– By Paul Campa –
How much is a flight to Cancun, a night at a resort in Hawaii, or a park hopper pass in Disneyland? A quick google search will tell you, as these are quantifiable and tangible measurements.
Yet in terms of social currency, what exactly is the going price of that perfect golden hour sunset shot of you and your friends on a white sand beach? What is the market value of the flashy trip vlog edited to that sweet music from your favorite DJ?
Apparently, it’s priceless.
I condemn nobody. We all do it, myself included. Who doesn’t want a vacation photo? There are over 64 million mentions for “#vacation” on Instagram. The top rated website for “travel inspiration” is not TripAdvisor or Kayak. It’s Facebook.
The trouble arises when we consider whether or not the vacation is an end in itself or a means to some other end. Some other end, of course, being your perfect Snapchat story or Facebook profile picture.
The Conrad Resort, a 5–star establishment located in the Maldives, unveiled a peculiar service for their guests last month: an Instagram butler tasked with taking guests on Instagram tours across the island and using their social media savvy to snap enviable pictures.
Instagram butlers, far from being an unpredictable development, are echoes of an examination of American culture by Daniel Boorstin in 1961. In a chapter entitled “The Lost Art of Travel” in his book, The Image, he posits that ever increasing access to cheaper methods of travelling has caused the demise of the old form of the activity.
As Boorstin claims, nowadays everyone travels, but few are travelers. The word “travel” finds its old synonym in the French root through the word “travail” meaning “burdensome work or toil.” Boorstin traces the root of the word “tourism” to “the Latin, ‘tornus,’ which in turn came from the Greek word for a tool describing a circle.”
The traveller, even if frivolously earnest in their cause, actively pursued adventure, people, or action. The tourist is a passive pleasure seeker, expecting things to happen to them—for the right price. With the advent of social media, this distinction is even more salient; Boorstin could use an update.
One of the few virtues of my film school training is the knowledge that as soon as a camera is in your hand, you are one extra level removed from your surroundings. Now we all must “Look! Look at me, look at this place I have been to!” Yet the person seeking our attention is showing a photo of a place they are in, without ever authentically being there: constantly connected, updating, vlogging, snapping. Not only is the Instagram photo filtered, the experience is as well.
We are citizens of the world, fancying ourselves well cultured and travelled by merit of following our favorite model on their trip through Bora Bora, or watching Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown”. We are drawn to a mere picture, a frame, and not a real destination. Thus, what is desired when booking the trip is not the place, but the posting of the photographs. One lays awake the night before their flight, excited, imagining how great the pictures will look, how exotic the snapchat story will appear. Boorstin lamented that people were increasingly less interested in a destination itself, and more in one’s own reaction to the destination. This problem has mutated into something Boorstin would have seen as even worse. Not only do we shun the place, we now pass over our own reaction. The only true matter of interest is the reaction of others to the places we visit.
Boorstin coined the term “pseudo-event.” News for the sake of news, pseudo-events can be briefly described as manufactured happenings, fabricated yet appearing spontaneous, that flood our daily lives as a result of our need for a constant stream of sensory engagements. In the context of vacations, it’s perhaps more fitting to call it a “pseudo-experience in a pseudo-environment.” The modern day traveler experiences only insofar as their phone captures. The event becomes the taking and sharing of the photograph, not the actual experience. With the proper angle and lighting, adventure dons a fictitious quality. Danger is experienced only inasmuch as the photo looked dangerous, fun is had only insofar as you appear to be having fun. The trip is the image, and the image is a simulation of a trip. Both are make-believe.
Rest assured, true adventure is still out there. However, it is an increasingly expensive enterprise. Tourism is cheap, travel isn’t. To find a spot that isn’t haunted by hundreds of thousands of tourists means paying for transport that isn’t packaged as a commodity. Getting off the beaten path means straying from the discounted package, from the comfort of home. It might mean learning a new language or little access to clean water. True experiences are out there, but they are hidden. In our world today, the only thing more strenuous than an adventure, is finding it in the first place.
About the Author
Paul Campa is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2018) pursuing his degree in Communications Media. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling and reading.