The net effect

Written by Stuart Revnell No Gravatar

The last time I went backpacking was in 1991. I was 18, and together with my two best friends, Jason and Adryan, went Inter Railing around Europe for a month. In those days, I seem to recall that around £200 bought us each a month of unlimited rail travel throughout Europe, including some ferry crossings, and so we wound our way down through France and Italy, all the way to Corfu, then back up again through Austria, Germany and Amsterdam.

These were the days before mass adoption of mobile phones or the internet, and so each week, the three of would find a payphone and dial home, to reassure parents we were OK, and update them on our adventures (or some of them).

We didn’t have a guidebook either (we could barely find room for one once the hefty Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable and Jason’s battered copy of Penthouse were squeezed in), so we relied on serendipity to lead us to campsites, the odd recommendation, or failing all that, the sight of two or three eighteen year old Scandinavian girls heading somewhere half decent.

This time around, the world is very different. We’ve brought a laptop with us for our trip, and we’re by no means in the minority. From iPhones and tiny Acer netbooks, right up to top end Macbook Pros, I would say that between a third and a half of people we’ve encountered are travelling with a device which gives them internet access. Even the student backpackers are carrying them – when I was 18 I spent my student loan on a pointy, shiny blue guitar (incidentally, one of the best guitars I ever owned), but who knows…I might buy an iPad 2 these days.

Everywhere we go too, we’re catered for – around half the guesthouses we’ve stayed in have had free wifi, together with the majority of cafes and restaurants. It’s a very effective hook to draw customers in too – free wifi from 17:00 to 21:00, for example, is a great way of ensuring that by the time people have had a beer or so and checked Facebook for an hour, they stay on for a pleasant, drawn out dinner. It’s certainly become a deciding factor several times for us when making a choice between one place or another.

I love travelling with the laptop. We can relax with a film we’ve downloaded (or occasionally picked up from a Russian bootleg market), we write our blog, I have some software tutorials I’m working my way through, and we update our daily budget spreadsheet (yes, really – it even has colour-coded surplus / deficit indicators, and updating it is one of the highlights of my day) and our overall travel budget tracker to check we haven’t blown our savings yet. Then, of course, there’s Skype and email for keeping touch with families, friends, accountants, clients who need website modifications, and for me, the Nashville Songwriters Association (I hope my sabbatical from the songwriting scene for six months hasn’t inconvenienced them too much).

What it’s made me realise, though, is quite how dependent I am on the internet. I’m fine for a little while without it, but I definitely get a little agitated when we don’t have wifi access for too long, and on several occasions have felt a palpable sense of relief when my fingers hit the keyboard, and a whole world of information is at my disposal once again.

I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this reliance on the internet either, judging from what I’ve observed on our trip to date, and I can imagine that it could be easy to portray this in a negative light, and to bemoan the fact that travellers now spend their time surfing in their guesthouses, as opposed to the halcyon days of sitting round strumming guitars, talking to one another and exchanging traveller classics such as ‘The Dice Man’ or ‘Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’.

It’s simply part of the evolutionary process though, in my opinion, and should be embraced. I wouldn’t want to return to the days of Inter Railing. I’d rather be with a laptop and have free wifi on demand than have to find an internet cafe. I enjoy having my 3G enabled Kindle and being able to pull down a book on demand as and when I want to read something new.

I’d also rather have the ability to update a blog to share with family and friends, providing an almost real time account of our thoughts and observations, than have to wait six months and wade through a selection of pictures on a TV screen for an audience unable to relate to them.

By the time I go backpacking again, I should imagine that super fast, permanent connections via handheld devices will be the norm for everyone. Skype and other applications of that ilk will be available 24/7, with audio and video quality as clear as a face-to-face conversation, speech-to-text will probably take the hard work out of Facebook updates, email and blogging (or whatever it’s called by then), and powering up a laptop, finding an internet connection and waiting for the guesthouse owner to bring you back the security key scrawled on the back of a till receipt will be almost as anachronistic as thumbing through the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable.

I can’t wait.

NOTE: I’m writing this on a bus which has just broken down, ten minutes after departure – by the time this is published, my thought process will be six hours out of date. If only I’d had the foresight to purchase a 3G dongle.

One Response to “The net effect”

  1. SarahNo Gravatar says:

    Certainly brings back memories . . .

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