Photo: L.Bö

I spent a large percentage of my formative years in front of a screen. Despite my parents’ best (and laudable) efforts, I invested a lot of my prepubescent time with Kim Possible, Luke Skywalker, and Mario + Luigi rather than out playing with the mud like prior generations did.

And I am not the only one. Anybody born after 1990 or so — those christened the “Digital Generation” — spent what surely adds up to months straight of their childhood in front of a screen of some kind. Young minds engrossed in screentime will only increase with the generations to come — just ask my 11-year-old little brother, who is known to watch the Disney Channel and play Angry Birds at the same time.

I’ll let psychologists figure out what the long-term impact on our brains and focus will be as a result of this, as instead I’d like to comment on a more immediate issue my years in digital space have brought me: They’ve corrupted my real-life travel experiences! I’ve traveled to numerous exotic lands while engrossed in a screen — far, far more than I have in real life, simply because it’s far cheaper and faster to get to places like the Antarctic through documentaries than by plane. Digitally speaking, I’ve been to every continent on Earth, multiple alternate dimensions, and more than one galaxy far, far away. In real life, I’ve only been to a fraction of these places — probably because Mom liked to have me home for dinner.

Now that I have the chance to get out in the world, however, I’ve found that my digital travels are interfering with my physical ones. All of the awesome places in real life have already been appropriated by filmmakers and directors for use in their video games and movies, which means by the time I make it to the real-life iteration, the only thing I can think about is all the media I’ve seen it appear in before.

The rugged beauty of Joshua Tree National Park in California looks to me exactly like the surface of Mars, which I roamed for many hours within the video game Red Faction: Guerrilla. The sweeping balustrades and dainty minarets of the fantastical Castle Neuschwanstein in Bavaria call to mind the creations of Walt Disney rather than those of its builder, King Ludwig II. To me, the Maghreb appears far more like Tatooine than it does Morocco or Algeria.

To be fair, it does make life more interesting — I keep expecting cloned dinosaurs to pop out at me in the Hawaiian jungle, and graboids from Tremors to snatch me out of the sands of Anza-Borrego.

Yet upon reflection, it seems to be an association that detracts from the overall experience rather than adds to it. I simply cannot enjoy a location for its intrinsic attributes alone — there are always shades of other, more fantastical stories attached to it. Certainly it is a far more satisfying experience to visit the bricks-and-mortar version of a place rather than the two-dimensional version. 4080p and high-definition surround sound can’t compete with the ability to touch, smell, and explore a place up close and personal on your own terms — not yet, at least. But that experience — no matter what it might be — is always colored by the memories of less tangible visits.

I don’t see any way to eliminate this issue, short of Orwellian restrictions on childhood screentime or mind erasure technology. Censorship is never fun, even for a good cause like this. Even with reasonable moderation, you’re still going to travel farther and wider digitally than physically. Given generational tendencies and tech trends, the root cause will only be exasperated as time goes on. So this “problem” is here to stay — we have to figure out how to manage it.

If we accept that a) it is far more satisfying to experience a tangible locale than a digital one, and b) it is too easy to expose yourself to far-flung locales digitally than physically, then I think a possible conclusion is clear. As digital natives, we should use our web surfing ways to seek out and discover new travel destinations, and then (most importantly) execute trips there. If our brains have already been exposed to just about every possible biome under the sun and stars (or twin suns), then we might as well go all out and immerse ourselves in the locale prior to the voyage. That way, we can see how others before us have interpreted the place, and contrast that with our own impressions once we make the trip, as I am certain your personal trip will be far more rewarding and different than any digital interaction you’ve had with the place.

I suppose I have been doing this already, albeit to a smaller degree. Brushing up on my Enya albums before my trip to Ireland turned out to be a great idea — I can really see how her music was influenced and inspired by the Celtic landscapes. I’m positive that my years of shooting pixelated Communists in various Cold War nuclear bunkers influenced my desire to go to Russia — a place not on most Europe-hoppers’ itineraries — and it ended up being one of my favorite destinations.

The key point here is the final step — making the trip. There’s no excuse, especially if you’ve already taken the trouble to view the representations thereof in however many forms of media. We can use our digital nativity to complement and fuel our desire to travel, but only if we follow through does it become a blessing rather than a curse.

What do you think is the best way to proceed with this Digital Dilemma? Is my suggestion a worthy solution, or is there a better way?