Culture Guides

The Digital Divide and the Traveler

Backpackers fill their backpacks with hi-tech devices that leave the third world locals gaping… but can technology improve travel?

Once upon a time there was no such thing as the internet. Shocking, but true. Travelers on the road had to go to the nearest post office to collect their mail that had been sitting around for weeks, months or even years in some cases. Detours of hundreds of miles were made to pick up mail from family or friends and the letter inevitably got read and reread a hundred times on train stations, buses and lonely guest house rooms while the rain pattered against the window.

Then email came along and suddenly it was possible to tell everywhere just where you were, send photos back to prove it (This is me in front of the Taj Mahal, this is me in front of the Wailing Wall) and generally fill in those blank hours of your trip writing to friends back home instead of making new ones on the road. Oh, travel aint what it used to be…

But it didn’t stop there. Now travelers carry cell phones with them and you never quite know when they’re using the fucking things to photo or film you, the images getting sent back home as soon as they reach the nearest internet cafe and the power comes back on.

Travelers now book their rooms, buy their flights and learn about their destination on the internet. More and more clever devices ensure that the world of technology will change the face of travel in the 21st century. Backpackers will secretly turn on their Ego-Phones to check their popularity ratings at RateMyRucksack.com and perhaps to exercise their rights as a citizen and cast a vote on health reform back home in the new Digital Democracy.

If it sounds strange, think how it will look to the average poor sod in the third world who doesn’t even have drinkable, running water, never mind a steady power supply. The internet and the gabble of the modern world hasn’t yet reached most of the world due to crumbling, corrupt infrastructures that make new technology the toys of the rich. That’s us, in case you hadn’t yet got the drift.

To be sure, cell phones have made a big impact in poor countries (due to the impossibility of getting a working phone line installed) but while these might theoretically have access to the internet, it’s still a format more likely to be used for looking at porn than becoming a civic engineer online. Images of taboo, incomprehensible but titillating worlds are seeping through into older, less flexible cultures and continue the work done by television of convincing the average person that he’s been ‘deprived of his birthright’, to quote Marshall Maccluhan.

And still, for most of the people sitting on the floor of train stations, crammed into the back of pick up trucks with their chickens, hacking away plants in the jungle to keep the paths open, carrying 70kg of apples on their backs down stone mountain paths, scrubbing floors of restaurants that will never really get clean or cutting away loose threads in sweatshops to produce our latest fashions – well, let’s say they won’t be on Facebook any time soon.

But this isn’t the usual caustic Road Junky editorial. The Digital Divide is accelerating at breakneck pace and making us even further removed from the older, poorer cultures we visit (we have a hard enough time trying to explain to people in the first world just how you can make money out of running a website, let alone a farmer in Pakistan) but all is not lost. For those who do manage to get internet access somehow, Google has now made adsense payments possible by Western Union, eliminating the very real obstacle of people in the third world to open a bank account. This (for all those first world dummies) basically means that even if a site owned by someone in Bolivia is only making $2 a day in Google ads, Google can wire them the money and probably double their monthly income.

Or take http://www.kiva.org, a micro-finance institution that allows people to lend money directly to people who need it to get their lives together and start their own business in places like El Salvador, Ghana and India. Instead of giving your charitable dollars to greedy, incompetent and sometimes quite disastrous NGO’s who promise to feed the world, you can help out that rice farmer who needs a new pump AND you get your money back.

And hey, maybe once we have devices that translate every language on the planet then we can throw away those Babel fishes we’ve been carrying in our ears and actually communicate with all those locals that we sit next to on buses, trains and in cafes and public squares. We’ll find out what they’re really like behind the smiles and they’ll be able to ask us just what the hell are all those flashing lights attached to our foreheads anyway?

The world is changing fast, too fast. In fact, Road Junky plans to migrate to Sardinia soon and set up fences where we’ll create the DigitalAmish.com society where nothing invented after 2005 (we like Ipods) is allowed in.

Well, you know, until they invent holodecks with 1001 Nights harem programs…