The Blog

Is Technology Killing the Romance of Backpacking?

Twenty years ago the way you found out about your destination was to read a guide book, ask some locals or simply explore it yourself. The only way to share the experience with people back home was the occasional letter, postcard or a phone call.

Technology is transforming the way we travel.

How we discover and share our experiences has changed; from social networking and real-time GPS mapping to travel apps and augmented reality, connecting to the world and each other is evolving.

But is this necessarily a good thing? Are the pixels and bytes corrupting the essence of travel? Is the pace of tech innovation sucking the soul out of backpacking?

Travel and sharing

Twenty years ago the way you found out about your destination was to read a guide book, ask some locals or simply explore it yourself. The only way to share the experience with people back home was the occasional letter, postcard or a phone call.

Ten years ago the online travel web was still in its infancy - the same communication rules applied, except now the sporadic email was the sharing method of choice.

And even five years ago travel blogs were basic, smartphones were unproven and social media was only just hotting up.

Now? Now things are different.

Very different.

Photo by Andrew Tipp

The world of digital backpacking

So what's the story today for tech-savyy backpackers?

Social media has changed the game. If you're doing some voluntary work abroad in Morocco you can head up to the markets of Marrakesh, shoot some video on your smartphone and share your content on Facebook within seconds.

On Twitter you can hold simultaneous, real-time public conversations with hostel operators, travel bloggers or fellow backpackers from a beach in Australia.

With Flickr, Instagram and Pinterest you can collect and curate photography from your journey through south-east Asia. With Blogger, Tumblr and WordPress it's super easy to set up a slick-looking travel site and share everything about your whole journey.

Then there's Skype, FaceTime and Google+ Hangouts; you can chat face-to-face with your family and friends in the UK from a bar in New Zealand.

Changing our view of reality

And that's just the sharing bit. What about the discovering?

Well, that's where it gets really interesting.

With smartphones and tablets becoming affordable and practical to use on typical backpacker trips, a whole new world of apps is opening our eyes to the possibility of interactive digital travel.

What can we do? We can use map apps to find where we are. We can use advice apps to research where to go.

We can use our devices to scan a street scene in Sydney or the New York subway and read Wiki articles; we can scan an avenue in Paris or a backstreet in Bangkok and discover what's around us, where we should go and people we should meet.

Photo of Google Glass via Creative Commons

Weighing up the pros and cons

There are obviously benefits to all the discovering, connecting and sharing - we can find backpackers to meet up with, amazing places to eat and travellers' couches to crash on.

We can get live news updates affecting the region we're travelling through. We can quickly discover new cultures, places and people. We can share the experience with people back home, allowing them to live the journey vicariously through us.

So there are positives. But what about the negatives? Isn't backpacking partly about getting away from your normal life - leaving everything familiar behind and stepping out into the big, wide world? Isn't backpacking about escaping everyday connections, rather than staying tied to them?

Missing home should be part of the experience.

Getting lost should be part of the experience, too. Most travellers will tell you some of their best backpacking experiences happened when they found something they weren't expecting; a rural Ghanaian village, some ruins in Ecuador - these are the unexpected, mysterious and magical times that blew their minds.

Would having accessible Wiki articles make those moments any better? Would posting photos instantly to Facebook make those moments any better?

Well, you'd learn and share more.

But you'd probably experience the moment less.

The spirit of travel

Backpacking is about adventure. It's about exploration.

We can't all discover something new, but we can discover it for ourselves. If we become reliant on technology we could lose the audacious spirit that made us want to throw on our backpacks in the first place.

And so far we're only talking about existing technology.

It's likely that soon Google Glass, or a similar gadget, could remove the need for hand-held devices altogether. And maybe one day augmented reality will just scroll directly across our retinas constantly, Terminator style, turning a round the world trip into one long museum audio (and visual) tour.

Photo by Andrew Tipp

What about home cinemas, 3D and virtual reality? Could we soon opt to stay home and experience 'travel' through the comfort of our living rooms? The concept might seem like fantasy, but then how fantastical did smartphones look in 2003? How fantastical did the web look in 1993?

These innovations are coming, whether you want them or not.

Don't fear the future

So what's the answer? Do we give in to technological hand-holding? Should we even give up on physically travelling and explore the world virtually?

No. We shouldn't.

The world has changed. You can't ignore it. Once technology has been invented, you can't just uninvent it. Digital revolutions will keep coming.

The important thing is to use any travel tech often enough to get the benefits from it, but not so much that you're losing out on quintessential aspects of backpacking.

It's a fine line. But you can do it. Just remember that digital innovations are there to add value to your travel experience.

Not the other way around.