Facebook, Starbucks and traveller's sanity

Published in Hurriyet Daily News, 25 September

On some levels, I despise and love social networking sites and globalised brands.

Ethically, I have a lot of questions around sites like Facebook that register a significant amount of personal data on its users. Not only does this make me nervous about privacy issues, but the prospects of what a profit seeking company can do with such information scares me. In addition to this, I have growing worries about the long term effect, if not damage, these sites have over human bonds and relationships.

Similarly, I have a lot of ethical questions on globalised brands that haunt me pretty much everywhere I go, like the golden arches of McDonald’s or that chemical taste of Nescafe. I have a lot of questions over where and how they get their supplies and what they mean for local economies. In addition to this, we are all worried about how these popular products are changing other cultures and the long term damage they are causing their hosts.

All of these nag me each time I check my profile on that you-know-which website and every time order a grande cappuccino at that coffee shop chain store. Yet, I must be honest, I enjoy consuming them and most importantly, I am increasingly realizing their positive side effects.

When one starts travelling around the world, the thrill of the new things, new tastes and places is overpowering. Initially, every second of this exposure is exciting and energizing, especially for the adventurous traveller. However, the same excitement eventually gives way to various stages of integration to a new culture, which often involves frustration, agitation and hunger. Most people who dwell in a foreign country are able to come out of that process with a renewed sense of comfort and excitement.

For the frequent flyer, however, there is no chance of stability and continuity in adjusting to the new culture. Non-stop travels between countries, hotels, board rooms and airports become disorienting and increasingly damaging to physical and emotional health. After all, we human beings are not meant to live this way. Although constant familiarity gets boring, constant change is far from pleasant.

In previous years, I had sought counsel from various trained psychologists and books in order to develop practices that would enable me to cope with such tensions that emerge from over-travelling. Conventional wisdom suggested that I should take various pictures, small items, comfort food and music with me to wherever I travel, so at least I can create a personal and familiar space in an impersonal hotel room some random place. This tip has been a helpful one.

The internet and globalised brands, however, also bring a positive contribution to this curse of modern life. I step in to a coffee shop in Amman, or Beijing, or Cairo or Istanbul or Washington D.C. and I find the same decoration, almost the same menu, the familiar tastes and smells. When I grab my coffee and close my eyes, I could in fact be in that particular shop near my home in London, and for the next 30 minutes, I can charge my adaptation batteries.

Social networking sites help me to feel ‘connected’ with my life in normal circumstances. I step into an internet shop in Tehran or Beirut, or Manila, or Boston or Valetta, and within few minutes I share in the lives of my friends, while looking at their pictures, reading their musings and laughing at their silly comments. I hear news about who is going out with who, who likes which movie, who moved where, who just graduated and who just had a birthday. And with few clicks and sentences, my physical loneliness in a new setting disappears as I recharge my social batteries to handle all of the new people I am about to meet.

On some levels I know these are shallow coping mechanisms, with a hint of hypocrisy and guilt. And yet on other levels, I am glad for the globalised world we live in, not only for creating new challenges for us but also for giving us tools to handle them.