On the road again

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Several times a year, my family and I drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles to visit my wife’s parents. It’s an eight-hour drive. Back when I was a kid, that would’ve meant eight hours of boredom. But our kids actually look forward to it these days. They can watch TV shows and movies on a video iPod while my wife and I stay entertained by music and podcasts from an iPod mini wired into the car’s CD-changer plug.

Meanwhile, stuck to the dashboard is a portable GPS receiver, which updates us on our estimated arrival time and lets us know where the nearest restaurant or gas station is. In my pocket I’ve got a cell phone that will let me surf the Web and make and receive calls. Occasionally, I bring along a cellular modem for my MacBook, so I can check my e-mail when we’re stopped in traffic. It makes you wonder why we ever leave our cars.

The point is that technology has changed travel forever. There was a time, not too long ago, when being on the road meant being out of touch. Sometime in the past ten years, that changed. The isolation of the road has receded in the rear-view mirror and disappeared into the distance. These days, our technological tools keep us in touch and in comfort—and help us get where we’re going—no matter where we go. This month’s “ Macworld’ s Summer Travel Guide” (page 48) has 53 such tools: Mac-friendly hardware, software, and Web sites that’ll make your next trip eas-ier and more fun.

Disturbing the peace

Yet, for all my enthusiasm about these new mobile technologies, I can also understand complaints about how technology has changed the concept of getting away from it all.

Every summer, I go to the Lair of the Bear, a camp for University of California alumni in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The entire idea of the Lair is for families to spend a week in the forest, away from the insanity of our busy lives. And yet, over the years, that retreat into the woods has become less of a retreat.

We’ve all got our cell phones. There’s wireless Internet access at the main office. Even the sounds of the forest have been augmented by iPod speaker systems.

Do I exaggerate? Only a bit. In reality, Lair of the Bear campers tend to keep their gadgets under control. I rarely see campers talking on cell phones. (It helps that only one carrier provides reception at the camp area.) Early in the morning, I might occasionally hear the Windows XP start-up song wafting through my tent window, but the computer users keep their work under wraps most of the time. In other words, the technology is there, but most people have enough sense to keep it to themselves.

The always-on life

Technology has advanced to the point that you never need to be out of touch. If you want to be out of touch, you can turn off your cell phone and leave your MacBook at home. You decide. Unfortunately, some of us have a hard time letting go of our work lives. (And if your boss insists on calling you when you’re on vacation, might I recommend that you conveniently forget to pack your cell phone’s battery charger on your next trip?)

And if you’re infuriated by the sound of Radiohead playing off in the distance while you stick your toes in a mountain stream, all I can do is apologize on behalf of all my fellow iPod users. If we want to bring our iPods with us, that’s our business. But we should keep our noise to ourselves.

Nothing illustrates the fact that mobile technology is a two-edged sword more than my own predicament this summer. Our camp reservations (made far in advance, so they’re not changeable) are for right after the iPhone is due to be released. In the old days, this would’ve been an intractable situation: I would have either had to cancel my trip, stay at home while my family went to the mountains, or shrug it off and disappear for a week at the height of Apple’s most important new product release in years.

The good news is that now I don’t have to choose. I can go to camp and still be in touch, perhaps even write about the iPhone from a folding chair in front of my tent (assuming that I bring an iPhone with me and that it isn’t carried off by raccoons). The bad news, of course, is that I may end up working during my supposed vacation. Oh, technology, why must you be such a cruel mistress?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go. I just got an IM from my friend Phil, who’s on vacation in Hawaii. Yes, it’s true—iChat in paradise.

[ Got a story about technology on the road? Post it in our forums. Or drop me a note. ]

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