Travel: “Black Mirror” edition
Let’s all take the same trip, down to the details.
“If you don’t go, you’ll never know.” (Robert De Niro, Esquire 2010)
People are natural explorers. We’re curious.
Whether driven to discover literal new worlds, a new country or city, or the best of everything in the region we call home, we crave the experience, knowledge, and stories our discoveries bring.
Some of us want to be the first (or at least among the first) to have the experience, while others will be happy to explore post-Castro Cuba or Mars—at some point. And though many of us want to go deep, with repeat trips to the same destination until we know it like a local and it truly feels like home, still more settle for quick joyrides across the surface before moving on to the next whirlwind, gossamer understanding of places near and far.
Perhaps you’re an explorer after my own heart who shuns organized tours because, gross—canned discoveries! Beyond getting around and other basic pre-trip research, we want to make our own happenstance discoveries (and mistakes) on the ground.
But will that even be possible anymore, really?
Imagine. Everything has already been discovered and documented for our convenient “not to miss” discovery. Everything. Everywhere.
What starts as a tolerable trickle of politely curious Airbnb guests soon becomes a daily invasion of day-tripping, social media storytelling-app-obsessed gawkers, many of whom stay the night in an ever-expanding inventory of rental apartments and whole houses for tourists who fancy themselves “travelers.”
After twenty happy years as a member of this community (and a little long-form public venting via Medium), you realize it’s time to move. And ideally, as crazy as it sounds, to some supremely bland, new-to-you city, void of any charm or tourist-attracting culture whatsoever, noted only for its proximity to reliable public transportation and its unimaginative but seismically sound construction of outdated or aesthetically off-putting taupe-soaked office buildings, single-family homes, and apartment complexes.
Bleak is the new bliss.
Two decades ago (feels like a bygone era), you fell for this under-the-radar neighborhood, this sleepy street, this 1920s Mediterranean-style apartment building with perfectly maintained Spanish (North African?) tiles because it was all so quaint—and quiet.
At least you can say you knew the neighborhood when it was livable.
Geo-perfect travel forever changed (read: ruined) your perfect home address, and virtually overnight. Everyone posts, peddles, or curates geotagged images, which are particularly popular with tourists and travelers alike, a now essential aid in everyone’s trip planning. Even locals use these tools to explore their cities more thoroughly.
Some are happy to hit just one postcard-perfect street or “must-see” door, while others map out days of “off the beaten path” lat-long “secrets” to “discover” in formerly (those were the happy days) “hard to find” residential nooks and crannies of little- to well-known cities, like yours.
The resulting experience for all involved is something like hell.
Your home and the one across the street and the others around the corner weren’t meant to attract this many visitors on foot and in those self-driving-tour vehicles, 24/7/365. But given that workforces the world over are no longer tethered to an office, people are living and earning an income from just about anywhere now. Kind of like a perpetual working vacation, except all the places worth seeing and being are packed with tourists all the time. Genuine locals feel like a dying breed.
These are the liberated people of the future today, but not your future tomorrow. You don’t have one of the new-freedom jobs. You’re still tethered to a fixed location, accrued vacation (and not enough of it). Though, the desire to venture afar no longer holds the same allure.
The serendipitous discoveries you used to look forward to making in far-flung new places or once quiet arrondissements and suburbs of familiar favorites like Paris are finished—everyone’s already been there or are on their way, every day. Gone are the pretty neighborhoods, streets, doors, and #ihavethisthingwithfloors you wanted to spend time alone with.
Anywhere aesthetically interesting is teeming with tourists when you arrive, and you get there early because you do a little professional photography on the side. But everyone does a little photography on the side now for fun[ds].
So defeated at home and abroad, you retreat to a taupe-tinted town for most of the year and spend your paid leave reading about the world the way it was when communities chock-full of real residents were the norm. And sometimes (when you’re feeling particularly adventurous and up for fighting the throngs on a mutual discovery or two), you even vacate your armchair back home for an in situ taste of the actual place.
If you close your eyes and pop on your noise-canceling headset, you can almost imagine the former glory that made it famous in the first place—before everyone was on the move, discovering the fuck out of it.
Reality check: About five years ago when I was between jay-oh-bees I had an idea for a travel site-app-experience deal in which the world would be beautifully curated and geotagged down to the digital details, so that anyone who wanted to find firsthand that pretty door or floor in the picture could easily do just that. The idea was based on one aspect of how I like to go about planning day trips, specifically—a joyfully cumbersome discovery process of combing Google Maps for prospects (by proximity and “getting there”) before moving to Google Earth, Google Images, or other online sources for cool-looking confirmation. This is how I “found” Entreveux for a trip to Nice, Tellaro for a stay in Genova, Procida for two weeks in Sorrento with friends, and Marly-le-Roi for a quick zip just outside Paris. Anyway, time passed and I started a demanding full-time gig that didn’t leave much at the end of the day for developing side projects. Then, at some point in the course of Netflix binging, I discovered “Black Mirror” and applied its dark view of the not-too-far-off future to my old idea and realized, as the intersection of technology and travel becomes inevitably more advanced and … invasive? I just want to enjoy the planet as it is now and discover its quiet places quietly, while I still can. Oh, and as much as I love sci-fi and the idea of interplanetary travel, I’m happy to never set foot on Mars. Plenty still to see and experience right here on Earth, thanks.