Being connected all the time may lead you to feel disconnected in your life. (Photo: Alesha Bradford)
“Do you have Wi-Fi?”
It may just be the most common question travelers ask these days. And that’s because it’s rooted in truth: As full-time travelers, we can nearly always find an Internet connection, no matter if we are in some far-flung corner of the globe.
The result of that truth is that, for many of us, having access to the Internet has become an absolute necessity. And on the one hand, that’s a good thing. The benefits of having a wealth of information available at the click of a finger are tremendous. I can sit in a café in Guilin, China, and research the best places to stay in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, without having to find a guidebook or talk to anyone who has been there. The advantage of being able to keep in contact with my friends and family all over the world, no matter where they are, is truly amazing.
No desk? No problem. (Photo: Thinkstock)
But there are also downsides.
Almost everyone who leaves his or her house does so with at least one device — whether it’s a laptop, a smartphone, or a tablet — for staying connected. The idea of traveling without one has become inconceivable. How else will we find out what our friends are doing back home or whether our favorite sports team is winning or not? What other methods will we find to pass the time when the weather is bad or we are too tired from sightseeing? These days, disconnecting with the Internet and reconnecting with the world around us is becoming harder and harder to achieve.
Everywhere you look, people are staring at screens. On buses and on trains, in bars and in restaurants, in the presence of others or on our own, we all have our eyes and hands glued to a piece of technology. Every meal we eat and every activity we do is documented with a snapshot.
What a perfect time to check email! (Photo: Thinkstock)
Conversations exist simultaneously: We talk to the person we are actually talking to, and we also talk on our phones. Almost no experience can occur without thinking of a way to announce it to our friends on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. We have created online, idealistic images of our lives to portray in a virtual world. Our profile pictures have filters, our selfies with friends are in exotic locations, and it seems we’re always smiling and having fun. Is this a true representation of who we are?
A hostel common room used to be a place to meet new friends. But now, it has become a place to keep in contact with old friends. If the Wi-Fi signal drops out, you can see the frustration mount on the faces of people everywhere. Sometimes the first instance of a person reaching out to speak with you is to ask whether your Internet is working.
By being constantly connected, we are separating ourselves from reality.
The way we explore this world has changed dramatically in the last decade. If a restaurant isn’t on TripAdvisor, we may not eat there. If a hotel isn’t in Lonely Planet or on WikiTravel, we likely won’t stay there. If we meet someone whom we form a friendship with, but they don’t use social media, chances are, we will never speak to them again once our goodbyes have been said.
They may be having fun now, but if any of them aren’t on Facebook, the fun will probably stop right there. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Now, here’s the thing: As someone who now makes a living from working online, I am just as guilty of these crimes as anyone else. I can be in the most sublime place on Earth, and my mind often drifts to whether I have an important email waiting for me in my inbox. I have caught myself checking social media on boat cruises through impeccable landscapes. Tomorrow I will find myself in some beautiful part of the world, but the moment I end up somewhere with a Wi-Fi signal, I will probably log on to check if I have missed an important message in the three hours since I last checked. No doubt, I am part of the problem.
So, what’s the big, grand message here? In sum, the true cost of free Wi-Fi is that we’ve become disconnected as a society. But perhaps by admitting that we are all part of the problem, we will come a little bit closer to a solution.