How Technology Has Changed Travel – What if Jack Keroac Had an iPhone & SatNav?

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Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is often heralded as one of the most important novels of the 20th century and one of the most inspirational travel books of all time.

Because Kerouac wrote ‘On the Road‘ (a tale of epic road travel and a search for freedom and meaning) in the late 1940′s, he had no GPS or SatNav to guide him, no FourSquare app or Yelp.com to tell him where to go and no smartphone to keep in contact with the rest of the world or browse the internet on.

With our world becoming increasingly tech-savvy, it can be clearly seen that technology has influenced (and arguably improved) many areas and aspects of our lives, from how we manufacture items and do business to entertainment and healthcare.

But what about travel? How has technology changed travel, if at all?

Recently Ari N. Schulman, senior editor of The New Atlantis, wrote an article titled ‘GPS and the End of the Road‘ addressing this very issue.

Schulman argues that technology (particularly GPS devices and “location awareness” apps) are making the kinds of adventures had by Jack Kerouac and his peers a thing of the past.

What if Jack Kerouac had modern technology like we do today?

Schulman asks “How would new technology of location affect an ‘On the Road’ today? Can we imagine its characters, and by extension ourselves, escaping into the Western night, navigating by GPS and choosing where to go with Yelp, supplied with surrounding-relevant multimedia by GeoTour, encountering city streets with their iPhones held up and overlaying the view, and still having the same adventure? Something about this image is absurd.”

Schulman makes the point that in Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’ (first published in 1884) the river (that the two protagonists traveled down) is essentially a metaphor for adventure, discovery and escape from everyday life. Then, as technology of the early 20th century evolved, traveling by river (and the associated metaphor) was replaced by traveling by road (as can be seen in Kerouac’s novel).

“Seen in the right way,” writes Schulman, “what the two novels show us is not the virtue of quitting civilization, but the freedom that comes from finding our own way through a world that is not of our own making — and with it, a glimpse of the possibility of reaching out beyond our everyday selves into something greater.”

So how would these stories differ if Sal and Dean (from ‘On the Road’) or Huck and Jim (from ‘Huckleberry Finn’) had at their disposal the kind of modern technology available today?

Schulman ponders this hypothetical scenario, “GPS-enabled, location-aware adventures of Sal and Dean or Huck and Jim somehow sound dreary before they have begun, filled with anticlimax, boredom, and restlessness.”

When talking about GPS navigation, Schulman suggests that it “dulls our receptivity to our surroundings by granting us the supposed luxury of not having to pay attention to them at all. In travel facilitated by “location awareness,” we begin to encounter places not by attending to what they present to us, but by bringing our expectations to them, and demanding that they perform for us as advertised. In traveling through “augmented reality,” even the need for places to perform begins to fade, as our openness to the world gives way to the desire to paper over it entirely. It is an admission of our seeming distrust in places to be sufficiently interesting on their own. But in attempting to find the most valuable places and secure the greatest value from them, the places themselves become increasingly irrelevant to our experiences, which become less and less experiences of those places we go.”

To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.
—George Orwell

On driving, Schulman writes, “The driver on the open road, the world out ahead with unending possibility for him, and he in charge of his own path through it, has for decades been the very image of American freedom. But today the automobile seems more a trap than a source of liberation.” Although Schulman is partly talking about the increasing levels of congestion and the obvious dangers of driving when he writes this, he is also hinting that due to most modern cars having built-in GPS devices, what was once a chariot of freedom, mystery and discovery is now merely another aid for homogenised, pre-determined tourism.

Novelist Walker Percy, in his 1958 essay ‘The Loss of the Creature’ (which can be found in his book ‘The Message in the Bottle‘), described Huck and Jim as “reposing … all hope in what may lie around the bend”.

When musing on this point (and wondering how these two would get on with modern-day technology), Schulman says, “we can hardly imagine them [Huck and Jim] doing so when what lies around the bend is displayed at all times on a screen before them. Nor can we imagine Sal and Dean dreaming the promise of every cobbled alley, or of all kinds of unforeseen events lurking to surprise them, when they are striving to make sure that events are foreseen. The technology that is meant to facilitate travel deadens the spirit of discovery that draws us to the experience — moreover, it traduces that spirit: dis-covery, the removal of the things that paper over our vision so as to reveal the truth of the world, gives way to covering the world over deliberately, and calling that an enhanced revelation.”

Travel writer/philosopher Rolf Potts, author the book Vagabonding, had this to say in his piece in The Guardian, “The world is as interesting for travellers as it’s always been – but as wanderers we need to balance the utility of new travel technologies with the quieter, more organic rewards previous generations of travellers discovered on the road.”

Potts recalls how this “now-versus-then” debate is nothing new, as it was going on when he first started traveling 15 years ago.

As he says, “Many of the older travellers I met back then … argued that my travel experiences were tainted by luxuries such as email and credit cards. These days I am myself tempted to look at a younger generation of travellers and suggest that smartphones and micro-blogging are compromising their road experiences. I have to remind myself that this isn’t a new conversation – that technology has been altering the travel experience since at least the dawn of the steamship and the railroad engine. Any technology that makes travel easier is going to connect aspects of the travel experience to the comforts and habits one might seek back home – and can make travel feel less like travel.”

What if Jack Keroac Had an iPhone & SatNav?

George Orwell attempted to tackle the issue of technology and travel in his 1937 essay ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, in which he described “the nomad who walks or rides, with his baggage stowed on a camel or an ox-cart” as “living while he is travelling” (despite suffering “every kind of discomfort”) and the “passenger in an express train or a luxury liner” as experiencing a “kind of temporary death.”

While Orwell clearly has a taste for the dramatic, it can be clearly seen which side of the argument he falls on.

So should one simply refuse to use such technology and stubbornly stick to “primitive” methods of traveling? As Orwell says, restoring the genuine travel experiences of yesteryear experience isn’t as simple as that: “So long as the railways exist, one has got to travel by train … Here am I, forty miles from London. When I want to go up to London why do I not pack my luggage on to a mule and set out on foot, making a two days of it? Because, with the Green Line buses whizzing past me every 10 minutes, such a journey would be intolerably irksome. In order that one may enjoy primitive methods of travel, it is necessary that no other method should be available.”

In Orwell’s day, rail transit was the height of technology (and the biggest threat to ‘genuine travel’), whereas today it is the constant connectedness and availability of information (or as Potts describes it, the “electronic umbilical cord”).

Of course, smartphones with wireless internet (which are essentially interactive guidebooks) and websites such as CouchSurfing.org that allow travelers to sleep for free are just making travel more accessible and open to the masses.

It seems that what we need here then is to strike a balance between using technology to improve our travel experiences whilst retaining some of the serendipity and the “disorienting uncertainty” that makes travel so unpredictable and memorable.

As Potts says, “Just as Orwell wasn’t going to walk to London when there were Green Line buses available, most of us aren’t going to discard our smartphones and internet access for aerograms and hand-drawn maps. That said, there are times when a far-flung post office encounter or directions scribbled on to the back of a grocery sack can lead a person into the kind of experiences that make travel so surprising and worthwhile.”

It is therefore down to us to judge when our gadgets are helping or hindering our travel experiences.

But what if you’re not sure? “If in doubt, unplug the electronic umbilical cord and throw yourself at the mercy of your exotic new surroundings”, writes Potts, “This time-honoured travel strategy can be daunting if you’re not used to it, but you’ll soon come to discover that unplugged travel carries its own, often more rewarding, set of possibilities.”

To read Schulman’s full essay (titled ‘GPS and the End of the Road‘), click here. Additionally, click here to read Rolf Potts’ piece titled ‘Has technology robbed travel of its riches?‘ in The Guardian.


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