In a piece called The Algorithmic Trap, David Perell writes about the difficulty of finding serendipity, diversity, and “real” experiences while traveling. In short, Google, Yelp, Instagram, and the like have made travel destinations and experiences increasingly predictable and homogeneous.
Call me old-fashioned, but the more I travel, the less I depend on algorithms. In a world obsessed with efficiency, I find myself adding friction to my travel experience. I’ve shifted away from digital recommendations, and towards human ones.
For all the buzz about landmarks and sightseeing, I find that immersive, local experiences reveal the surprising, culturally-specific ways of living and thinking that make travel educational. We over-rate the importance of visiting the best-places and under-rate the importance of connecting with the best people. If you want to learn about a culture, nothing beats personalized time with a passionate local who can share the magic of their culture with you.
There’s one problem with this strategy: this kind of travel doesn’t scale. It’s in efficiency and doesn’t conform to the 80/20 rule. It’s unpredictable and things could go wrong.
Travel — when done right — is challenging. Like all face-to-face interaction, it’s inefficient. The fact that an experience can’t be found in a guidebook is precisely what makes it so special. Sure, a little tip helps — go here, go there; eat here, eat there; stay here, stay there — but at the end of the day, the great pleasures of travel are precisely what you can’t find on Yelp.
Algorithms are great at giving you something you like, but terrible at giving you something you love. Worse, by promoting familiarity, algorithms punish culture.
I took the photo above in the Beartooth Mountains on my recent roadtrip. This was one of the surprise highlights of my trip…I wouldn’t have known to take the road through those mountains had it not been recommended to me by some enthusiastic locals.