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Bad connection: Glen Mutel

Smartphones are changing both our lives, and the way we travel. But sometimes it’s nice to get away from it all

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Something rather good has happened to me — although I must admit, I didn’t initially see it that way. It was very much a case of good news disguised as bad. You see, about a week ago, my smartphone died.

Now I won’t lie, in the minutes and hours that followed, I felt a bit hard done by. I moaned and muttered as I dug out my dusty old Motorola and braced myself for an undefined period without a pocket computer. For the next few weeks there’d be no checking Facebook on a whim, no catching up with work emails out of hours and no browsing the internet while waiting for a bus.

How, I wondered, would I survive? Would I cope with nothing but phone calls and text messages? How was I to pass long journeys? And what would I stare at while my girlfriend tried to tell me about her day?

Well, as it happens, it’s been quite a liberating experience. Because it turns out I don’t need to read work emails in the evenings. What’s more, it seems if you only check Facebook occasionally, you really don’t miss that much. And listening to people properly is actually more satisfying than half listening to them while Googling something.

This past week has shown me just how addicted I’ve become to my clever little phone. Or, more accurately, how addicted I’ve become to updates. Any update will do — news, scores, emails, search results. And with each day that passes, the more updating I require — which is why, the other week, I found myself checking the results of the Scottish Third Division on a Saturday night.

This addiction to updates also explains why even when I’m abroad, supposedly getting away from it all, I make sure my phone is close at hand. Despite dodgy satellite connections, extortionate roaming data fees and pricey hotel wi-fi charges, I can still be found sat in my room transfixed by the dazzle of my phone, like a mesmerised horse staring at traffic.

Tragic, yes, but I’m not the only one who behaves this way. With millions of us out there, the needs of the phone-wielding travelling masses are increasingly being catered to. Airlines are falling over themselves to offer in-flight connections; interactive e-guides are available for almost every tourist hotspot; and augmented reality apps are here to help us make sense of strange cities and to illuminate almost any tourist attraction.

It’s exciting technology, no doubt about it. And I suppose, for some people, the prospect of smartphone assistance might be just what’s needed to take the fear out of travelling.

However, I suspect there are also plenty for whom travel represents the last refuge from the smartphone; people who’ve come to see going away as the only means of escaping the diabolical grip of technology. And for these people, a new type of holiday has emerged — the digital detox, where screen-addled desperadoes are literally forced to leave their phones at the door.

Now it’s a bizarre thought, actually paying people to take our phones away — cheaper surely to simply alter our behaviour and keep our mobiles in our pockets once in a while. But smartphone addiction is a subtle beast. Its consequences are harder to spot than a hacking cough or a hangover, and most of us don’t really think we’ve got a problem. Plus it’s very difficult to function without a mobile these days. And digging out your old Motorola or Nokia isn’t a long-term solution — it takes a brave man to completely disown his Android phone or iPhone.

So for people like me, travel represents our only escape. Yet right now, all over the world, owners of remote holiday getaways — from forest lodges and eco-resorts to safari camps and wilderness retreats — are debating whether or not to start offering their guests some type of internet connection. Many will decide to do so, feeling they can’t ultimately halt progress.

But I do hope some choose the digital detox route. My new smartphone is due to arrive next week, and I’m already fearful of its power. I’d like to think there’ll always be somewhere on Earth I can go to escape the lure of the Scottish Third Division.

 

Published in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)