Matin Durrani - Science Journalist

The online bubble

Posted by on 23 June 2013

I've just spent a few days on holiday in Paris, tootling around the sights, catching up with friends and trying out the city's great bike-hire scheme called Velib. Cycling is a great way to see the city: it's mostly flat and the side roads are fairly quiet. I don't know which visionary genius had the will to get this scheme off the ground, but full marks to whoever it was because it works brilliantly.

The last time I was in the French capital was 1995 and not all that much - on the surface at least - has changed, apart from the bikes and the fact that the district east of the Centre Pompidou, known as Le Marais, has spiralled upmarket. You can't move for posh shops selling overpriced Mr Men mugs.

The other big change in the intervening years has, of course, been the rise of the Internet. It used to be the case that when you went abroad, you were pretty much cut off from the rest of your life and the only source of information was watching the hotel telly or vainly trying to read something impenetrable in "Liberation" or "Le Monde", which you'd carry around under your arm trying to look cool. (Or maybe that was just me.)

Now, of course, you've got whatever you want via your smart phone. And while I was in Paris, I wasn't working and thinking about publishing science news that would be served up to people, as I do most of the time at Physics World. Instead, I was an "ordinary" consumer, which isn't exactly an earth-shattering observation. But it's actually a position most science journalists are rarely in. We're normally on one side of the fence, producing content (ghastly word I know). But it was interesting for a few days to be on the other side of the fence for a while. It means you've entirely free to access whatever you like, which sounds great but it reminded me that most people -- unless they are actively interested in science already -- aren't going to come across any science news. And if they do, it'll probably be some guff based on a fifth-hand rewrite of a press release.

So my conclusion? The downside these days of going abroad is you're only half immersed in the place you're in. Online, you're still somewhere else -- the place you are the rest of the time. It makes travel a lot different -- you get back and you don't really feel you've missed anything. But I can't help feeling you're half missing out.