Virtual Travels in the Pandemic Age

There is something tantalizing about being there but not being there, about being everywhere and nowhere at once. The geospatial distance leaves us wanting, hungry for more. I’m enamored with the glitchiness of these human landscapes, the way people’s legs are sometimes separated from their bodies, the way everyone’s faces are blurred out, as if they no longer exist (sometimes they no longer do). This is our world, but it is not our world.

In 2015, the London-based publisher Visual Editions approached me to make a digital book for their series “Editions At Play.” The idea was to make a “book” that could only be read on a smartphone. With coding assistance from Google Creative Lab in Australia, I composed “Entrances and Exits,” a short story told through Google Street View, about a lovesick man who possesses a key that could open any door in the world. The story, like Street View itself, has no end.

But I will also be the first to tell you that Google Street View is no replacement for the real thing. Traveling in the real world is about contact: body contact, surface contact, contact with new foods, with new waters, new smells, new light, new languages. Strange that at this moment in time, surrounded by the invisible threat of infection, we are supposed to be denying all contact, to retreat, to barricade our bodies from the world.

So then what to do? When we cannot travel ourselves, when we cannot lay our hands upon the there, how can we virtually recreate that sense of wonder and discovery?

Part of the answer, perhaps, lies in the model of the travel writer working with the great toolbox of technology. What we often hunger for is a mind meeting a place, to follow a curious person as she processes a foreign landscape, making discoveries, missteps, leaps of faith. And then, at a certain point, we want to peel off and do our own seeing, make our own missteps, take our own leaps. As Camus once wrote, “One recognizes one’s course by discovering the paths that stray from it.”

There are some models out there for such curated, immersive exploration, like the now-defunct “Night Walk,” a hauntingly beautiful nocturnal tour of street art in Marseille, or the tragically divine “Welcome to Pine Point,” an “interactive documentary” about a mining community in Canada’s Northwest Territories that lasted just long enough for its inhabitants to form a world of memories about the place. These are wonderful pieces of online art but they aren’t quite the same as true travel.

Recently, with the advent of available Virtual Reality headsets that don’t make you throw up everywhere, there has been an explosion in VR travel apps. Google Earth VR has its own version, while others claim to take you to the Grand Canyon or swim with sharks. Not to diminish the educational value of some of these experiences, but strapping a contraption to your head still seems like a form of retreat, not a form of contact. I still prefer meditative videos of people simply walking through cities. As this field grows, maybe we will see more examples of beautiful curation that still leave us room to wander off the path.

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