How to Travel Without Leaving the House
A new psychological perspective may allow us to travel more freely
Posted September 1, 2020 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
Few movies capture the spirit of travel like The Beach. The film tells the story of a young American traveler (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), hungry for genuine adventure, and critical of modern tourism.
He remarks, "The downer is everyone's got the same idea; we all travel thousands of miles just to watch tv and check-in somewhere with all the comforts of home. And you gotta ask yourself, what is the point of that?”
Leo isn’t the only one who’s had this observation. As philosopher Emily Thomas documents in her new book, The Meaning of Travel, this is a common sentiment, dating back as the 1800s. French philosopher Rousseau lamented that “all capitals are just alike” and that “Paris and London seem to me the same town.” Hard to imagine what he might think of American suburbs.
From Rousseau, to The Beach, to now, we can all relate to this general idea. This feeling of going very far, and yet, nowhere.
How can this be?
The Philosophy of Travel
This question is central to Thomas’ book. A professor of Philosophy at Durham University in the UK, she points out that travel isn’t merely for recreation. It also poses deep philosophical questions. Is travel good for us? How does it expand our cultural and intellectual horizons? What have the world’s philosophers gained from travel?
And in today’s era of travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders, examining these ideas may even allow us to experience the joys of travel while staying home.
The most foundational question in The Meaning of Travel is deceptively simple: What is it? As she points out, defining travel in purely geographical terms is insufficient. Business people travel tens of thousands of miles to give a presentation or attend a meeting. After which they fly back home barely having left the hotel.
In contrast, meandering just a few miles from home can feel like an adventure. As she writes, “travel in the grander sense doesn’t always involve such distance. Samuel Johnson traveled just a few hundred miles to write his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, and Bill Bryson’s Lost Continent starts in his hometown” (p. 5).
Travel, then, is not geographical, but psychological. As Thomas distills, “travel is the experience of Otherness.”
This experience of otherness through travel has honed the minds of some of the pioneers of Western Thought. For example, Francis Bacon, the father of empiricism, developed his concept of innateness from noting the universalities he experienced across the many cultures he visited.
And for all of us, travel journeys allow us to experience otherness, in ways that allow us to learn and grow through these different experiences. Like Leo, we yearn for otherness. What then, does travel mean in the context of a pandemic?
The Psychology of Echo Chambers
In this state of lockdown, we’ve turned to the digital realm more than ever. Technology though, even when we are traveling, is often an impediment to otherness. As Thomas describes, “even going abroad, you’re still bringing sameness with you in the form of say, Google Maps. These apps have made travel easier, but in reality, have made experiencing otherness much more difficult.”
And then there’s the internet at large. The internet itself has boundless content and more than plenty of “other” to explore. But in its practical use, the internet is remarkably repetitious.
The internet's most popular sites, from YouTube to Facebook, are algorithmically geared to keep us online for as long as possible. And in doing so, they've converged onto content which ultimately feels familiar.
This contributes to the phenomenon of online echo chambers: most of what we see is designed to confirm our existing belief systems. And most of the people we interact with tend to share, and reinforce what we already think.
Even when we’re confronted with alternative viewpoints, these are curated by our online community, in a way that confirms our existing attitudes about those views. In the realm of American politics, Liberals are shown the most heinous examples of Republican attitudes and vice versa. Even exposure to the ‘other’ is an exercise in familiarity.
In broad terms, the internet is confirmation bias gone wild: The place where our own existing world is confirmed, and where our social world increasingly comprises people who think in the same way. As Cass Sunstein describes, this leads us to live in “different epistemic universes.”
As Leo remarks about tourism, “we all try to do something different, but all just end up doing the same damn thing.” This sentiment could also be said for the online world.
Finding Otherness Through Virtual Tourism
From politics to business, to society at large, there’s a lot to say about the nature of the online interactions. Suffice to say, that it sharply contrasts with the world of travel.
Where do we go from here? On the one hand, the consumer world has responded to travel yearnings by creating virtual travel experiences. Tourist boards and private companies have created virtual touring systems to allow users to experience their countries and local landscapes.
Some countries have gotten very inventive. The Faroe Islands, for example, was one of the first countries to implement such a system, as their small economy is highly dependent on tourism.
Here, local tour guides on the island act as your avatar: they wear a high-definition camera, and you, the user, tell them where to go using a remote device from your couch. To make the video game feel even more realistic there’s even a “jump” button on your remote. Press this, and your real-life avatar leaps into the air.
These systems allow us to experience the otherness of travel from our homes.
Thomas’ perspective on traveling provides additional solace; it’s as much psychological as it is geographical. She observes that “Travel is not the only way of reaching the unfamiliar.”
With this in mind, simple things, such as choosing the right book to read, can allow us to experience otherness. “It’s always possible to experience otherness through reading books about things we don’t know about or engaging with travel books we’ve never been before.”
In this way, travel is possible even from the confines of our own home. Incorporating ‘otherness’ into daily life may allow us to experience its essence.
This post originally appeared on the consumer behavior blog PopNeuro.
Boyle, D. (2000) “The Beach”, Paramount Pictures
Faroe Islands Tourism Board, “Visit Faroe Islands”, www.remote-tourism.com/about-the-project
Hosanagar, K. (2016-11-25). "Blame the Echo Chamber on Facebook. But Blame Yourself, Too". Wired.com.
Sunstein, C. (2019) Conformity: The Power of Social Influences, New York, NY: NYU Press
Thomas, E. (Aug 7th) Personal interview via Zoom
Thomas, E (2020) The Meaning of Travel. OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.
Ulen, T. S. (2001). "Democracy and the Internet: Cass R. Sunstein, Republic.Com. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press. Pp. 224. 2001". SSRN Working Paper Series. doi:10.2139/ssrn.286293. ISSN 1556-5068.