Daniel Lemire's blog

, 5 min read

What a technology geek sees when traveling abroad

Every time I travel, I try to pay attention to how the experience has evolved thanks to technology. Here are my notes about a recent trip:

  • Only fifteen years ago, I would travel with a dedicated camera. It was relatively bulky and it only had a small screen. Sharing the pictures over the Internet in real time was unthinkable. Today, I can point a camera, say “Take picture” and a picture is taken. If I want to share it with the world, I can then share it with whoever I want in seconds. Oh! And the phone is cheaper, lighter and takes better pictures than the specialized camera I had fifteen years ago. (On this front, I was told that this would not happen because good pictures require a large lens. Evidently, the importance of having a large lens was overstated.)- Organizing the trip, including the purchase of the air fare and the hotel, took less than fifteen minutes using an online portal. Fifteen years ago, such work required trained professionals working at a travel agency. I remember at the time that a friend of mine wanted to become a travel agent. I told her that this was a dead-end… that computers would soon do most of the work. She would not believe me. In fact, people thought I had a rather extreme view on this front. I do not know what happened to my friend but, evidently, we need far fewer travel agents today.
  • Checking in for a flight can be done online easily. You also get to pick your seats if you so desire using a convenient map of the airplane. Fifteen years ago, checking in meant waiting in line and getting a desk person to pick your seats. Airlines still appear to have manned desks everywhere, but fewer people work at them, and the lines are shorter.
  • To get to the airport, I did not (sadly) enjoy a self-driving car. However, I spoke in my phone, telling it the name of the airport, and it automatically guided me to the airport by voice, apparently taking into account a major traffic jam. What is more, my phone somehow knew about my flight and reminded me of the departure time, even though I never entered this information by hand.
  • I should add that almost all airports have gotten slicker. It is becoming standard to get free Internet access at the airport. They also include power plugs at convenient locations.
  • Security checks at airport are much more invasive than they used to be… that’s a big negative. However, machines are fast replacing expensive human beings. More and more airports have automated desks that take a picture of you, ask you questions… at the gates, computers try to identify parts of your body that need to be further searched. Evidently, the whole security theatre is becoming more and more automated. Given that these jobs do not appear to be exciting, I would be glad if robots handled most of this silly security work.- People sometimes complain that planes have hardly improved since the 1970s. However, the experience has massively improved. Planes offer cheap Internet access, power plugs, a wide choice of movies, TV shows, games… On several planes, you can connect to an external camera and see what the pilot can see. And while prices in real dollars have fallen by half in the last few decades, confort has generally improved. For example, even American airlines offer sensible meals. At one point, in the chairs next to mine, I saw a line of scientists doing hard core programming and simulations. Maybe it was a professor and his students. It became clear at some point that they were interacting live with another team elsewhere. That would have been unthinkable fifteen years ago, to say nothing of the 1970s. (I am not quite sure what was so urgent that they had to work feverishly during the flight. Maybe a conference deadline?) I believe things will improve further: I am hoping for virtual or augmented reality to become common place in airplanes within another fifteen years. Carrying a bulky laptop will be old school in 2030.- It used to be that when you parked your car at the airport, you would need to pay the parking fees at a gate where a human being would collect the toll. This has been entirely automated many years ago (at least in Montreal). Paying the fee is now almost instantaneous. Likewise, for many years now, train stations are entirely automated in Europe. You come in, buy your ticket at an automated teller and get in the train. But you have now automated ordering at McDonald’s.
  • Though it can still fail you some of the time, I have a lot of luck with Google’s translation app. Often, you can just point the camera of your phone at some foreign text and you will get a decent translation. It is a bit slow and clunky, but it is a lot more than a proof of concept.
  • Coffee has gotten better worldwide. Fifteen years ago, when ordering coffee in a foreign city, half the time I would end up with something that was barely drinkable. You may argue that coffee is not about technology, but I think it is. It is easier than ever to find a coffee machine that makes decent coffee. My first espresso maker required skills to brew something drinkable where I can brew a much better coffee with my current machine even if it costed far less in constant dollars.

Not all of these changes are good. The security theatre and the invasion of privacy are worrying… I also find that automation can be irritating at times… replacing human beings with automated tellers would be better if the automated tellers could actually answer basic questions and provide simple advice. We should also worry about the job losses.

But what I find fascinating is how hard it is to record and track innovation over a period of fifteen years. If you are lazy about it, you will invariably conclude that nothing changed… but as soon as you pay attention, you see surprising and important changes everywhere.

We are a bit like frogs being slowly cooked… because not all the changes happen at once, we tend not to notice them as much as we should. And then, at some point, we live in a world where it is normal for a team of scientists to keep on working while they are flying. Not only do we fail to notice the change, but we even insist forcefully that nothing changed.