Traveling to new places is, by its nature, exploratory.
There is, of course, the clichéd quest to discover one’s ever-errant self. We seek out the thrill of the unknown, slowly to be replaced by the shock of recognition. New landscapes, geographic and psychological. New sights and smells, new fruits and foods, new challenges and pleasures, all help us think about new things and old things in new ways. Travel inspires creativity, suppressing the mundane, exposing the non-obvious connections that are innovations and ideas. We can map foreign solutions to local problems. Exposure to different cultures puts our own point of view into relief, reminding us that there can be others, which helps us think about everything differently. It reshapes the opportunity space of the ideas we can have, reframing our personal “adjacent possible.”
Routine and familiarity are comforting but mankind’s greatest skill is habituation: We learn fast, and once we know something, we start to ignore it, unless it changes. Time begins to speed up, or at least your perception of it. Neuroscientist David Eagleman has suggested that our perception of time is a function of how much work our brain is doing processing stimuli. The more new stimuli it has to deal with, the more processing it has to do, the longer that period of time feels. Time slows down when you pay attention.
Traveling presents us with a constant stream of novelty. Part of the experience is the satisfaction of surmounting linguistic and cultural barriers to achieve seemingly simple things, like getting across the border, from A to B. Humans have always looked to each other for guidance, and that’s one of our other great skills. Knowledge is one of the few things you can give away freely, receive status benefits by doing so, and still retain and use yourself. We are predisposed to share information.
The earliest explorers from nomadic cultures never returned “home,” colonizing new continents in great migratory arcs. As societies became more established, more static and then seafaring, we started to pass travel knowledge on. The earliest codifications of this were navigational charts called portolans that began to emerge in the 13th century, based on compass directions and estimated distances observed by sailors. Some are surprisingly accurate in parts but there are significant gaps, which were traditionally filled in with mentions of mythical beasts: “Here be dragons.” Legends and fears propagate in the unknown.
These once very rough guides have steadily increased in resolution ever since. Your smartphone can now show you where you are to within a few feet, triangulated between orbital satellites in the blink of relativistic eyes. There are no spaces left for dragons, but knowledge isn’t just about location, it’s about the what as well as the where.
Early travelers relied on avuncular advice from more experienced explorers, half remembered directions to that perfect beach. But environments are now changing faster than exploration. I spent some time in India in 2000 and enjoyed a week or so living in a hammock slung from a tree on a semi-deserted beach. Having directed friends to it in the years since, I recently discovered that the beach now boasts various choices of accommodation far more salubrious than hammocks. The Beach was filmed on the Thai island of Koh Phi Phi, which transformed a backpacker fantasy into a thriving tourist hub.
The planet gets less lonely all the time, as every guide that paradoxically promises to help you find places off the beaten path, beats a path to those very places, and the economics of emerging nations does the rest.
One of the key challenges facing any population is exploration and exploitation of the local environment. Ant colonies are famously good at this. Scouts follow simple local rules, and wander about randomly leaving invisible pheromone trails that are reinforced when they return along them having found food. The more ants that follow them, the more the trails are reinforced, which ultimately changes the direction of the whole colony.
Travelers with smartphones check in on social media platforms, leaving semiotic trails that get reinforced as more people follow them. Tips, reviews, and recommendations create pathways. Cumulative advantage kicks in, the most popular getting more popular simply because they are popular, no matter what the original reasons were. So now you will see the same people appearing at the same hotels in different countries thousands of miles apart as you travel, following the invisible pathways of social media, a constantly updated real-time map of the world.
Ultimately, as my fiancée Rosie observed, recommendation fatigue kicks in. You begin by trying to optimize experiences, plowing through endless reviews on TripAdvisor, expending energy and thought on every step of every journey. There’s always someone who hated it, even if it is the top-rated place. What does “top rated” mean? An average, a guarantee of some kind. Perhaps, as Rosie suggested, TripAdvisor needs to develop collaborative filtering mechanisms, leverage the Foursquare API, and tailor recommendations. People like you who liked this also liked that. But even the best recommendations diminish discovery: They pre-habituate you to the upcoming unknowns.
Humans, thanks to natural selection, are not disposed to taking the road less traveled–it’s not a smart survival strategy–but as Robert Frost so famously suggested it can make all the difference. It’s the very difficulty of making decisions with imperfect information that gets the gears grinding in different configurations. Serendipity is hard to plan for but not impossible to manufacture. (The word is derived from a tale about traveling princes from Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka.) Sometimes it’s taking the wrong bus, the uncomfortable and frightening journey that drops you at a deserted border outpost with customs officials shouting demands for money, 10 kilometers from the nearest bus station, in 100-degree heat, that snaps two half-formed thoughts together in your head into a moment of eureka.
Sometimes you have to get lost to find what you are looking for.