling through my Instagram feed. With the world at my finger tips, what have I got left to discover for myself? Every track is well beaten, documented and reviewed on Trip Advisor. A lounge area in a hostel filled with people wearing headphones, staring at a screen. A joke at the expense of those who say it is easy to meet people on the road. A sandwich board outside a bar reads “Anyone have plans to stare at their phone somewhere exciting this weekend?” It seems impossible to go anywhere, or do anything without packing at least one form of technology.
I am no exception. I travel with my iPhone, my Macbook Air, and my Kindle. In the past I’ve travelled with a camera and an iPod as well, but the iPhone eliminated my need for these. Before I came to Australia I was against having a smart phone. Why did I need a device that did anything more than make phone calls and send text messages? Having convenient access to a reliable map in my pocket, the ability to stay up-to-date with social networks on the go, and the reasonable quality camera persuaded me to make the purchase. (As did the destruction of my previous mobile during a thunderstorm at home.) As an avid reader, the Kindle was a must-have from the beginning. I’m currently reading a paperback copy of Under the Dome by Stephen King and it provides me with the only solid argument against books. Sometimes they’re just too big to read in comfort. The Kindle weighs little more than my iPhone and is filled with close to 100 books. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had space in my backpack for more than a battered copy of the local Lonely Planet guidebook. The Macbook Air was a recent upgrade. I didn’t take a computer of any kind around Europe, I shared David’s netbook. It worked for us but I didn’t have the freedom of access I wanted. In North America I had a netbook of my own, which came to Australia where it switched off for the final time. I wanted something that was lightweight, easy to use and idiot-friendly. The Macbook Air was an obvious choice.
I keep a blog, I do have an Instagram account. I’m not here to say “travelling with technology is bad.” I don’t think it is, but I do think the question of how we use technology while we’re on the road is an important one. The camera is my suspect number one. More than once I have found myself in a queue for a photo opportunity with a landmark. On each of those occasions the same question has rattled around my brain. What am I doing? I’m too busy trying to take a photograph, I’ve forgotten to look at my surroundings. The old and overused adage of “take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints,” places a limit on experience.
I recently read Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. A standout section is where de Botton refers to the Victorian art critic John Ruskin. According to de Botton, Ruskin’s work centred around the question of how we can possess the beauty of places. The camera seems like the perfect tool. Perhaps it would be if it enhanced our experiences. Pointing and clicking, capturing the moment, and moving on to the next one doesn’t help us to own the scene. There needs to be a more conscious effort involved.
Ruskin, through de Botton, encourages sketching (you could also try writing). I tried this a couple of times in New Zealand with limited success. The success was in starting and finishing a couple of sketches. Drawing takes us from seeing things the way we think they are, to seeing them how they actually are. Sketching is an act of slowing down. You become aware of the world in relation to yourself. You understand why you wanted to take the photograph in the first place. de Botton puts it simply, “we move from a numb ‘I like this’ to ‘I like this because…’
I think it is possible to achieve this understanding with a camera. Take the time to breathe in your surrounding before you reach for the trigger. Notice what it is that you’re attracted to. What part of this scene do you want to keep for yourself? Pause again. Ask yourself why you’re taking this picture? Will you ever look at it again? Now if you’re satisfied, take aim and fire! Enjoy the moment before you attempt to capture it.
The same can be said of all technology. Before you open up your laptop, remove your phone from your pocket, or plug in your headphones ask yourself why. What additional benefit will you bring to your experience with the introduction of technology? Consider taking a break. Instead of walking through the park with your favourite album playing, listen to your surrounding instead. Rather than checking the weather app on your phone, pack a raincoat and go anyway. Before you upload that photo to Facebook, ask yourself why you need to share it.