Of all the things that seem trendy to complain about while travelling, the ordeal of trying to get a data connection while outside of your home country has got to be the most popular. It narrowly beats out airports, airport security, airlines, Air Canada, and the whole complaints-about-air-travel family, which is saying something.
Smartphones have a habit of becoming capable alarm clocks as soon as they cross the border, unless you fork out handsomely for a plan that allows you one cat video a month, or do some jiggery-pokery involving SIM cards and foreign carriers. Buried beneath it all is the desire for a constant Internet connection, a necessity that's only been baked into our conciousnesses over the past five years. But if we're really being honest, we might owe our telecom overlords a debt of gratitude for cutting us off when we go.
Constant connection brings pitfalls for the traveller. I find myself in the Britain at the moment. My phone doesn't work. In fact, I'm almost entirely offline here, and I can't tell you how much I'm enjoying it. It was all a bit accidental, but for the first time in years, I'm travelling free of net-lag.
Net-lag is the modern travellers' phenomenon: The sense that your body has travelled, but your mind is still stuck at home. You can cross an ocean, to a place where the people are different and the language is different and the way you shake hands is different, yet you can check your phone and it's as if you never left your house – all the mental furniture is right where you left it.
With me, the websites I left behind are all there, catering to my parochial interests. My friends are still filling the social networks with chatter, going on about happy inanities and small dramas half a world away. When you're travelling, catching up on the Internet feels a bit like catching up with yourself.
This can be an enormously reassuring thing. But in that fugue state that comes with staring at a screen, I can fall into the Internet and forget where I am – or indeed, forget that I'm anywhere at all. Or worse, with phone in hand, I can be two places at once, half where I am, and half preoccupied with these ongoing conversations, scurrying from one Wi-Fi hotspot to the next to catch up. At some point, I considered that if the vast majority of people I know contact me through electronic communications – phone calls, tweets, texts and Facebook posts that could be posted from anywhere – then I've essentially become a cloud service.
When you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you're holding an iPhone, everything looks like a tweet. When you're hooked on Instagram, everything looks like a poignantly filtered square photo meant to prove that you're someplace that your followers are not. Soon, the trip becomes an exercise in content production, and content production is without a doubt the worst thing about the 21st century.
So it was my great good fortune that my trip did not go according to plan. Here in Britain, I got off the plane and set out to find some way of posting the photos I'd snapped of London from the air. Unfortunately, I immediately drove my rental car sidelong into a high curb. By the time I got the thing back to the rental place with a suspiciously bulgy tire, getting online wasn't such a priority. The time for photo-posting had come and gone. Later that night, I found myself in a cottage built of thick, ancient stone walls, that, like many late-medieval buildings, was built to defend against Wi-Fi signals.
Without really trying, I had cut the cord, which feels like a strangely radical act in 2012. I all but stopped e-mailing. I stopped tweeting. I posted no photos, I issued no updates. A few people online asked where I was, then forgot. My e-mail went quiet. A rural peace fell over my laptop. I spent my days driving the local country lanes full of enormous tractor-backhoe contraptions festooned with pointy attachments, all swerving straight at you. And finally, I felt like I'd travelled somewhere.
People can get awfully mawkish about going offline, as if it's the only cure to the modern condition. I don't subscribe to that. There is much to be said for balance, but life doesn't magically get more authentic after you disconnect.
And yet. If you live in the cloud, it becomes hard to travel the Earth. Travel means engaging with difference, and difference is uncomfortable. Loneliness is uncomfortable. Isolation is uncomfortable. Yet over the past few decades, modern telecommunications have gone from making that discomfort less intense to giving travellers the option of turning it off entirely. The price of travelling in a state of constant connection is to travel in a state of perpetual net-lag: Your body in one place; your mind, everyplace.
The Internet, in its way, wants to turn us all into cloud services: People who can fill up its networks with content generated any time, from anywhere. But you are not a cloud service. Do not let the Internet's reach rob you of the great truth spoken by Buckaroo Banzai: "No matter where you go, there you are." When the time comes, make sure you really go.