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What was different 16 1/2 years ago

February 26, 2020 • 8:50 PM

I just got back from a wonderful vacation to a couple cities I last visited in 2003, while a college student. It was the first time my co-pilot and daughter had been there, and they had a wonderful time exploring the cities and seeing many of their topline attractions.

Throughout the trip, I kept thinking about what was different from 16 1/2 years ago. The cities, themselves, have slightly different skylines, but many of the most important landmarks we wanted to see are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. By the end, I decided the biggest change was the phone I carried in my pocket, because it completely changed how I engaged with new places.

We know that smartphones change how we think and it’s hardly a groundbreaking insight to say that our phones change the fabric of our everyday existence. But all the same, I was constantly comparing my two trips, a mere decade and a half apart.

1) I put together an itinerary and a selection of restaurants we might visit well in advance of this vacation. Because we tried to remain flexible, we also found ourselves in several unexpected places at meal times and so simply pulled out our phones to see what was nearby and might have food the five-year-old would eat. When I was a college student, I remember going to several restaurants in these cities, but I don’t recall ever looking for them online (and I was Very Online even then). Instead, my friends and I went to places that someone explicitly recommended we try, or we simply looked around wherever we were and perused posted menus. I suppose it worked well enough, as I only remember one “bad” meal (it was my fault for ordering the hot dog in a restaurant with white tablecloths), but it’s also highly unlikely that without our phones my wife and I would have found the riverside establishment that served us a delicious smoked mackerel on toast.

2) Navigating public transport was a breeze with our phones. Google Maps told us when trains and buses were expected to come by specific stops, so even when we were in non-touristy areas after dark, we knew when and where to go in order to hop aboard and be on our way. I did screw up one trip, though I’m pretty sure it was user error: Per Google Maps’ instructions, I led my family to the train station across the street from our hotel, confidently strode onto Platform 1, and was utterly baffled that no train was there at 6:00 as the app said it would be. After asking several other people on the platform where that train was, and receiving confused answers, eventually I led the troupe to another platform, where about 15 minutes later we got on a train that took us to our destination. Later, I realized I’d taken us to the completely wrong station, and that Google Maps had recommended we go to Platform 1 at a station on the same line a 10-minute walk away.

I’m sure I used the web to look up train schedules and such way back when, but I would have been limited to doing that when I was at a desktop computer. If my friends and I ranged into the wild, we’d have to (*gasp*) consult available transit maps. That’s probably why I never took the bus back then.

3) Perhaps the most indulgent thing I did on this trip was visit specific locations where I took photos on that earlier trip. I didn’t visit all those spots, given that a bunch of them are inside a residence, inside theaters, far away from where my family was staying, et cetera. But with one notable exception, I could identify where my favorite pictures were taken. Google Maps, saved photos on my phone, and a few fragmented memories were all I needed to track down precise spots.

The best picture I took in 2020 was at a specific bench on a bridge looking out at another bridge. In 2003, I remember, I asked two of my friends to sit so I could take a portrait photo with the beautiful city behind them, and at the same time asked the other friend on our trip to take a picture of me taking a picture. (I know, I know.) Unfortunately, the camera and film(!) I used to take my picture was stolen on the way back from that excursion, but thankfully my friend who took the meta-photo let me scan most of the photos he took that summer. Flash forward to today, and though it’s not an exact match, I managed to take a photo that closely approximates my friend’s composition.

I hadn’t planned on this aspect of the trip, but once I got to the first city and started seeing some familiar sights, nostalgia kicked in. While lying in bed, late at night, my wife and daughter sound asleep, I’d pull out my phone, scroll through photos, and try to find those locations on the map. It was surprisingly easy to pinpoint exactly where I’d gone those many years ago, thanks to a little patience and my pocket-sized supercomputer.

* * *

Given all this tapping and swiping, and constant urges to show everyone on Instagram just how much fun I was having, I still don’t think my phone was my biggest obstacle to remaining present. Rather, on the fourth day of the trip, as I entered a famous art museum and began wandering its halls, I realized I’d carried my DSLR camera along with me.

What kind of person brings a high-powered camera to a museum where the walls are covered with priceless works of art? I felt embarrassed and thought about my dad, in 1992, watching the Olympics on television, incredulous that some Olympic diver’s parent was videotaping the action from the stands in Barcelona.

“I’m sure the network can give you a tape.” I remember him saying out loud, to no one in particular. “Watch your child in the Olympics with your own two eyes, not through a viewfinder!”

On the seventh day, I left the camera in the hotel room. I figured if I saw something amazing, my phone’s camera would do.

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