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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5 responses to “One Hundred Megabytes of Data

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  1. This is interesting. I don’t have a smartphone—I regard it as my last resistance against being connected 24/7 to the innerwebs. My daughters however have been pressing me to switch however, pointing out the very things you mention in your post. I travel a fair amount by myself, and my kids worry about me. Having a data-based phone would likely make me a savvier traveler, less likely to end up in unsafe neighborhoods or, for that matter, at a mall food court in an exurb instead of in a local cafe in a neighborhood with more character. Another part of me says, “Where’s the adventure of that? Part of the fun of traveling someplace new is discovering a site or a restaurant that you’d never go to back at home.”

    I suppose in the end it’s how you use your data. If you’re checking your smartphone so often that you don’t notice the details of where you’re at, then it’s become a crutch, or worse, a leash. In your case however, you used it as a tool for better travel. You may have even persuaded me to look into upgrading from my old clamshell!

  2. I only have a clamshell as well. Before trips I spend lots of time online assembling my own tourist guide with multiple possible activities, restaurants, and hotels for every day. The internet seems to be similar to printed material in its currency. I suppose most businesses buy the service of maintaining their websites and do not want to pay to make changes to keep them correct. This is especially true when a business closes. They just abandon their site. Yelp is useful because you can see how recently someone has commented.

    On another note, I suppose you collect all things fountain pen. I cannot picture this but I thought it was very good writing. In part III of the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott. The Towers of Silence:

    The retired, old-maid, missionary teacher in India in the early 1940s.

    “But when she had a sheet of writing paper squared up on the blotter and her Waterman fountain pen poised (it was one that was filled through a rubber top on the ink bottle into which the pen was inserted and pumped with a motion whose faint indelicacy was a constant source of slight embarrassment to her) she …”

    • The internet may be more or less current, though I find there are three key advantages. First, it is more comprehensive. The AAA books we had might list 30-50 restaurants per city, for instance, where, as you know, there are thousands. Second, as you observe, we could find reviews to get a current sense (or, alternately, if they are even still open). Finally, we could search more easily relative to a specific location.

      Regarding the fountain pen–it sounds like she was filling a lever-filling Waterman. I posted about a LeBoeuf, which uses a similar mechanism. The pen is dipped in ink, and the lever is pulled out from the pen, given a moment, then pushed back in line with the barrel. Wait a beat, and repeat a few times. Inside, the lever is pushing a pressure bar into the “sack,” a rubber bladder that holds the ink. When the pressure bar compresses then releases the sack, a vacuum is formed, and ink is drawn into the pen.

  3. Ah, but would the pen’s mechanism embarrass your maiden aunt?

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