Is technology killing the traditional backpacking experience?

Being a seasoned traveller over the last ten years, I have noticed many trends relating to technology over those years. Some are good, some not so. I am just putting this out there to reflect on what I feel is happening.

Pre-technology (2001):

These were the days when arriving at a hostel, you would check in, head to the common rooms, make conversation and see where things headed from there. If you were lucky the hostel may have had some internet access via a pay as you use computer, that would happily take your money or you would have to hunt down an internet cafe to catch up on what was happening back home, etc

Back in those days, we were all carrying phone cards to call from pay phones and no one carried a mobile phone. You learnt more from the people at the hostel, gaining insights on what to see, where to go than you would from a guidebook. Guidebooks are great but they don’t cover everything.

Maps were central to getting around. We were always carrying one for the transport system and a basic city map. Whilst they were good, you could always get lost and that is where you found some of the best surprises and gain some of the best travel memories.

We used film cameras and had to carry many rolls of film around and once we had a enough full rolls, we would make the choice to either develop them or send them home to clear space in our backpacks.

Technology (2011):

These days when people arrive at a hostel the first thing they upon on check-in is to check to see if Wi-Fi is available, the passwords and jump straight on their netbook, laptop, smart phone, iPad, etc to see if they missed an important Facebook status update, etc. I can claim to be guilty of this too.

Everybody now carries a mobile phone with generally more features than the average computer. Myself I only have a very average phone with no camera or internet features. As long as I can text, I am satisfied. With the global roaming features you can be in contact with friends and family with the greatest of ease. There is also Skype available which is an even cheaper and more effective way to communicate back home.

Whilst we still use maps these days as a general guide, people also use various applications on their phones such as Google maps to ensure they don’t get lost, and transport applications that keep one updated with the local transport system.

Digital cameras are the way we go these days. It is great to have the ability to take as many photos as one wants of any particular place, monument, etc. The added bonus is that you don’t have to think about developing photos and that added cost on your return home.

My opinion:

Now given all the new technology available, you would think that backpacking has become a much more pleasant experience. I do tend to disagree with some aspects of travel that it has.

Firstly, upon entering common rooms in some hostels, it has very much of a library feel, with the vast majority sitting on laptops, smartphones, etc with the ear plugs connected, completely oblivious to other travellers.

Trying to make conversation is as difficult as pulling teeth as the looks you are given when trying to speak to some people, is a look of horror. It is like “How dare you interrupt me while I am on Facebook”. The art of conversation has truly been lost and the sharing of travel experiences hardly exists anymore.

Secondly, whilst digital cameras are awesome, it also encourages people to take so many photos in different poses at the same place, you sometimes feel like you are in a queue to take a photo. If they were using film, would such behaviour exist? Isn’t it best to see a place through your own eyes, as opposed to through a camera lens?

Thirdly, using electronic maps to work out how to get from Place A to Place B is a great advance in technology but does it hurt to wander around a city aimlessly, where you can gain a real local experience? I know from personal experience that my best memories were from places that were off the beaten track and recommended by fellow travellers.

These days if a hostel does not have free or near free Wi-Fi, the place is automatically given a bad rating on websites such as Tripadvisor or Hostelworld. Has our judgement become so clouded by technology we cannot go past that to make our first impressions?

For me a good hostel is one that encourages interaction between the travellers. Whether this means free activities, dinners put on by the hostel where travellers assist in preparing the meal, it can only make backpacking the wonderful experience it once was. Having activities that you have to pay for, doesn’t necessarily encourage people to interact but they help to some degree. Obviously getting volunteers is an issue which cannot always be addressed.

Where I see backpackers sitting in common rooms staring at screens, I wonder if they realise what they are missing out on. So I ask you this, is technology killing the traditional backpacking experience?

By Tony Sinclair