Friday, 7 August 2015

Screenbased Travel

I thought of calling this post "Thanks for the memories", or "No need for the Memories", or "Hey that's me in the corner", or "Just looking (at ourselves)".

But I didn't in the end, because, while the post is partly about how hardly anyone who goes travelling these days actually observes the places they're travelling through or creates detailed memories - inside their own heads rather than digitally - of what they see around them, what it's primarily about is how travellers go to places now and not only do not look at those places with any kind of attention but basically, having made the effort to get to those places, spend almost their entire time there looking at their screens.

This was not always the case - well obviously not; we didn't always have screens, but even when we did have, in the form of cameras, there was still a large majority of people who didn't look at everything around them purely through a viewfinder. Once travel seems to have been undertaken in a spirit of inquiry. You can sense this when, (if?), you read old Baedeker guides.

In their time, these books were tremendously popular. They contain no illustrations but just page after page of  extremely detailed information about anything and everything that a traveller might see in any particular place.

There must have been an appetite for what they provided, for Baedeker was a very successful company. Judging by the contents of their guides, once upon a time, if you went to a new city, you went in a state of enormous curiosity. When you got there, you wandered around, noticing things, wondering about them and then consulting your guide to find out more.

From what I've observed recently, this is not the spirit in which most people travel today. People are on the move in ever larger numbers but, in 2015, the people you see pouring out of planes and trains and buses and descending upon Bruges or Budapest or Brussels's Grande Place don't seem very interested in the details of their new surroundings.

What they mostly seem interested in is arranging themselves in front of the places they've come to and then taking pictures of themselves - pictures that, presumably, they then take home to look at later. Thus, the places become backdrops in pictures that will be studied closely at some point in the future. It's a warped form of delayed gratification, I suppose.

All this makes me wonder whether travelling at present, (if that phrase - "at present" - is not, in fact, the most inappropriate one to use in this particular context), happens when you're doing it or only when you get home and have the opportunity to review the pictures you took when you were on the move - or better still when you have the opportunity to show the pictures to someone else.

Are all these snaps merely affirmation that something happened? Is this what we've come to? Do we need to repeatedly record our images to prove that our lives occur? If the things we do aren't recorded in images that can be looked at by others - or, at the very least, by our future selves - did we actually do them? To paraphrase the old question about whether a table exists when we are not there to see it, have we got to the point where our lives are not real unless they can be looked at by others? Are we all performing for a notional hidden audience? If so, who is in this audience and why do we care what they think?

It seems to me that, for many people, the only times they are paying attention when travelling is when they are staring into a screen to have their picture taken or when they are staring into a screen studying the result

The only people facing the landmark in this picture - the Matthias church, with the Fishermen's Bastion beyond it - are those taking pictures

Ocasionally someone might glance briefly over their shoulder to see the actual view in real time, before letting the camera click

But mostly looking at the view can wait until they get home:

This couple took some extra insurance pictures, which didn't include either of them, presumably in case one leaves the other and no longer wants to include them in their memories.

There is a kind of balletic or praying kind of contortionism called for sometimes.

There is often synchronised clicking

Is anyone in this picture not taking a picture?

There is ensuring you cover every single angle:

My favourite self-recording tourist so far this summer would have to be this funny little person who went to Brugges and persuaded someone to take her in the main square doing heroic poses:

She then spent the rest of her time in the city looking at the results, (and probably posting them to her followers?)

But maybe nothing is real if it isn't in a picture on our devices - or at the very least recorded in a blog post.

(This is interesting, as is this, [possibly the only amusing thing emerging from Russia in recent times]. Also, I have read reports of people falling over cliffs or out of windows in their intense concentration on the task at hand - namely, taking selfies - so perhaps there will be a Darwinian fadeout for the habit.)


  1. Zm,

    I used to live on one side of Tower Bridge and I remember being stopped, almost every day, to take photos for couples/families (usually Japanese, I have to say). Infuriating, but I'm afraid it's only become worse.

    'Been there, done that.'

    Your post reminded me of my friend who overheard an American tourist at Pisa talking to his partner: "If that's anudder god-darned Church I ain't goin' in". Classic!

    1. It is slightly touching occasionally to be asked - makes you feel that you don't come across immediately as an axe murderer & breaks down the barriers, momentarily. But all the time would be irritating, as if you were there to provide a service. And, of course, you can't say no without feeling/looking like a meanspirited sod.

  2. I'd be happy to tell you that we never have locals or other tourists take our pictures in strange places (or even Oregon), but it we do. And I do now and then take tourists' or locals' pictures: in front of Lafayette's statue and in front of Mandela's, with a baby in the park, etc. It doesn't bother me, now and then, to take a picture of family or friends enjoying themselves on a trip.

    A number of years ago, we visited the Porta Nigra in Trier. The guidebooks said that Napoleon had carved his name on it. From what I could see, pretty much every visitor in twenty centuries had left a notice, with carving tool or indelible marker. There is at least this to be said for a photograph, that it does not mar the backdrop.

    1. I think I was writing to myself really - not that I take selfies, but, since I came into possession of a camera, I'm not sure I look & drink in so much any more. I'm too inclined to record for Ron (that is, Later Ron)

  3. that how you usually feel, zm?


    But no, you're right..and the Japanese are so immaculately well-mannered.

    Yeah, I hate it when tourists show me up like that!

    1. No-one has actually run away screaming but ...