THE BLOG
05/14/2014 08:12 am ET Updated Jul 14, 2014

Online on Vacation

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An Anthropologist Reflects on our Inability to Unplug

My past week in Belize -- traveling with a small tribe of colleagues in the travel industry -- was a revelation in the ways electronics have wormed their way into the way we travel. Everyone's electronic devices were within easy reach the entire trip. Even when we were caving or snorkeling, our iPhones came with us.

In the time-honored ethnographic tradition of participant-observation, here are a few descriptions and observations I would like to share:

Behavior: After a patter of conversation, rather than sit in silence or continue to converse, all it took was one iPhone to be whipped out for everyone else to quickly follow suit. Once everyone was engaged with their devices, a sacred respect settled in. No one once interrupted someone who was "looking down." This also applied to the Mayan community we visited, politely waiting until we were no longer staring at our devices.

Comment: Electronic devices can be used to cover any awkward social moments. Engaging with your smartphone while in the company of others can "message" that a) you need some space to do your own thing, b) you are over stimulated by a live three-dimensional social workout and need to zone out (smartphones as pacifiers), or c) you have an "elsewhere" life that is demanding (and reifying) and can't wait for your return. For some reason these "cues" are perceived as sovereign and non-negotiable. Few folks will interfere with you if you are checking email or otherwise "looking down."

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Behavior: Continual posting of one's immediate experience to social media. All new experiences -- floating through a majestic network of caves on an underground river, swimming with nurse sharks, cooking with Mayans in a village -- were immediately fed into online channels, presumably scoring status for the poster, with their exotic content. The context destined for such posts -- the social landing page, as 'twere -- remained a mystery to the group, since we were not yet part of each other's social networks.

Comment: How does incessant posting frame our experience of our experiences? What would we find in them were we not angling for a selfie? Are we cheating our friends of the more seasoned recounting we might have if we weren't aborting our experiences into visual morsels? What is the effect on those around us of attending to remote contexts while in each other's company?

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Behavior: This one is on the hotel end. Instructions about WiFi access are conveyed with hurried urgency to guests, mirroring their anxiety about being able to plug in.

Comment: The hunger to establish connection with an online source is primary. Exploring a new environment comes later. This is like a toddler who needs secure access to mom (or mom substitute) and milk before exploring the playground. Hotels and lodges from Belize to Zimbabwe now acknowledge electronic access as a new and essential primary need of guests -- to add to a list of accommodations and services that is not short.

As we wove through the lush back-country of Belize and our days settled into a rhythm of chats and laughter, adventure and fine meals, we became familiars -- in a sense. The regular silent pauses of online check-ins began to fill with unspoken curiosity about the remote relationships being tended to -- the love or conflicts being sorted out, the work some of us continued to do.

Our small devices intimated massive shared pools of connection and purpose that were hidden to our fellow travelers and those we met in-county. Like the mountains or reefs we traversed, we could only see what was above ground -- the greater part remained hidden and immense beneath us, hinting at a larger, more redemptive, and perhaps more satisfying existence than the one we were currently living.

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Conclusions

Most travelers (if not everyone) are now dividing their consciousness between a live, three-dimensional experience with others and a conversation with broader networks they access remotely through devices.

Vacations have long been marketed as a time to connect. But if everyone -- from honeymooners to families -- is now importing their "connections" in the form of being online while they travel, what is today's experience of vacation about?

While inferring mystery and grandiosity, our devices in fact continually remove us from the experiences and people at hand -- creating a complex of chasms that can be challenging to cross.

What are your experiences of unplugging (or not) while on vacation? Share your comments below!

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Dominique Callimanopulos is the founder of Elevate Destinations, a company specializing in sustainable and socially responsible travel. She travels a lot -- with her computer and iPhone -- but is relieved when on rare occasions she finds herself off the grid.