Photo: Maria Savenko/Shutterstock

This New Series Tests if It’s Still Possible to Travel Without a Smartphone

Technology + Gear
by Matthew Meltzer Dec 26, 2018

Some will tell you smartphones are ruining the world.

They’ll say they’ve created a generation of people too lost in their screens to experience human interaction, too obsessed with being somewhere else to ever feel like they’re anywhere.

Then there are those who’ll tell you they’ve made the world better. Allowing us to find our way, speak new languages, and settle debates over who won the 1987 AL batting title in a matter of seconds.

There’s probably a happy medium somewhere in between, but no activity may raise the debate over the value of smartphones more than travel. Where we used to depend on our interactions with people to learn where to eat, visit, and experience in a city, now an entire vacation can be curated by Yelp.

Yes, our phone keep us from getting horribly lost and eating terrible meals. But at what cost? Have the travel and people skills we’ve lost made the experience less of an adventure? Or is traveling-by-people about as outdated an experience as rewinding a VHS tape?

Well, a new short-form video series aims to tackle those questions. Brand USA — a public-private partnership that markets America as a travel destination — streams the new eye-opening series created by Visit Seattle: Crowdsourced. The series features four young people who are stripped of their phones and forced to do crazy stuff like talk to strangers, navigate by map, and take only as many pictures as their Polaroid camera allows.

Is phone-free travel the real way to “go local”?

The series is set in Seattle, with four six-to-seven minute segments exploring a different facet of the city. Online cooking personality Michael Greenfield of Brothers Green Eats spends a day exploring the city’s seafood, comedian Robin Gold delves into Seattle’s LGBTQ community, cabinlove founder Lindsey Bro tours local artisans, and Brooklyn-based comedian Josh Johnson spends some time in the glorious Pacific Northwest outdoors.

The show is at its most effective when it demonstrates how talking to locals is a better guide than any online resource. Gold, for example, starts her day at the famous Wild Rose lesbian bar, and through a series of recommendations, finds herself doing dance numbers with the burlesque/drag cast of Kitten and Lou, playing rugby with the country’s largest gay rugby team, and doing hot yoga in a small studio near Capitol Hill.

But more than finding quirky drag shows and sports teams, the experience forced the hosts to really listen to the stories of the people who make up a city. Greenfield’s chats with gritty northwestern fishermen yield fascinating insight into an industry often forgotten in the land of Amazon and Starbucks.

Gold chats with a yoga studio owner who discusses how her daughter is being brought up in a city full of “tolerant vibes.”

Bro, when talking with the founder of retro-baseball apparel Ebbets Field Flannels, learns that a few decades ago Seattle was like the mid-sized cities of today, “a great place to start a new life, if you had a new idea people were open to it.”

A comedian ditches his phone and discovers nature

Perhaps the most gratifying episode is Johnson’s trip through Seattle’s nature. He begins by hiking around Mt. Rainier with a park ranger and is mesmerized by the snow and scale of the mountain. He then stops in a small-town restaurant for recommendations, and finds himself at Snoqualmie Falls, where he learns of the falls’ role in Twin Peaks. Throughout the episode Johnson appears completely taken with the beauty of the region, but he also notices how much more he appreciates it without his phone.

“The connection with people is so much more real when you’re outside, not on your phone,” he muses from the shores of Alki Beach. “Just enjoying the day.”

Johnson also addresses how phones have eliminated the awkwardness of approaching strangers. Getting stories from people is great — and probably easy when you have a TV camera in tow — but can also be unnerving for shy people. This is clear when one woman is visibly weirded out and Johnson says, “There’s no good way to come up to a stranger on the street, I apologize.”

Though she, along with all the other Seattleites in the series, seemed more than happy to direct visitors around.

There were, of course, some holes in the plot. Transportation, for example, is never addressed, and since getting around a city without a smartphone seems like a pretty essential skill, it’s a glaring omission. (Producers took the hosts from place to place, and the only hint we get that they weren’t using navigation is a comedic scene of Johnson struggling with a map.)

Producers also handled hotel selection and reservation, another skill we relegate to travel apps that would have been interesting to see executed without technology. Nobody ever makes a phone call either, and it might have been telling to see someone calling a loved one from their hotel, then getting a $35 bill for it later.

The hosts end each show by immediately asking for their phones back, which makes it hard to tell if they actually learned anything. Aside from Johnson’s beachside reflections, they don’t talk much about what the experience taught them insofar as living life disconnected.

Crowdsourced does do a fantastic job of showcasing Seattle (it was produced in conjunction with Visit Seattle), and by touring the city through locals, viewers get an angle on the Emerald City they won’t find elsewhere. If nothing else, it demonstrates how ditching your phone is how one really sees a city “like a local,” and how it allows you to listen and learn rather than text and post.

This series is available on Roku, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire, as well as on the Visit Seattle website. Without a hint of irony, Brand USA also has Crowdsourced on its GoUSA app for iOS and Android — so you can spend time learning about how to travel without your smartphone, with your face buried in your smartphone.

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