The promise of connected digital networks — that which we now call the internet — was to replace space with time, as the unit of our life. Space has been critical in thinking of our units of a private, personal, social, collective and political organisation. Space had defined our notions of friendship, intimacy, family, society, and sociality. It seemed like a preposterous idea at that time, about four decades ago, to imagine that space would become less relevant in configuring our sense of who we are and how we relate to the world. In the early days of the internet, when people were still working on clunky connections and text-based interfaces, this idea of proximity being replaced by temporality, was relegated to the realms of sci-fi fantasy.
Now, our friends are not defined by proximity but through Facebook algorithms. We have come to learn that we might have more in common with a person halfway across the globe than with somebody who might be living next door. We think of global news as local news, consuming faraway information in real time, and being invested in the politics of spaces we have never visited. In IT-service countries like India, entire shadow cities have been built where people define their working times, rhythms, and, even their names, based on the distant geographies they work in — even when located in the back-processing offices in Bengaluru, Gurugram, and Hyderabad. We have started thinking of information as streams of time, and, increasingly, our digital practices have been space independent as we move our life to the cloud.
And yet, we remain enslaved to the geographies of our living and the materiality of our devices. Somebody might be just a click away, but they are also not always available because of the distances in space. Information might be easily available and ready to stream, but without the context of other people sharing and making meaning of it, there might be no relevance or urgency to it. We might lose ourselves in online role-playing games and immerse in social media conversation that makes us forget where we are. But none of it has actually made space irrelevant. If anything, as we become informationally overloaded subjects, and continue to invest all our time on digital screens, space has become a premium and travel has taken on new connotations.
Once upon a time, when people talked about travel, it was a journey towards something — to discover new people, cultures, rhythms of life and ways of living. Travel carried with it a sense of purpose: to find more, learn more, explore more and enrich our lives with the experiences of diversity that the world holds for us. The presumption was that we live small and sheltered lives, and travel gifts us new horizons. This idea of travel has now been made redundant for the contemporary information subjects. At the speed of a click, we now have access to information of the world, often in real time, in ways that we could never have imagined. Our cultural references are global, our cuisine, too, is multicultural. We talk of shows and communities that are global. Travel is now just another data stream that adds to this milieu of the informationally overloaded subject.
The digital does not change travel. It does not make travel unnecessary. It doesn’t shrink the world or make it flatter. Instead, because it gives us access to the world already, it makes us ask questions of why we travel and what do we get out of it. The digital access through augmented reality, through virtual reality, through immersive media, and through connected networks, helps us ask a question again of why we travel, and subsequently, what we travel for and what we travel to. Digital travels are travels with an intention, with a purpose, and with a responsibility that makes it necessary for us to connect with the local in a new way. The digital platforms for travel – from Couchsurfing to Wikitravels, from augmented maps to TripAdvisor discussion boards — are a way of showing us the alternative that is no longer the expected brief. They are ways of finding communities, of ethical engagements and new modes of interaction where we take other roles than just being tourists, and become new subjects of critical discovery and exploring horizons with a purpose.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.