Does Technology Ruin Travel? A Social Media Addict Comes Clean

·Managing Editor
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One of the last photos I took before my phone died. (Photo: Jo Piazza)

A couple of days ago I was hiking in Echo Canyon in Zion National Park in Utah. Zion is one of those postcard-perfect places with grand, rusty canyons and rock formations that defy every rule of gravity.  It also looks spectacular on Instagram with a Mayfair filter.

For the first half of the hike up the canyon, I juggled my standard collection of gadgets: an iPhone 5, a GoPro Hero, and a Canon DSLR. I was running the Endomondo app to check my speed and elevation while my Fitbit tracked my steps. 

I was simultaneously tweeting, Facebooking, and Instagramming both photos and hyperlapse videos. That vertical climb got many likes. But, I have to say, I don’t remember much of it. 

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I was so busy “art directing” the canyon, I’m not sure I actually saw the canyon. (Photo: Annie Daly)

As I was about to reach the top of the canyon I lost 4G service. Then, desperately searching for 4G caused my phone battery to die. In a sign of solidarity, my DSLR started acting up. Not only was I unable to transmit my hike to friends and family, I also didn’t know how many steps I was taking. I couldn’t tell you my exact elevation. I had no way of recording or documenting the moment. I felt an intense anxiety well up in my belly.

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What would happen if I couldn’t tweet this shadow selfie? (Photo: Jo Piazza)

And yet, the world didn’t end. 

In fact, the world did more than not end. It strangely began to open up. I was forced to look directly at things, rather than looking at them through the lens of my tiny screen while mentally evaluating what filter would make the scenery even more intriguing. I saw a condor. I can’t be sure it was a condor since I was unable to Google it or take a picture to ask you whether you know if it was a condor or not, but I could marvel at its wingspan as it dipped over the piñon trees. I touched things that were not made of metal and plastic. I felt the rough sandstone of the rock walls and picked up the small marble rock deposits that littered the ground and rolled them around in my hands.

There has been a lot of talk lately about whether technology is ruining the travel experience, if it is inhibiting the exploration that should be inherent in real travel.

We know that technology is rewiring our brains by re-routing the neural circuitry that allows for multi-tasking and lightning quick high-level decision making according to studies out of UCLA. But it is also diminishing some of our people skills, including a lot of the emotional components that are often heightened during travel.

Market research company Lab42 has found that 80% of vacationers use their smartphones while traveling abroad and70% use them to post on social networks.  

The reverse of my Zion experience happened to me on a trip a few months ago to the Maldives. For years, scuba diving has been the only time I have been able to completely relieve myself of all technology save for a dive watch. I love the fact that no tech coupled with the audible sound of my breath always forces me to be completely present and mindful during a dive. On this trip I was scouting for sea turtles and producing a video, which forced me to carry an underwater camera on my journey. The trip immediately became about the pictures and the video. No longer could I enjoy myself. I had to focus on getting the perfect shot, which then inevitably led me to ponder filters and borders — everything but what was actually in front of me.

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I did end up getting the perfect picture of a sea turtle underwater. I just didn’t enjoy doing it. (Photo: Jo Piazza) 

During that dive I vowed to never bring a camera underwater with me again. I haven’t broken that promise yet (I usually hand the camera to a guide). 

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And yet on a recent gonzo dive I did off the coast of Albania, where we encountered a massive, unexplored World War II ship, I had no camera underwater at all. 

I can tell you everything about that ship. I can tell you the color of the barnacles on the bow and the way the anchor chain cast shadows on the ocean floor.

For me, the water was the only place I could be technology-free. If you have access to gadgets, why not use them? I didn’t consider not bringing my gadgets everywhere overland until all of my toys failed me on my Zion trip and forced me to enjoy the best hike I have had since I bought my first smartphone. 

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The mind processes things differently when it knows you will have to tell the story of an experience, rather than tweet it. We are able to feel more joy from an adventure when we aren’t calculating all of the related data. When my heart beat faster and my breath grew ragged, I knew that I was getting a workout. I didn’t need my Fitbit to tell me everything about it.

An important part of my job is sharing my travel experience. I love my career because what I do inspires people to travel and I honestly believe that can enrich people’s lives. For that reason, I cannot just unplug.

I’m not advocating a full-on tech detox. I will rarely surrender my phone for more than an hour at a time. But, I promise your travel experience will be enhanced when you take just a tech minibreak to see the world without the filter.

WATCH: Diving With Sea Turtles in the Maldives

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