A Trip in a Box

What if the full experience of going there came to you?

Kimball always wanted to go to India. Little did she know a year ago that India would come to her in a box. She was fascinated by the Indians she saw in her city in the US, she occasionally brought home food from their take-out restaurants, and even went through a phase where she practiced Kundalini yoga. But there were so many other closer destinations to visit, the national parks, historic American cities, and then Europe, that India always seemed extravagant and perhaps a bit too risky.

Then the pandemic came and travel was out of the question.

Kimball didn’t know it at the time but a business idea being developed in California would soon allow her to get closer to India than she could have imagined, affordably, without leaving the safety of her home. She discovered GoBeSen, the “Senseable Travel Company”, in a social media link posted by a friend, and decided to try their special offer, less than ten dollars, about what she had just spent for a delivery of a couple of samosas to her door by bike messenger. She filled out the online questionnaire, shamelessly exposing her ignorance about India (her choice of destinations from the all comprehensive global menu) and put in her credit card details. The automatic receipt that popped up in her email and her browser promised delivery within 48 hours and offered a pre-travel prep learning path, beginning with a virtual doorway on which she instinctively clicked.

For the next two hours Kimball was guided through an engaging labyrinth of media, reading about Indian history, listening to interviews with experts and locals, watching film clips, looking at art, listening to readings (in translation) of India literature. Among the most difficult but satisfying instruments in the journey were the maps that appeared onscreen., high definition scans of historic maps like the 19th century Hindostan maps of British India. Kimball emerged from this crash course in India excited to continue, but the the next steps required her to get off line, do a little shopping, and plan her calendar in preparation for her virtual trip to India. The shopping list was simple, wheat flour, brown rice, sesame oil, potatoes, onions and a few other simple veggies she could pick up at her local supermarket.

The next day, as she had almost fallen back into her routine, Kimball’s buzzer rang and it was a courier with her package from GoBeSen. The generic cardboard box, like any Amazon parcel, contained another box, printed with a map of India and a few simple instructions which repeated what had already been clear in her digital confirmation: “before opening the box get comfortable in front of your screen, with good headphones and “do not disturb” on all your devices.” On the screen she was now instructed to open the box within the box. Doing so she discovered an intriguing puzzle of cloth, paper and wood boxes, nested together like a complex rubrics cube, each one numbered. A short video introduced her to a room in a small hotel in Choti Basti, near Mali Mandir, Pushkar, Rajasthan. This would be her base for the first session which would take two hours (and she had already blocked out her calendar for a week’s worth of these sessions).

“Now open box one,” a voice instructed her and the sounds of street noise, distant music, and muffled voices in the adjacent corridor filled her Bose headphones. She undid the ribbons, removed the cover and was immediately hit with a sweet floral smell which she discovered (thanks to the voice of the narrator who would accompany her during this session) corresponded to the Tuberose flower, locally known as ‘Rajanigandha’.

Over the next hour and a half she was led on a whirlwind tour of the Brahma and Ranghi temples, including the experience of various forms of transit from a clunky Indian taxi to a rickshaw. The transfers were one-minute first person viewpoint video clips, then speeded up to cut quickly to destinations. The last, returned her to her hotel room, at this point hungry and ready for some physical activity. The two hour session coming to a close, the last link was to an online yoga workshop and a simple recipe for Ajwain Paratha, an Indian dish she could make with flour, oil and a few Indian ingredients she already had on hand but had never really known how to use. Just in case, the recipe gave box numbers for the tiny packages containing ajwain seeds and red chilli powder.

Over the next 6 sessions Kimball experienced sights, sounds, smells and tastes typical of India’s six physiographic regions. The transition from region to region was made with maps and aerial images but each time she was projected into the local reality. While Kimball had occasionally indulged in casual street-view surfing, these first person visits were curated and came with complete multisensorial accoutrements.

The part she enjoyed most were the interviews with locals. There were hundreds but she seemed to only run into those that were most interesting to her. Some became like trusted advisors, and she went back to them to ask their opinions on some of the stories she heard in later sessions.

When the week came to an end, and most of the little packets had been opened, their contents spread across Kimball’s now exotically scented living room, she looked fondly through her scrapbook and photo album that the program had encouraged her to keep. The box included a Kondapalli toy which she placed next to her laptop on her desk at work and a kurta which she would wear for months.

Asked to write a followup evaluation for GoBeSen, she sat down at her computer the next day and thought a bit. This is what she wrote:

“Dear GoBeSen,

Thank you for putting the work into this product which more than lived up to my expectations.

It did make me think about how and why we travel though. I learned a lot about India, exactly what you wanted me to learn, but what I didn’t learn is who you are. I was impressed with the way your algorithm tracked my personal experience, learning from the nanosecond pause in mousing over an image about my penchant for cats, my preferred colors (purple and orange) and my disdain for politics. Behind my own choices I can’t help wondering about the choices made by you, the programmers, who like me have your own biases.

The smells and tastes were an amazing addition to normal armchair travel, but still too easy to turn on and turn off. We all know the cities I visited are much richer than even the most sophisticated software can replicate. I didn’t feel the risks and consequences of my own actions, perhaps because not being there they were reduced. I appreciate that my carbon footprint was eliminated for the most part by not flying there, but I didn’t “return” from this “trip” with a much greater personal awareness of my role in climate injustice. I never found myself face-to-face with a child who questioned my politics. I never ate something that made me sick.

I guess this virtual trip in this way had the same limitations that packaged travel used to have before the pandemic. Reducing risk to a minimum makes travel safer and more accessible but also reduces its positive impact, personally on the traveller and on the place visited.

You ask for ideas for improving the product and since I really loved most of what you’ve done I am happy to offer a few thoughts. I’m afraid they go beyond adding or tweaking features though, sorry.

1.If you want a real experience, instead of sending your local staff to research far off places (sorry guys, you can keep working on the local realities you know best), crowdsource instead to the local community for writing, images, etc.

2. Don’t ruin this great idea by structuring it as a corporation, hoping to make billions when it goes public on Wall Street. You can’t simultaneously promote cross-cultural human exchange and propagate a system which reduces humans to externalities to be eliminated. I know you need investors, just make them public and transparent and don’t promise ridiculous returns for a few made possible by everyone else working for peanuts. It’s not cool anymore.

3. Keep the box, but be sure that the contents come from the place visited and are packed there. Some of it felt a little too much like marketing done in Cambridge by white college grads).

4. Throw away your algorithm, let the place be the algorithm and the territory be the map. The virtual world you create may feel like reality but it will always be comprised of binary choices. The real world, with ambiguities and infinite occasions for chance encounters has all the complexity we need. Rewrite your software to make reality accessible, not to replicate it in a safe simplified and commodified version.

As someone who tried your product and enjoyed it, these are a few of my ideas. I hope my critique is not too harsh.”

Kimball hit send. Her real world was waiting.

Born and raised in Boston, now lives in Italy and works on cities, especially Rome.

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