Home The ETG Take On Travel Are mobile phones destroying the way we travel?

Are mobile phones destroying the way we travel?

by Matt Brazier
Taking a picture of Angkor Wat Sunrise

So, there I am, scrolling through Instagram stories on my mobile (guilty) and I see my colleague’s “Last day in Malta – wahoo!” style story. I look over and she’s sat at her desk. “Oh,” she explains, “These days it’s completely normal to go on a trip and then keep posting afterwards; it means you can keep engagement going for longer.” Right….!? It took me back to when my old housemate, who works in TV, once said to me, “Really, Matt, we can film a flood in a puddle, never believe everything you see on screen.” And it stuck with me.

So began my journey into questioning how the ease of sharing and digital connectedness is impacting the way we travel, and a little movement I like to call #ConsciouslyUnsharing.

Motivation to travel

A few years ago, a business coach asked me why I travel. I couldn’t really answer without just shouting clichés: food! Adventure! People! Until he changed the emphasis. “No – but WHY do YOU travel?” Oh right. Haven’t you just asked me the same question again? But he persisted with the why’s and we got there in the end.

To cut a long story short (and another blog – Travelling with Intention), I concluded that beyond contentment, I travelled for freedom.

 

Searching for freedom

For me, freedom comes when I disconnect myself from the digital world. Abandoning my mobile so that I won’t post on social, check my emails every two minutes or have that anxiety-jolt when the WhatsApp notifications build up.

So now, like many travellers, I look back on my gap years in the early noughties as halcyon days of freedom. I used to call my parents from random payphones and send big group emails once a month or so. I didn’t realise it until years later, but I was so much more ‘in the moment’ then. Just there, experiencing stuff. There was so much less pressure to be connected all the time, to share, to get in touch with people back at home, to show everyone how amazing your life was (I’m saying this with a slight eyebrow raise, don’t worry). Anyway, you just couldn’t do that. The vast behemoth of social media was a distant dream.

My tiny moment of Instagram fame when Beautiful hotels posted my photo

The sharing epidemic

But it didn’t take long for my use of social media and WhatsApp to rear its ugly headAnd scrolling back through my feeds now is like looking under the carpet and being shocked at what you find. Showing off seaplanes and speedboats, hopping between luxury hotels. I barely posted my life at home, but when I was on these trips, I absolutely laid it all out. I think it really kicked off when I was staying at Amanpuri, (an uber-luxury Thai hotel) and Beautiful Hotels (quite a big deal in the Instagram travel world) reposted one of my photos. It got around 28,000 likes and I had my 0.01 sec of #instafame. 

I became addicted to sharing my incredible trips, trying to increase my followers, spamming my friends on WhatsApp and essentially showing off. How had things changed so quickly without me even realising? 

 

Did you know your mobile phone can make calls?

I know. I forgot too. This is what I mostly used my mobile for whilst travelling 

  1. Taking photos and video 
  2. Finding out where to go/what to do and reading reviews on Google/TripAdvisor 
  3. Communicating with people in an endless stream of social platforms and chat apps 

But when did our phones become an integral part of us and so much more than a device on which to make calls and play Snake? 

I don’t need to go into the myriad of incredible things you can use this powerful device for whilst travelling, but as technology improves at such a fast rate and makes everything “easier” for us, it’s becoming apparent that a mobile doesn’t necessarily make it better.  

 

Constant connectedness

If you are older than early-to-mid-30s, you’ll probably remember internet cafes. I’m overly nostalgic about them now, but the change of connectedness in 15 years or so is mind-blowing. As soon as you go anywhere these days, before you even realise it, you’re saying, “Can I have the WIFI code please?” I’m pretty sure in a few years’ time, people will be saying: “Remember when you couldn’t use your mobile on a plane?”

Camping in Bhutan

Travelling with intention

So, let’s get back to it. I decided to book a trip to Bhutan. A big one. The Snowman Trek around the deepest parts of the Himalayas. Freedom. I hoped. That business coach, in a meeting room in a Tooting pub, had dragged something in me back up to the surface and now I knew, I needed to recapture the spirit of my early travel experiences. There would be huge parts of the trek that didn’t have mobile connection, I could probably buy a Sim card, I could probably find a signal somewhere… But, no.

 

A statement of intent

I made a deal with myself. I was going to go to Bhutan and actively engage in living in the here and now. Bhutan was my absolute dream destination. I had wanted to do this trek since I was 18. This trip was going to be different, special. I would try to go 25 days without connecting my phone.

I was going to #ConsciouslyUnshare my trip as well.

A double whammy.

Overtourism in Japan

Being in the moment

I sat in a little guesthouse in Paro eating birthday cake at 8am. Bliss. I wanted to share it (an Instagram story, not the cake), it was #instagold, worth at least a few hundred views no doubt. But I didn’t. I was about to be mobile-free for 25 days. The start of the Snowman was looming. I’d cracked a few times already, documenting my journey via Kathmandu and sharing photos of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, but I’d made massive steps. Quickly, I was learning what the phone could do.

It was a barrier. As soon as you raised it to take a photo, you lost that moment with your subject. What was I taking the photo for anyway? It was liberating to say no, I do not need to capture this on my phone. I’m not going to share it. I will remember this moment and, if I don’t, so be it. The penny was dropping.

I watched the other travellers. They weren’t partaking in the moment. They were experiencing it, but from a distance, with a layer between them and what was going on. Such a simple little thing. A mobile phone. But the power it had. Must. Capture. Everything. The thing is, most people these days aren’t taking photos for memories or because they see themselves as photographers, but because they want to share it straight away. I was guilty of it, so I wasn’t feeling smug, but sad at what had happened to a lot of us. A quick scoot across the internet shows that, on average, 500 million photos are posted a day on Instagram and the number’s rising exponentially. That’s just Instagram. What about Facebook and Snapchat and lots of apps I don’t even know the name of? Wow.

 

The power of disconnecting

With no digital connection and if you’re not taking photos, there is little reason to look at your mobile really. Do you know that on average we pick up our phones around 350 times a day? There is even evidence now that we feel false vibrations in our pockets. I can tell you I was grabbing my phone and just looking at it, mindlessly. It’s so distracting. It’s an excuse not to talk to people or engage. It’s a safety net, an easy way to escape reality. The level of ingrained habit for me was shocking, and I’m so glad I could check myself. It took a few days, but suddenly I was there, back in the moment. I’m so appreciative that I understand what it used to be like before smartphones came along, and I could use those memories to remind me of what I was trying to achieve.

St Peters Square 2005 vs 2013

Capturing the moment

Just wait. That’s my advice. Don’t block the experience. Give it a chance to develop, engage, see what happens. Don’t be fearful of missing something. It’s for you. Remember that. Enjoy it and take in the reason you went there. And then capture it, if you feel like you want to. Of course, it’s wonderful to have the photos to look back at but gone are my days of having over 100 pictures of a sunset getting pinker and pinker – a few will do. It’s liberating, trust me.

 

Currency and validation

I realised that if I posted and shared a lot of my experiences then I didn’t fully own them anymore. If we look at them as a valuable currency, then why are we happy to give them away so easily? Why should an algorithm end up dictating the way you experience something – even how you feel about it? The right light, crop, filter, hashtags. The right way to portray yourself.

I hadn’t really examined why I posted, beyond recognising the buzz of showing off. But then I read ‘Ten Reasons to Delete Your Social Media Accounts Now’ and it was a revelation. Jaron Lanier tells us that social media platforms are built with the same mechanisms that drive gambling sites. No wonder they’re so addictive and potentially damaging to your mental health.

 

#ConsciouslyUnsharing

So back to my little movement. Give it a go. The wonderful thing about consciously unsharing is you get to own the memory, you get to share it when you want, with the right people at the right time. Telling stories in real life is very nuanced, it’s layered and dynamic. There is reciprocation and it’s much more rewarding. Take back the power from social media.

The next time you go on holiday, perhaps check yourself before you ask for that WiFi password. Do you really need to digitally connect? Ask yourself what you’re really missing out on, what will tempt you away (Candy Crush, anyone…?). Try and live in the ‘here and now’. Talk to people. Ask for – and give – stories. Watch, wait and engage before whipping out the phone to take a picture. Just see what happens. I’m sure you’ll be surprised.

I can’t sit here and say I’ve deleted Instagram (I do genuinely love #travelporn), but I’m in a happy place with it. To be clear, I was never an influencer or anything like that, but social media and digital connectedness had genuinely changed the way I travelled, and it wasn’t for the better. It’s getting harder and harder to switch off these days and that was what holidays were once about for most of us. I’m glad I’ve taken a step back and I’m relishing my newfound travel freedom.

So, all together now, let’s not allow mobiles to destroy the way we travel.

CURIOUS TO KNOW MORE?

To get in touch with Matt about any of the themes explored in this article, you can reach him via email.

Alternatively, find out about the ETG approach to holidays on our website.

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