The Digital Replacement of the Natives

[Images: Garmin GPS devices].

“For their recent trip to Namibia,” a short blurb in Wired magazine explains, “Greg and Anja Manuel packed light: PowerBars, clothes, and a Garmin GPS loaded with Traveler’s Africa version 8.02, a user-generated map brimming with 50,000 points of interest. That last item meant they didn’t have to hire an experienced guide.”
Fair enough. The map looks beautiful, the idea is cool, and, within two or three trips, the GPS device does indeed save money; however, I can’t help but wonder what this might foretell for local economies, all over the world, based on guided tourism. For instance, a small group of American tourists comes through your village, eating PowerBars and looking at handheld GPS devices. They don’t go to any restaurants; they don’t ask any questions of anyone; perhaps they don’t even rent a hotel room.
For all economic purposes, it’s as if they were never there. They were more like surreal poltergeists wearing Vasque boots, reading Jonathan Safran Foer on a Kindle.
What better way to avoid meeting Namibians! Just use their electrical grid to recharge your gadgets, pay no taxes, and leave.

[Images: Three examples of maps displayed on Garmin GPS devices].

I’m left imagining the inverse of this situation, of course, in which a small group of Namibians shows up in London. They ask no questions, eat at no restaurants, and avoid all hotels – before going off to wander round the countryside, sleeping in tents. It would all seem rather mysterious.
In any case, do handheld technologies mean that we’ll soon be digitally replacing the native populations of the Third World, never needing them again for guidance, travel advice, or even insights into medicinal plantlife? You fly down to the Amazon to try ayahuasca, but you don’t hire any local shamans or native botanists because you’ve got everything you need to know already saved on a 300GB iPod – as if that might be the atomized fate of the West in general: desperately seeking visions, alone in the wild, surrounded by portable gadgetry.
“Your tradition is right here,” the tourist says, holding his Garmin GPS loaded with Traveler’s Africa version 8.02 over the heads of impoverished villagers. “I don’t need you anymore.”
Next year, someone gives you a small handheld device with an interestingly honest tagline.
Go Everywhere, it says. Meet No One.

20 thoughts on “The Digital Replacement of the Natives”

  1. How is the carrying of such a device related to how many restaurants one eats at, or how many hotels one sleeps in?

  2. Those boots make me wonder what destination can be so important that you’d pay two grand for those ugly shoes.

    I use a GPS more than a little bit. It’s an old one. It doesn’t have all that ‘user-generated’ stuff; only stuff generated by me. I go geocaching, which is a whole world that exists alongside that of you normal people. GPS might kill tourism economies, but it creates cultures.

    Anyway. Why do we travel? 500 words. Go.

  3. Just to be clear here: I’m not trying to say that the use of GPS technology is morally flawed, in and of itself, as if the very act of locating oneself through digital means has ethical implications.

    I’m just asking what happens to local tourist economies when travelers show up, eating their own food (and thus not going to restaurants), sleeping in high-end tents (and thus not renting hotel rooms), and using specialty mapping software on handheld devices (and thus not hiring local guides). The people who actually live there have to watch as you traipse merrily through, giving nothing back, economically speaking, to the very place you’re so keen to explore.

    Having said that, then, Sponge Fringe’s question sounds like he or she didn’t read the post; and a few reactions to this that I’ve seen on other blogs make it sound as if I’m condemning outright the use of GPS. I’m not.

    I’m just asking whether tourists who “didn’t have to hire an experienced [local] guide” are aware of the economic side-effects of their actions. And even then I’m not condemning it. I just think it’s interesting that one could celebrate the creation of a portable software package that allows travel to foreign countries in a style that requires no interaction with the local population. I’m imagining, say, a group of Japanese tourists coming through San Francisco with an audio guide on special headphones; they eat PowerBars, sleep in tents, and don’t talk to anyone. Well, were they really ever here? Or perhaps the more accurate question is: what level of experience – what form of geography – has come into focus?

    Sure, maybe you’ve only gone to a place like Namibia for the geology, and not for the people; maybe you’re a misanthrope. I know I am.

    Nonetheless, these questions interest me. Is it possible that the native populations of various eco-tourism destinations around the world are being digitally replaced by handheld technology? Little kids who would have made an extra buck in the streets of Marrakech guiding office managers from south Wales around town for an afternoon are suddenly broke – because of mapping software licensed by Garvin. It’s surreal.

  4. Very interesting post! Thankyou! I just got back my hope for humanity reading this. And I got this urge to travel aswell, what better is that feeling of not knowing enough and being dependent on people that you dont know? It leaves the days open for what you might not have planned and yeah..I love that feeling when I travel…

  5. Excellent post! I am not sure that this is so different to traveling with a decent guidebook. You have a list of places of interest, good food, hotels etc, and go by their recommendations.

    The big change I can see is that you have a live map with you, and many more recommendations from other people who have tagged the map in the GPS software.

    This doesn’t seem so far removed from having a “HitchHikers Guide” in your pocket. It doesn’t so much divorce you from the location, as better help you find your place in it.

    That said, when i arrive somewhere new, I still like to just walk and see what I find, with maybe just a map in my pocket to help me find my way back.

  6. This is a stretch:
    “They don’t go to any restaurants; they don’t ask any questions of anyone; perhaps they don’t even rent a hotel room.”

    I assume that people who don’t hire a local guide are more likely to interact with more locals instead of taking a back seat and letting the guide do everything.

  7. This is a stretch:
    “They don’t go to any restaurants; they don’t ask any questions of anyone; perhaps they don’t even rent a hotel room.”

    Again, as I pointed out in my comment, above, the idea of not going to local restaurants is in reference to tourists bringing their food along with them – in this case, PowerBars – not because they have a GPS device or because they didn’t hire a local guide. And not renting a hotel room is an extrapolation from the idea that you would bring your accommodation along with you, as well, in the form of a tent – not because you’re using a handheld device. But if you think it’s a stretch, then you think it’s a stretch.

  8. Perhaps it is a little gruesome, but I am visualizing an abandoned mine shaft or similar hazard, which is not on the GPS maps. At the bottom, deep enough to prevent a signal from getting out, is an ever-growing pile of GPS units, Powerbar wrappers, and skeletons wearing Vasque boots.

    GPS isn’t infallible, best to have a backup plan.

  9. Despite all these technological advances like the garmin. I still think that local knowledge and a plain old analog map are the best tools to use. I think your fear, and its one of mine too, is that many people who now have the cash and will to travel don’t have the mindset to do it. They don’t want to be immersed in a new culture, they want to view it from afar, through bullet and experience proof glass. This is why cruises, which aren’t necessarily bad vacations but still weak in the cultural immersion department, are so popular.

  10. “in this case, PowerBars”. Ok, this is the stretch then. The idea that tossing some PowerBars into their backpacks (“packed light”) is how they intend to eat while they’re in Namibia. Also, even if someone did intend to shun hotels and eateries, the fact that someone camps out and cooks his own meals indicates a sense of adventure and would more often then not be a person who would be willing to immerse himself in local culture.

    Like Joel pointed out, you should worry more about sanitized vacations like cruise ships or organized bus tours, where a person’s only interactions are with those that want to sell him jewelery or a time-share.

  11. Also, I’m not condemning camping or keeping myself awake at night worrying about people who sleep in tents in Namibia. I’m pointing out the ways in which travel can be performed without ever having to encounter, or economically participate in, existing local infrastructure – in this case hotels, restaurants, and so on – and that includes the way in which certain social functions, like local guides who support themselves and their families through tours, can be replaced by handheld digital technology. Of course, the same thing could be argued, as Martin does, above, that even something as apparently innocuous as a guidebook does the same thing, and that’s an entirely valid point.

    But your statement that “the fact that someone camps out and cooks his own meals indicates a sense of adventure” is demonstrably untrue in many cases; and I would also point out that many people travel with tents precisely as a way to detach themselves from other people, and to be alone in the wild, not as a way to “immerse himself in local culture,” as you write.

    All of which is beside the point, anyway: who cares whether we’re talking about PowerBars, Clif Bars, or entire matching suitcases full of readymade meals? The point is an abstract one – and that is how travel can be reshaped to be an entirely solitary experience, worked out with portable technologies in alien environments, in which it is possible literally never to meet or speak with anyone. As such, it’s a comment on a trend, not a prescription for change or a blanket condemnation of certain behaviors.

  12. I was recently in Chios, a greek, relativ big island in northen Aigaio with, among other interesting places, desert medieval villages, and searching in the Internet for information, I ‘ve found a site (, sorry, I don’t know, how to make a link)with acoustic tourist guides about historical places.If you don’t download it, you buy an equiqment in the local cafe, if there is one, if it is open etc and there you go with the things in your ears through the ruins.
    I havn’ done it, I imagine, it is quite a cold and paradox experience.Anyway, there was, because of Easter, absolutely nobody there, neither to find the acustic guides nor to ask or to eat, there was just no interest about tourists.
    Your comments reminded about it.
    And I find your blog very interesting.

  13. Geoff, post-singularity we could just upload the neural patterns of local guides, pay a small fee at the local tourist office and have their alphas (ala alastair reynolds) on our ipods to take with us. This would in effect help maintain the investment in local infrastructure and free the locals from having to physically walk around with us.

  14. Call me dense but how is this any different to the hordes of backpackers seen around the world clutching their Lonely Planet survival tomes? The implications for local economies seems identical and already in-play.

  15. I’m a little late to this here party, but whether you’re talking about digital gps devices or the traditional travel/guide book, I find it interesting to consider how a place/space/city/wilderness/environment can be refined (not necessarily a positive sense of the word) into a scattering of landmarks. The contrast between experiencing a place as a series of landmarks with routes containing scenery/ambiance in between and a more involved experience is a compelling consideration to me.

  16. i don’t see why gps use would necessarily (or even likely) cause people to swoop into a locale with only their own food supplies and leave without any real interaction. perhaps the person who can afford this gadget can afford to carry with him the 150 lbs of power bars necessary to sustain a body for even a short trip to namibia. but i cannot buy the idea that this would ever happen at all — much less thanks to the technology.

    i have ‘traveled light’ to a number of places, and it requires much more interaction than does staying in hotels and using guides. in my experience, using a guide and/or booking agent ensures that youll speak primarily to the people in your group, and maybe a friendly merchant or two. but when i had 12 lbs of gear and no itinerary it was necessary to really press the flesh and figure out the most cost effective way to eat, sleep and enjoy myself.

    overall i spend less money, but the money i spend goes directly to the owners of whatever business, and never to a booking agent, state-run tourism bureau (perhaps not a problem outside of central asia and china), or foreign specialist. plus, i am able to stay in a place longer on the same budget and interact on a socially and geographically wider scale.

    briefly, ill just disclaim — i realize that when you dont speak the language a guide and itinerary can be essential. dont mean to crap on this form of tourism.

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