Archive for 2013-07-18

One Hundred Megabytes of Data   5 comments

Our summer vacation was my first trip outside of the United States since 2003. While cell phones were common, they could do little more than make a phone call. In the intervening ten years, SmartPhones have become ubiquitous. While I’m constantly pulling out my iPhone, I can go days without actually talking to someone on it. Every time we’ve traveled, it served as our map, guide book, restaraunt guide, travel agent, camera, and occasional pacifier. It’s hard to imagine going on the road without it.

During our trip, we were forced to.

Most carriers’ plans will work in the US, but not, by default, outside of the country (likewise, a Canadian plan won’t work, by default, in the US). As it was a driving trip, I wanted to at least have phone service for emergencies, as well as for the odd work call. I also wanted data for all the reasons already mentioned. WiFi is pretty common, especially in hotels, so we could use our phone in a lot of places. To cover us outside of that zone, I set up our “overseas data plan” to give each of our phones 100 MB of data–a fraction of our usual data plan. In an average week, we each use 200 MB. On one hand, that includes work e-mail and other things we could shut off. On the other hand, we were in unfamiliar territory.

Conservation became the watchword. First and foremost, I held off my social media participation. My wife figured out how to cache map directions when we had WiFi, to reduce our data dependence. Guidebooks from AAA found a place in the car. In short: for a week, we had to revert to a pre-iPhone state. Could we do it?

We could. For the first day or two, while standing in line, I would pull out my phone and refresh twitter, only to be reminded that data was turned off. Eventually, I found other ways to occupy dead spaces–cleaning my camera lenses, talking to my wife, or just looking around. As noted, we had to plan a bit more carefully. We relearned a few truths. We grabbed any map we could, to help navigate absent clear directions. We were reminded that guidebooks are far from comprehensive in their listing of food offerings. When it came to hours and prices of activities, they are only as up-to-date as when they are printed.

I could certainly tell when we had the data on. Without the data, we were more likely to wander aimlessly looking for just the right restaurant. With data on the phone, we had plenty of options, and could navigate there confidently. We knew what direction we were heading, and waht was around every corner. When driving from Montreal to Toronto, it was a nice failsafe for finding a hotel. We went from mere mortals to omniscient superbeings.

Does this mean we’re too dependent on data? I’m not sure that’s an accurate characterization. The limitations on guidebooks and maps is inherent to the medium. Maps only work if you have them with you. With a bit more effort, we could have survived without mobile internet, but I think we would not have been as smart about where we were, and would have missed out on opportunities for some great things. The limited data, however, helped balanced some of my worst habits around checking twitter (or, worse, work e-mail). By the end of the week, pulling out my phone idlely was dramatically reduced.

We don’t have any trips scheduled in the near future, much less internationally. But the next time we do, making sure we have some level of international support for our SmartPhones will be on the packing list next to “dig out our passports.”

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