Don’t send that email; pick up the phone!
By Victor Chisholm
Travel takes us out of our daily routines and usual places, so with an open mind, a traveller can easily find himself or herself bombarded with new ideas. I was a little surprised –but not that surprised – that it was two recent vacations by bicycle that pointed me to the perils of information in the digital age. All you who rely on search engines for your information, beware!
In the summer of 2011, I spent a few weeks cycling through some of the most beautiful parts of the province of Quebec, camping along the way. Quebec has some excellent tourist offices to help a tired and hungry cyclist find the best places to eat, stock up on provisions, and camp. The staff were very helpful and friendly, but I noticed a digital divide in information. It was not what I expected.
Some of the staff in these tourist offices looked to be students with a part-time summer job. When I asked them a question, and when they didn’t know the answer, often their instinct was to check the internet. With the best of intentions, they sometimes ended up giving me inaccurate information from a webpage that was out of date. Other times, I was helped by older staff; if they did not have the answer, they tended to make a phone call; their information was rich and up to date.
In the spring of 2012, I went on another cycling trip, this time through parts of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. I had neither a good printed guide to French campgrounds nor a working cellphone, and I didn’t find the same kind of tourist offices as in Quebec, so each night, I would search online for a few possible campgrounds for the next day. I arrived toward the end of one day in a small village, only to find out with some horror that my intended campground had ceased to exist. Worried by the imminent sunset, I sprinted on to the next campground on my list, and hoped that it would be open. Once there, the kind owners greeted me with a smile – and a sigh. They assured me they regularly host travelers who, like me, were first led astray by outdated webpages to other closed campgrounds.
Why am I writing about the misadventures of my summer vacations on a university blog? Every day I receive and send dozens of emails, and I go to my favourite search engine just about as often. Should I? Email and search engines are great tools, but they are not always the best tool for the job. Too often we succumb to the seduction of an instant answer from google, or the hope of an rapid response by email. Richer information is often available from the people around us – if only we would talk with them! Many professors note that no one comes to their office hours anymore. Have you ever heard anyone complain about an empty email inbox? Email works for simple questions and answers, but that robs us of the opportunity to go deeper in a face-to-face conversation, or even in a phone call. I would love it if more students phoned me, or dropped by my office, instead of sending email! And so, to all the students who have something to do with my office, if you heed my advice to talk more, and use email less, I promise to do so on next summer’s cycling trip.