What does the digital revolution do to historical travel in the 21st century?
There is a loss. Easy to use and easily available digital resources catering to travellers are quickly making physical, shop-style travel agencies obsolete. The same goes for ticket offices, for printed guidebooks and for paper maps. At the end of these developments we might find a thoroughly digital information environment around travelling. An entire field or segment of the world of material objects and the locations (shops, ticket offices, bookstores) related to them is on the brink of extinction along with a whole range of social situations and their associated jobs (booking a ticket or buying a book over a counter, asking for map directions).
Digital resources, furthermore, are taking travel into an era in which we rely heavily on the ratings of others of historical sites, institutions, restaurants and what not.
So, is this new world more “social”, “democratic” and “pluralistic”? Not necessarily. Is it effective and fast? Oh, yes. Is more information ready for use at our fingertips? Yes, for sure. Does the availability of ever more information right under our eyes make us wiser? No, because wisdom is not information as such but the ability to interpret and use information. Might all this conform travel so that some popular places and sites attract everyone while shadowing others? Possibly. The brave new digital world holds much potential, but potential is not the same as outcome.
My friend Michael is a digital traveller – an early adopter of all new things digital. He travels the world making full use of digital applications.
Looking at digital films on the Internet rather than reading guidebooks, Michael plans his Germany trip, deciding which cities to visit and what main sites to see. For travelling there, he books his train tickets through the train company app and his hotels through an hotels app. But Michael goes further, being on the cutting edge of using the fast-growing flora of digital map functions and the equally booming selection of rating apps for sites, restaurants, museums and most other things.
Using digital maps in his smartphone, Michael would plan his itineraries in cities beforehand, getting to know the exact routes, how far he would be walking and the approximate time of such tours.
Then there are digital guides to historical sites, cultural institutions and restaurants in the form of apps relaying on visitor ratings. When lunch is imminent Michael would look at what restaurants are close by, check their ratings and choose one with a satisfactory record among previous visitors. The one time during the Germany trip when he did not and went purely on intuition, he ended up disappointed in a bad place.
All in all, to an experienced traveller such as Michael, actively seeking the unknown and unexpected, the wealth of digital information and possibilities gave him a much richer experience. Ratings took him to excellent food vendors he would never have dared choosing just based on street-views. It also took him to interesting historical sites hard to find without recommendations that would not have gone into printed guidebooks or that he wouldn’t have found without very detailed directions. When previous plans failed, digital resources could quickly come up with alternatives.
Digital maps tied to other data sources are in effect augmenting reality, connecting physical locations to a wealth of information in a way that paper maps can not. Cutting down on time and money spent on getting tickets and finding hotels through using apps gave Michael more time and money to explore German cities.
So, in the end, the digital has its obvious advantages and Pandora is out of the box anyway so let’s just roll with it, making the best out of all those new, beautiful things.