“For their recent trip to Namibia,” a short blurb in Wired magazine explains, “Greg and Anja Manuel packed light: PowerBars, clothes, and a Garmin GPS loaded with Traveler’s Africa version 8.02, a user-generated map brimming with 50,000 points of interest. That last item meant they didn’t have to hire an experienced guide.”
Fair enough. The map looks beautiful, the idea is cool, and, within two or three trips, the GPS device does indeed save money; however, I can’t help but wonder what this might foretell for local economies, all over the world, based on guided tourism. For instance, a small group of American tourists comes through your village, eating PowerBars and looking at handheld GPS devices. They don’t go to any restaurants; they don’t ask any questions of anyone; perhaps they don’t even rent a hotel room.
For all economic purposes, it’s as if they were never there. They were more like surreal poltergeists wearing Vasque boots, reading Jonathan Safran Foer on a Kindle.
What better way to avoid meeting Namibians! Just use their electrical grid to recharge your gadgets, pay no taxes, and leave.
I’m left imagining the inverse of this situation, of course, in which a small group of Namibians shows up in London. They ask no questions, eat at no restaurants, and avoid all hotels – before going off to wander round the countryside, sleeping in tents. It would all seem rather mysterious.
In any case, do handheld technologies mean that we’ll soon be digitally replacing the native populations of the Third World, never needing them again for guidance, travel advice, or even insights into medicinal plantlife? You fly down to the Amazon to try ayahuasca, but you don’t hire any local shamans or native botanists because you’ve got everything you need to know already saved on a 300GB iPod – as if that might be the atomized fate of the West in general: desperately seeking visions, alone in the wild, surrounded by portable gadgetry.
“Your tradition is right here,” the tourist says, holding his Garmin GPS loaded with Traveler’s Africa version 8.02 over the heads of impoverished villagers. “I don’t need you anymore.”
Next year, someone gives you a small handheld device with an interestingly honest tagline.
Go Everywhere, it says. Meet No One.