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One afternoon in Paris this past February, I exited the Metro at the Place de la Republique. I had been visiting hotels all morning and needed a coffee break. The French café ritual is one of my favorite aspects of working in Paris. You stand at the bar next to locals, order “un cafe,” and sip a delicious espresso before plunking down a euro.
However, I felt a slight pull coming from the iPhone in my backpack. It had been several hours since I “checked in.” There were undoubtedly e-mails waiting for me—not to mention a New York Times app that could be updated. While I was at it, I might as well check to see if anyone had commented on a photo of a recent meal that I uploaded to Facebook the night before…
I hadn’t purchased any of AT&T’s expensive international data plans, so I was reliant on Wi-Fi networks to use my device. I scanned the scene and spotted a McDonald’s across the street that advertised, with screaming gusto, “Wi-Fi gratuit!” I headed for it, past several cafés and brasseries (some of which also probably had a connection). McDonald’s was easy and cheap.
As I entered, I felt a pang of guilt, as I knew that I was sacrificing a “brasserie moment” for a coffee in a paper cup with a side of connectivity.
This wasn’t the only wired tug I experienced during my trip. It happened several times a day—often when I passed signs announcing a free Wi-Fi connection. Should I just stop for a minute? Should I hover around outside and try to poach a connection?
Had my iPhone changed my way of travel? Was there any going back? Was I overreacting?
iPhones abroad and at home
Following my trip, I wrote a post about how American travelers can use their iPhones in Europe without going broke. The post has proven to be one of our most popular, as many Americans heading abroad grapple with the same tech and billing issues that I encountered.
However, one issue that I didn’t address was how to limit the use of your phone in the first place. Talk about an uncool topic.
It’s not something I had even given much thought to until this month when I bought and read William Powers’ insightful new book, Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age.
In the book, Powers argues that our ultra-wired lifestyle often distracts us from achieving a level of depth in our daily lives. For inspiration on how to deal with information overload, Powers looks back to Plato, Shakespeare, Thoreau and other great thinkers who confronted, in their own times, technological shifts in the way humans communicated.
For many of us, we’re wired back home all day long. It’s a cliché, but remains true; we flip between e-mails, browser windows and instant messages during and after work. Many stay on top of Facebook and Twitter, as well.
Increasingly, we’re bringing our “wired” behavior with us while we travel. What’s wrong with this?
I’m afraid that we run the risk of becoming distracted travelers, losing out on the real experiences of our trips if our attention is hijacked by virtual activity. We might as well stay home.
Aware of the soapbox
Enter: the digital contrarian with full-throttled self-righteousness.
I’m sure that some, especially the most connected readers, will shake their heads (at least virtually) with exasperation. Digital devices have enhanced the travel experience in many ways, offering new ways to find out about destinations, make friends and share experiences. They also make travel Web sites (like this one, for example!) easier to produce and more timely.
Smart phones obviously make staying in touch easier and cheaper. Despite my philosophical grumblings, I returned to McDonald’s several times to use their Wi-Fi to call home for free using my iPhone’s Skype application. I found this feature incredibly helpful and liberating.
However, I would still like some help knowing how to more easily go “offline” while traveling.
Why? Because when checking my e-mails mid-day at the fast-food restaurant in Paris, I found nothing urgent in my inbox. Instead, I found something else: A strange sense that some aspect of my travel experience had changed for the worse. I was acting “busy,” but not by walking the streets, visiting Notre Dame, or buying a crepe. Rather, I was busying myself like I do back home, with finger on “refresh.” I wanted something back.
Limiting my iPhone use
How can I limit the use of my iPhone abroad? Is there a way to exercise greater control over my use of technology abroad than I seem to have at home?
Powers has come up with a few techniques, including a weekend-long “Internet sabbatical,” during which he unplugs his modem. I still want the option to connect when traveling. I just want to rid myself of the constant tug toward connecting.
I’ve come up with six suggestions that I’ll try out during my upcoming trip to Europe:
1. Start using (again!) a vacation message.
This is so basic it’s laughable. However, in the age of the iPhone, I stopped setting up a vacation message, as I assumed that I would always be connected. Setting up a message, with the email or phone number of an alternate contact in case of emergency, will set reasonable expectations for the sender. This should help you relax and feel comfortable checking e-mails less frequently.
2. Set a password on your iPhone.
We should all have passwords on our smart phones in the first place, as a lost phone can offer a treasure trove of e-mails, documents and other personal data. This security concern is only heightened when traveling.
However, a password can also serve as a hindrance to impulsive use, as it takes several seconds to manually enter it. Without a password, you can just slide and check mail. With a password, the brief commitment to typing it, no matter how fleeting, may help you overcome the pull—or at least remind me of why you set it in the first place.
3. Watches, maps, camera… Go “old school.”
I don’t wear a watch any more, because I can always tell the time by glancing at my phone. This isn’t a good strategy when traveling “offline,” however, as every glance at the phone will be a potential tug to check in. Time for a watch.
The same can apply to the phone’s other features. Hardly anyone with a smart phone uses a map back home—but when traveling, carry one along. The phone’s camera? You know it’s not that good, anyhow. Bring along another camera if you have one.
4. Do the majority of your social media before you go.
Twitter and Facebook can be extremely helpful travel tools for meeting new people and getting tips on where to go for dinner, drinks and fun. If possible, do this work before you take off, so you’re not burdened with it on the road. Trying out a restaurant suggestion that you found before leaving, after all, is probably more satisfying than monitoring your Twitter responses from a hotel bedroom. (Just sayin’!)
5. Use your Facebook status to get off the digital hook.
If you don’t feel the need to change your Facebook status daily, try setting it to something self-explanatory that can buy you some time. A status like, “…is gallivanting around France and Italy for two weeks. Photos when I return!” could take care of updates for awhile. Also, rather than posting daily schedule updates, try posting a brief itinerary of dates and cities, so that your friends can track your trip in a single post.
6. Go offline. Talk to travelers. Talk to locals.
I’ll end my list with an obvious, but still relevant, suggestion. In an age when sharing stories and acquiring information happens increasingly through screens, we should push ourselves to “like” the experience of engaging in real conversation with the travelers and locals around us.
In Hamlet’s Blackberry, Powers notes that methods to reclaim some of your un-wired life will only succeed if you recognize that there are real benefits to not always being connected. One big benefit he mentions is deep, undistracted thought.
Hmmm. Deep undistracted thought. Isn’t that why I went to cafés in Paris in the first place? I have to first want it back.
Your thoughts? Your tips?
Do you share my concern that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to travel offline? Do you have any other suggestions for ways of making “unwired travel” easier to achieve? Do you think this is a non-issue and the paranoid rhetoric of a neurotic luddite? Share your thoughts in our comments section!