To blog, or not to blog?
That is the question. Whether 'tis nobler to keep the folks back home in the loop. Or not. Rowenna Davis reports
Monday 17 August 2009
Picture the scene. You're deep in the South African veldt, surveying the wild and unfamiliar scrubland that stretches out before you. Heat and buzzing insects throb in the air as you try to figure out your path. Suddenly your phone bleeps.
"Hi, darling," a text message flashes. "There's a small village about 10 minutes east – I think it's got a McDonald's: isn't it time for lunch?"
Communication like this sounds surreal, but it's already taking place. This summer, 19-year-old gapper Harry Wilder became famous when his uncle slipped him a two inch-thick, credit card-sized, Traakit device that could locate his position around the world by GPS.
In June, the inaugural Gap Year Safety Conference (see News in Brief, right) called for all of the 250,000 British gappers expected to go abroad this year to be equipped with sat-nav systems. With Traakits available to rent for just £50 a month, Big Brother can move over – Big Mother and Father are taking charge.
GPS tracking is just one of the ways in which technology is revolutionising the gap-year experience. Take Emilie O'Mahony. Sick of university and bored of bar work, the headstrong 21-year-old based just outside Croydon decided to take a year out in Australia. From the other side of the planet, she plans to shop online, bank online and change her university course through UCAS online.
When she goes trekking in the bush, she plans to live-blog the experience, publishing photos and videos in real time. The laptop she's taking with her is connected through Wi-Fi to her Mum's home computer, allowing her family to trace her co-ordinates whenever she logs on.
"If I didn't have internet out there, I'd probably think twice about going," says O'Mahony. "My Mum knows I'm a survival person, but it's a huge reassurance for her to know I'm going away with so much technology.
"She's not trying to keep tabs on me – I'm the first one in our family to go off and see the world, and she's really proud of that; she just wants me to know I'm an email away if I need anything."
But doesn't all this communication malarkey sort of defeat the point of "adventurous travel"? Perhaps it's easy to say that when you've not been on one of the one-in-three gap years that, according to Gap Year Safety – which organised this year's conference – gets cut short in some kind of disaster. Still, isn't it a bit, like, cheating?
"I'm still going across to the other side of the world," O'Mahony says. "My family are still in England in the rain, whilst I'm living it up in the sun and having all these new experiences abroad. I just plan to remind them of that constantly!"
But there are some more practical issues raised by all this technology. For a start, where do you draw the line between "bloggable" and "unbloggable"? If you get the runs in the middle of the bush, do you publish that kind of thing?
"Probably not as a video, but I might write about it," says O'Mahony.
Also, there is the question of whether anyone cares about all of these Tweets, Facebook updates and live-blogging extravaganzas, or whether it is just adding to the unread clutter on the web that tells us sweet FA about the country in hand. Surely, time would be better spent engaging with the place itself?
But 21-year-old trainee teacher Cassie Vandepeer, with six hours before her flight to Tanzania, told me how her blog about teaching in an African school will make an excellent resource for her students in Somerset. "Other teachers have already said they want to know how the education system works there, and hopefully [my blog] will bring Africa to life for the kids in the classroom," she says.
New media also gives those donating to gap-year trips a chance to see how their money is being spent. Those funding less-righteous gappers than Vandepeer may appreciate being able to check whether a mission to "facilitate local water supplies" really is about solving drought, or about downing developing-world-priced drinks in foreign bars.
Used well, technology can be empowering and enlightening. But used excessively, it could risk taking the "gap" out of gap year altogether.
So if you ever find your phone flashing in the South African veldt, think carefully about whether you want to answer – you can always switch it off.
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