Joi Ito

Intelligent Travel

Marko Ahtisaari

Marko Ahtisaari is a Finnish technology entrepreneur with extensive experience in the telecommunications industry. He currently works for the mobile network Blyk, and is a founding investor in online travel start-up Dopplr.
blog: ahtisaari.typepad.com
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"Sometimes one must stop and sit by the roadside, and wait for the soul to catch up." −African proverb

For me, and certainly for many many others, Joi Ito is the model of the intelligent, social traveler. Whenever we think of Joi, we wonder what interesting city he might be in today, what great people he must be sharing a meal with, or whose photographic soul he is freeing at this very moment. But in the end we know we can always follow his digital traces online, and find the answers.

Tokyo today, San Francisco tomorrow, Amsterdam next week. And now playing: the first verse of Airport City by Giant Robot, singing a scene of cosmopolitan jet speed:

"Career is alright thank you for asking
Short notice no time for packing
Shuttle to the terminal traveling light
Last on the plane timing is right"

Right now−seated as I am in business−lounge suburbia in the airport city of Heathrow, waiting for the flight home to finally board (not having quite the right timing à la Giant Robot)−right now seems a fitting time to reflect on the joy of travel, but also to imagine how much better it can get. In many ways, I want to celebrate the world that travel brings to me, as well as how happy I am to be going home.

HIGH-VELOCITY LIFE

Following the twitter jet stream of friends around the world, I wonder about life lived at such high velocities−velocities that are physical, mental, emotional−and what effect this must have on one's soul. I wonder whether our souls aren't getting left behind, and whether we should wait for them to catch up, rather than catch the next flight. Having myself lived a life quite like Joi's, off and on, I do worry about how living the fast life−if not suffering from jet lag−might dampen our senses and alienate us from everything we hold dear. Every now and again when I find myself in the company of a well-traveled Helsinki clergyman, he often turns to me and asks, "So, how is your soul doing?" The question always makes one pause.

Yet to be completely emotionally and intellectually honest, at the beginning of my travels, I am not paralyzed with concern about a life lived at high velocity. I am energized. Joshua Cooper Ramo (whose portrait features in this collection and who is no stranger to this mode of living) writes about this kind of life with beautiful optimism:

"What happens with a high-velocity life is that some of the strictures of reality begin to fade away. It is not that the hassles and problems of ordinary travel disappear. What is really disappearing is the sense of connectedness to anything other than what you can take with you when you travel. And those things are your ideas, your dreams, your hopes and your senses... You find at a certain speed that you can slip without ripples into each of these new pools of experience and come out feeling more refreshed than when you went in."[1]

I do believe that we all feel concern for our souls, and that the question asked by my clergyman friend is one that we should ask ourselves, and each other, every day: "How is your soul doing?" But I also feel a real enthusiasm for the sentiment that Joshua expresses so beautifully, and which Joi embodies so perfectly: that we travel, and live, with the very best of our senses, our ideas, our hopes, our dreams.

One question that I am trying to answer, both professionally and personally, is how to manage a new kind of travel−a better experience of travel that refreshes. A style of travel "without ripples."

The answer to this question may well lie in a new breed of online informatics that extends the experience of intelligent travel beyond the small society that you can find in this book. Is it possible that the golden age of travel is not a thing of the past, but the way of the future?

ENGINEERING SERENDIPITY, PROMOTING SUSTAINABILITY

A new system of intelligent travel is already being imagined, and built. But the prospects of developing online, interconnected systems−ones based on the principle of shared intelligence and joined through trusted social networks−is not unique to one website or a single start-up. It is a global movement of world travelers sharing local information with friends, acquaintances, and everybody else.

We are all accustomed to sharing travel tips, but the future will find a way to bring this insider knowledge to everyone, whether on a public wiki or a private network. Intelligent travel can leverage the shared experience and combined intelligence of everyone living at jet speed, as well as those who just happen to love the place they call home.

But the greatest social benefit of intelligent travel is what I like to call "engineered serendipity." The system should help lead us to the happy accidents that make life so exciting, like meeting up with long-lost friends in exotic locales. Travel has always been linked to adventure, but in the future we won't have to leave everything to chance.

And a system that has more awareness−of people, of places, of processes, of distances−can also make us more aware of what travel is doing to us, and especially what it is doing to our planet. There is no excuse for not building systems that help inform us about our carbon footprint, whether we are flying from Narita to Helsinki or just living a life online. A system as I describe it might nudge us, but it won't judge us. What we do with this information is up to us.

THE RETURN HOME: THROW OUT THE CLOCKS

In the world of intelligent travel, information will no longer be hard to find. Information will find us. The only thing that will be hard is finding the time to use it well. Time is the ultimate scarce resource of the information age. It is the subject of endless pop−song wish lists ranging from turnin' it back to makin' it (or dis moment) last forever. The desire to master time has always been with us, and the conveyor belt lyrics of today have a deep ancestry. But let us listen again to the recently deceased Pakistani master singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan:

"Throw out the clocks,
My lover comes home
Let there be revelry.
My lover comes home,
Let there be revelry."

In this excerpt from a characteristically moving Qawwali, "Mera Pia Ghar Aaya" ("My Lover Comes Home"), Nusrat interprets time differently when it is a question of love. (As is often the case in Sufi Qawwali, the object of love remains ambiguous between the divine and the human.)

Either way, we'd like the clocks thrown out. After a fulfilling and serendipitous journey, we would like nothing more than for every homecoming to be a time of celebration. Then we will be ready to stop and sit for a while, and wait for the soul to catch up.

  1. Ramo, Joshua Cooper. "Living at Jet Speed." Newsweek. 15 May 2006. <

This article is available in Chinese by Yeeyan.