Why we travel
October 8, 2022 Comments Off on Why we travel
Escape, novelty and its mirror image boredom, human restlessness, narcissism, social status, genetic curiosity, family, isolation, discovery, conquest, social media, insecurity, money, sex, material for your blog, to inspire and be inspired, fomo, yolo, adventure, duty, knowledge, and of course no reason at all.
I read an interesting critique of modern travel on Medium by (of course) a travel writer, Henry Wismayer, in which he identified the obvious fact that travel has rapidly distilled itself into posed images for social media, a vapid exercise within a vapid exercise that neither inspires, ennobles, elucidates nor enriches.
Wismayer exempts himself from the definition of tourist of course, having made a career of trying to write meaningfully about his own voyeurism and therefore seeking deeper meaning than the average schmo, educating us about the human condition while obliquely suggesting that we amateurs should stick to Disneyland, or better yet, to home. He has a good point, even though he thinks he’s exempt: Travel is dumb.
The idea that you should visit strangers in order to better experience life is dumb. The idea that you can better understand the human condition by going outside your own neighborhood is dumb. And the idea that you can mitigate the economic, environmental, cultural, and social harms of tourism by touring is really, really dumb.
In essence, travel writing sells to gloss over the harsh meaninglessness of travel and imbue it with qualities it no longer has. In chronological order, travel began as discovery, turned into conquest, degenerated into experiential enrichment, and died as a post-modern extension of our online existence, which for most of us is the only real existence we will ever have. Your journey is what fits online for others to read about and see, nothing more and nothing less.
Originally people moved from place to place seeking food. By the end of the last Ice Age the world had been fully explored and populated. There were no wildernesses in fact, only in perspective. When Europeans reached the great uninhabited forests of North America filled with people, they immediately began pushing the local inhabitants out of this uninhabited region. Uninhabited by Europeans, that is. The 30-100 million Amerindians who lived in the Americas had fully discovered and inhabited it. As with the rest of the world, however unknown it was to the white men who “discovered” it, every inch of these new continents was without exception someone else’s backyard.
The Age of Discovery concluded in prehistory and gave rise to the Age of Conquest. Once people had expanded to fill their environment they began fighting over it. Whether Mayans driving out smaller tribes, Aztecs driving out Toltecs, Spaniards driving out Aztecs, or Russians trying to drive out Ukrainians, conquest was for millennia the dominant purpose of travel. Rape, murder, booty, and land were all the incentive that tribes, races, and nations needed to engage in tourism.
With the relative peace created by the relative stability of borders, early Christianity led the transformation of conquest travel into a new form of travel, the personal experience. Chaucer’s pilgrims exemplify this form of tourism, where well-to-do, rather bored people take a trip in order to eat, drink, fuck, tell stories, and escape the monotony of material well-being by going to visit someone’s backyard and bring home a souvenir of the trip.
For centuries the personal experience and the travel trinket expanded until it encompassed virtually everyone who had access to a donkey, bicycle, car, bus, train, or plane. Freud’s upper-class, intellectual excursions to Italy, memorialized by souvenir Etruscan vases, eventually trickled down to Moron Joe’s family bedecked with mouse ears and each member carrying a stuffed rat made in China and sold for $50 at a glorified parking lot that costs $235 simply to enter. Carcinogens and junk food are extra. Way extra.
In between Disneyland and guided hikes to the top of Everest there are as many variations of travel as there are people because this form of travel is tailored to you. Bike across the Gobi? Rape children in Thailand? Watch the Stones in Amsterdam? See the ruins of Chernobyl? Learn Malay on Kalimantan? Whatever your hobby there is a trip for it. You can’t discover anything because it’s already been discovered. You can’t conquer anything because you’ll be thrown into prison. All you can do is experience something and hope that the something turns out to be something. That’s the essence of experiential travel. Go, see, do, hope, talk about, repeat.
About the time that experiential travel lost fashion favor, which was around the time that “The Ugly American” was published in 1958 as a literary footnote to failed US diplomatic policies in Latin America and Southeast Asia and became synonymous with American, then Japanese, then Chinese tourists. “A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They are loud and ostentatious.”
In sum, it was no longer cool to be an experiential traveler, and it became necessary to convince people like Henry Wismayer that he could still travel without being a tourist. The trajectory of travel continually refined itself so that other people were tourists. You, however, were a traveler.
Around the time that “The Ugly American” was finding its way into travel mirrors across the USA, computer scientists began thinking about, then working on, the idea of transmitting information in packets that could be read by other computers. One revolution led to another and by 1989 the World Wide Web had debuted, beginning the nearly completed process of trapping everyone in its sticky strands.
Like the invention of the CD, the highest and best use of the Internet was to watch other people engaging in sex, but ancillary uses soon developed. Not as enjoyable as viewing sex but infinitely more graphic was the invention of the phonecamera tracking device, which brought tourism into the post-modern age of travel, also known as the Selfiecene, an epoch partially concurrent with the Anthropocene. The Selfiecene began as a way to ostensibly share, but in fact to impose, one’s own ugly image on the eyes of others through social media.
Initially the selfie was an extrapolation of the travel snapshot, and after it became its own art form the selfie turned outwards and inwards simultaneously, capturing one’s own inner beauty and capturing the external beauty of the place being visited. This duality, enhanced and made ubiquitous through hashtags, turned the act of moving from place to place into an experience for other people to view and ponder and compare, by the millions, simultaneously. Think you took a great shot of the sunset? Check #sunset on Instagram and get back with me.
Discovery, conquest, and experience have now been compressed into an electronic exchange of information packets that wholly obviate the need for any movement at all. As Wismayer threatens in his critique, are you really going to take a new photo of Stonehenge or the Taj Mahal? And by extension, is your own image next to such an icon anything less than a grotesque profanity?
The answer of course is no and no. Travel and tourism have merged into the shared consciousness that early researchers posited would occur as the Internet became a functioning world brain, the repository of all that is known, opined, believed, and experienced. What this means is that the awe and wonder of travel are as mundane as the awe people once felt at seeing a written word and hearing it read aloud, so that after a few centuries reading and writing aren’t the sign of god’s messengers on Earth but required subjects for small children. It’s not simply that there is nothing new under the sun, it’s that the sun no longer shines on anything. All objects and experiences exist in a microprocessor. No sunshine need apply.
Does this mean that travel and its cachet, along with sunscreen and diarrhea, are obsolete? Yes, emphatically. The problem is that although moving through time and space to stimulate our senses and sort through danger, security, food, shelter, clothing, and companionship is an anachronism, our brains and bodies are stuck in drive, and it’s a manual transmission that no one knows how to operate, much less repair.
Walkabout resides at the genetic level and at the level of a stroll in the park or down the Champs Elysees, but it no longer connects to our minds, which are ever turned towards a tighter integration with the Internet.
Iridium service makes it possible to call from the South Pole, or the North. And why wouldn’t you? Your smiling face at the ends of the earth … it may not be novel, it may not even be travel, and it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it can’t be. It’s just you somewhere else stuffed into a phone for everyone else to see.