The week of May 24, 2015

It’s a small world, after all

By Jesse Hicks

“This binds together by a vital cord all the nations of the earth. It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instrument has been created for an exchange of thought between all the nations of the earth.” The sentiment wouldn’t have been out of place in a ‘90s-era issue of Wired: the hope, almost believable, that new technology would usher in a more benevolent, tolerant world by shrinking it, connecting everyone to everyone.

It’s not Wired, of course; it’s not the Internet. That passage is from a 1858 book about the invention of the telegraph, and you can find similarly outsized optimism attached to plenty of other technologies, from the airplane to the automobile to, yes, the Internet. Strip away the specifics and you’re left with a persistent dream: that knowing more of the world will enrich us, make us better people, and possibly, lead to a utopia.

“Travel broadens the mind”—it’s the same ideal, narrowed to the individual level. Travel allows one to take in the world in a way that’s not simply accumulating more experience but expanding one’s understanding of what common human experience is. With the implication that just maybe, such understanding would render “impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist.”

In this week’s issue we feature a man who used travel to challenge his own prejudices and hostilities by traveling to some of the world’s most dangerous places. At least, that’s how he’d understood them before he arrived. The reality was much different.

In many countries he used Couchsurfing, the longrunning website for travelers seeking cultural exchange with gracious hosts. But as Nithin Coca writes, the site isn’t nearly what it used to be; the once-vibrant community has stagnated, he says, while the site pursues a misguided for-profit strategy.

Then again, who needs Couchsurfing when you can explore the world from the comfort of your own couch? Mike Wehner describes his experience with virtual-reality vacations. Are they the next best thing to being there? The newest way for us to know the world without actually being in it?

One place few Americans have gotten to experience first-hand is Cuba. But that’s changing, as relations between the two countries thaw. Matt Stempeck arrived just as the thaw began, to see how ordinary Cubans were connecting to the world—or not connecting. In a country that’s stagnated for decades, with little Internet access and an average salary of less than $20 a month, people have found creative ways to reach beyond the island—including USB drives stuffed with American TV shows.

Finally, I had the good fortune to travel recently, and I took Tinder along with me. “Tinder is how people meet. It’s like real life, but better,” the app description boasts, in a modest bit of technological triumphalism. I wondered whether it could supplement the most important travel experience: serendipitous encounters with locals. (Spoiler alert: I wasn’t completely convinced.)

If the telegraph—and the Internet, and innumerable other technologies—didn’t bind the world in a vital cord of mutual understanding and respect, as the techno-utopians hoped, it did at least offer more of us the opportunity to know one another, and to know more of the planet we share. It’s reminded us that we do share it, and that these days it’s a planet that feels smaller than ever before.

Photo via Patrick Metzdorf/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)