Culture | Learning | Travel

Seeing the World for the First (?) Time

Our awareness has been stretched wider than ever in history, but often at the cost of taking away a lifetime of experiences.” – Seth Godin

“We were the first humans who would never see something for the first time.” – Gillian Flynn

Both of these appeared in my feed within minutes of each other this morning, in turn each pointing out the world we live in being smaller than ever before, and casting a neon glow on a topic I should explore before the muse carries it on to the next writer. Candidly I’m itching to return to writing more local history, but it’ll have to wait a bit longer. I’d be a fool to turn a cold shoulder on the muse, wouldn’t I?

Godin laments the cost of awareness in our world of YouTube, Instagram, streaming media and, yes, travel blogging. We tend to know about things just by casually dipping our ladle into the stream of information flying past us in all directions. But sipping from the ladle isn’t immersive exploration of new places and ideas. It’s the Cliff Notes, not War and Peace. As Godin writes, there’s no excuse for being uninformed, but there’s also no good reason for being inexperienced.

Flynn laments that media often offers a better picture of the world than going there and seeing it does. I’d say she’s partially right in that we cheat ourselves of the wonder of the new having seen it before we get there. But I disagree that the experience is better through media or that we don’t experience something substantively better being there versus seeing it on a screen. I can look out the window and see snow, or I can walk outside and understand snow.

The crew of Fayaway are in Saba at the moment. It was nothing for me to pull up a video of people hiking up the mountain they hiked up, see the massive leaves they saw and the same view out to St. Kitts that they sent me in a text message. But a YouTube video is a very small sample of the experience they had of talking to locals, feeling the heat, getting out of breath climbing to the summit, and the exhilaration of reaching the summit and catching a first glimpse of the panoramic vista. That is their experience of a lifetime, while I’m simply aware of what it generally looked like for them after watching a YouTube video.

The world is smaller than ever, and we’re blessed to experience the wonders of it without the cost of earning it in money, risk, sweat equity and sacrifice. But experience on a screen isn’t experiencing life, it just eliminates the surprise of knowing what’s around the corner when you can Google street view so much of this world. Surprise can be good, and surprise can be very bad. Maybe the answer is to use all this technology to mitigate the impact of the bad while minimizing the reduction of the other.

Maybe VR will bring us closer than we’d ever imagine in the next few years. There’s enormous value in practicing on the flight simulator to get it right before you fly the Boeing 777 overseas, but you still need to get experience on the real thing after that before they load passengers on with you. Likewise, seeing what the Google street view was prior to pulling out of Edinburgh in a rental car made me more comfortable when I did it. It didn’t simulate the tactile oddness of the left hand shift instead of the right or the adrenaline rush of the first roundabout going the opposite way, but it eliminated sensory overload having seen a bit of it already.

Humans are meant to move, and to interact and react to the world around them. Media is getting exponentially better at recreating this experience, but that doesn’t make it experience. The answer is to get out and be a part of the world, not just watch it through someone else’s lens.

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