It’s not exactly a sociological revelation that smartphones have changed the world. And aside from creating a generation of people with their faces buried in screens, the conveniences of having a world of knowledge in your pocket is a fantastic advance. But in some ways, smartphones have made us stupid, as we’ve lost some important skills along the way. This becomes painfully apparent when traveling; where once we had to learn things like languages, directions, and map reading, now many are completely lost if their phone dies. Here are 10 key travel skills we’ve lost thanks to smartphones.
1. Learning your way around a city.
Back in the day if you went to a new city, you needed to learn stuff like street names. Directions. Possibly even the nonsensical street grid. That info had to be stored in your brain so that when you were stumbling home at 5:00 AM you knew that 34th street came AFTER 33rd and BEFORE 35th.
Now you punch an address into an app and let a strange woman (or Neil Patrick Harris) tell you where to go. And if she, by some freak of nature, doesn’t have all the up to date information, you find yourself on a deserted country road in the middle of Namibia because you put all your faith in the almighty GPS. Learning one’s way around a city is not only good for your cultural education, it can often be a matter of safety. But sadly, it’s a skill most people still have yet to develop.
2. Having a natural sense of direction.
We’re not all blessed with an internal compass that allows us to walk out of a subway station and immediately know which way is east. But once upon a time we were forced to figure stuff like that out, whether by looking at the sun or knowing which way street numbers ran. Maybe, if you were really good, you saw a body of water and knew where it was in relation to where you were standing.
Now we pull out a phone and it tells us which way to go. The problem, of course, is sometimes you’ll be in a dead zone, or blocked by buildings. Or your GPS locates you incorrectly, and next thing you know you’ve walked clear to the other side of Manhattan, when your destination was only 500 feet in the other direction. Learning how to orient yourself is another important skill in survival, and one we’ve lost en masse.
3. Reading a physical map.
Hand someone a city map in 2018 and they’ll have to flip it at last six times to even know which way is north. Where we once were able to find routes through city streets and country highways, reading legends and tracing blue and red lines, now if the map isn’t from Google or Apple we’re lost. Sense of direction and city knowledge help. But a map can get you somewhere with certainty, though few now could tell you how to read one. Though nobody misses trying to fold one.
4. Language skills
Not that you ever needed to master Spanish to spend a semester in Barcelona, but learning helpful phrases like “¿donde está la biblioteca?” was an essential part of pre-travel preparation. From those helpful phrases you often learned other parts of the language, as you’d converse with locals and learn words for directions like “left” and “right.” Or at the very least how to say “No I don’t want any chicklets” — politely — in several languages.
Now we have Google Translate, which doesn’t always come up with the right phrase and sometimes has you saying “please throw this tomato at my grandmother” when trying to ask for ketchup. America is the best in the world at a great many things — learning languages isn’t one of them. And smartphones haven’t helped.
5. Navigating public transportation.
Like the smartphones they work through, ride sharing services have changed the world in a lot of good ways. They’ve reduced drunk driving. They’ve helped busy parents transport their kids. They’ve also kept a lot of people from experiencing the cultural adventure that is taking public transportation.
That’s not to say that everyone in the world would benefit from sitting next to a guy on the Montreal subway who, coincidentally, is BFFs with Jesus Christ. But learning how to read transit maps and navigate a new city’s trains, buses, and questionable vanpools is a useful skill if, heaven forbid, your phone dies. But with most people opting for the cheap, easy option of ride sharing, it has dwindled considerably.
6. Soliciting locals’ recommendations.
Yelp, if you didn’t know, promotes good reviews for businesses who buy their ads, and promotes bad reviews of ones who don’t. But for some reason, people collectively depend on said ad-driven recommendations to find restaurants when they travel. Even those who don’t use Yelp look to blogs, articles, and other online resources to find out where to eat.
But you know who can guide you way better than Google? Actual people. The personal interaction and specific advice you get by simply asking folks on the street where to eat and what to order is far more useful. Sadly, rather than starting up conversations and getting to know people we’re content to let online writers we’ve never met or anonymous reviewers tell us where to go. And that limits a lot of the pleasant surprises you find when traveling.
7. Relaxing to take in the sites.
Relaxing is not a skill, so much. But rather a pleasure in life many have lost because, as we all know, if it isn’t on Instagram you didn’t really do it. Even if you’re not obsessively chronicling your vacation on social media, you may well spend your scenic walk through the historic streets of Rome staring into your phone to make sure you don’t get lost. Or spend your time sitting in a Paris café texting rather than watching the characters walk by. You’ll try and get every angle of a beautiful statue in Florence for a picture rather than appreciating the genius that went into it.
Ask your parents about their month-long backpacking trips through Europe in the ‘60s or ‘70s and there’s a decent chance they’ll dig up an old tattered notebook that tells the whole story. That’s because people used to keep travel journals, with details and anecdotes their brain might forget over the years, but the pages never do.
We’ve lost that heartfelt way of chronicling our adventures now, journal entries replaced by creative hashtags and a collection of “Good Morning, Toledo!” pictures from our hotel balconies. What we don’t post, we may forget. Meaning big parts of our trip are lost to memory.
Spontaneity isn’t so much a skill as a state of mind, but there was a time when you’d get lost or end up in places you hadn’t planned on, and finding your way out was part of the adventure. You’d stumble into happy accidents, asking strangers for directions who ended up inviting you to rooftop parties or out on boats, and you’d have stories for the rest of your life. Now if you’re lost, or miss a train, it’s an easy fix. Not like we’re all sticking to stringent itineraries when we travel, but the spontaneous stories that come from not having all the answers aren’t what they once were.
10. True disconnection
Unless you’re headed to a remote park above the arctic circle or a vast desert in South America, getting away from cell service and WiFi is pretty tough. Sure, we might say we want to disconnect, but as soon as we take a picture we think a friend would like, our entire day becomes about finding somewhere with Wifi. Vacation doesn’t mean disconnecting at all anymore, it means being on your phone somewhere else and sending pictures of it home.
Does this lead to stress and burnout? Perhaps. Or perhaps it keeps us closer to loved ones while we’re away. But in an era when people are constantly connected, breaking that cycle on holiday has become almost impossible.