Traveling Without Moving Fast

Marriott and Fast Company asked Faris to join the Creative Braintrust as part of their Travel Brilliantly campaign. This was a piece he wrote about how virtual technology could impact travel.

'The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country as a foreign land.' G. K. Chesterton

There is at least one vision of the future of travel that will never require anyone to go anywhere.

It’s the ultimate expression of a cultural idea that has preoccupied human beings since we began to artificially replicate aspects of reality. McLuhan raised it in relation to broadcast television, when we could for the first time see [vision] things that were happening far [tele] away. He called this the "global village" - a "simultaneous happening" as everything is streamed in real time everywhere. Television did not do this, of course. It was simply the herald to a greater technology which was to follow, as McLuhan predicted, and other futurists took up this version in his wake.

Television, world changing as it was, worked in one direction, with some experiences selected, edited and broadcast to all. The greater technology renders distinctions between broadcaster and consumer irrelevant, as every experience is broadcast from every device in every direction to everyone. McLuhan called this shift the "global theatre" but you could argue Shakespeare got there first. The idea achieved a kind of apotheosis with the emergence of the social web, where we began to see everyone electively uploading their edited life experiences to feed the stream. As Joshua Harris foretold, and lived through the consequences of experimenting with, We Live In Public.

Fast forward then, to one logical end point, with infinite bandwidth and storage, infinitely more sophisticated mediation technologies, and the ubiquitous presence of cameras on glasses or contact lenses or on any IP enabled object [i.e. all of them]. Thanks to the kooky exponential function of Moore’s Law, this future possibility need not be very far away. All the technologies exist and 1 to 100% is only two steps if you’re counting exponentially.

Let’s put aside the utopian/dystopian discussion of a panopticon created by the people, a Little Brother where every life experience is consumable at any moment. If you think it’s hard to decide what to give your attention to now, imagine when there are 7 billion lifestations to scroll through. Everyone’s reality becomes ‘television’. In an infinite, utterly democratic media environment, the aggregation of attention itself is the only way to gauge the relative value of any quantum of content. The world will always know what’s trending, but never necessarily why - or if it’s relevant to them and their interests.

Let’s consider instead one possible way it could impact travel.

In 1990’s Life After Television: The Coming Transformation Of Media and American Life[a prescient and telling conjunction], media futurist George Gilder sums it up succinctly:

Viewers will be able to "go comfortably sightseeing from their living room through high-resolution screens, visiting Third-World countries without having to worry about airfare or exchange could fly an airplane over the Alps or climb Mount Everest".

If you can experience something [almost] indistinguishable from really being there, safely, cheaply, intensely - would you travel at all? Is the journey really the destination or is that just something we say, while wishing we could teleport to and from the beach without any of that messy in-between stuff. Why not experience everything, anything, in higher than reality resolution, like the eponymous Better Than Life game from the Red Dwarf novel.

These virtual trips are already a fact of life for drone pilots. Everyday they fly through real landscapes and carry out real missions. Then they log off and are immediately back at home. These experiences are both real and virtual. The pilots on these missions suffer similar extreme stress consequences as pilots in the field, even more so in some cases. These are not your average tourist excursions but the discombobulation is inevitable. Heightened mediation means that when you disengage, you must recombobulate back into your own life, just as you do after being manhandled by the TSA.

As technology makes everywhere accessible so that we might see differences, other powerful forces drive everywhere to become more similar. Decades of globalization driven by the quest for economic growth homogenize as technology flattens. Global brands provide products and retail environments recognisable to all, everywhere. A Starbucks on every island, P&G products in every supermarket, and indeed supermarkets themselves everywhere. This should not be understood as in some way nefarious. Indeed, for a developing nation, the arrival of global brands can signal safety, reliability and prosperity, just as they did when the emerged everywhere else. But, by the same token, the make things similar everywhere they are. Language shifts in response as the subset of English sometimes called "Globish" spreads as the lingua franca of commerce. Advertising in China, and many other countries, often includes English to connote cosmopolitan values.

So the corners of the world we can suddenly ‘travel’ to through every pair of eyes are rapidly becoming superficially the same. But they are not really the same, which is what will always distinguish being there from seeing there.

When we log on, from our sofa, to the lifechannel of a dramatic episode currently trending in a market in Marrakesh, we have none of the mundane experiences necessary to understand it except through the similarities we incorrectly contextualize. Only the exciting moments will attract attention. Rather than being forced out of a frame of reference, by small daily reminders that they are not universal, we put everything we see into our own frame, reinforcing our assumptions, confirming our biases. All the world’s a stage and everyone went to their local drama school. This doesn’t highlight things we habitually ignore, igniting new comparisons. Finding similarities in different things is the art of creativity, making new non-obvious connections between the disparate. Reality experienced through an eyeFrame doesn’t force us out of our now dominant role as audience, one step removed.

That’s why, if Chesterton was right, travel experiences that are even better than the real thing will never be as good as the real thing. The only way to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land is to spend a lot of time walking somewhere else.

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