(Blogger’s Note: Roni Jackson-Kerr and I became acquainted, interestingly, by way of technology. We connected between her pilgrimage and mine in the fall of 2015 and remain friends. As she nears completion for the Ph.D in Communication, Jackson-Kerr has become a research leader in a field of interest to us both. She’s in the final days of completing her doctoral dissertation examining the role of modern technology as it blends with the ancient practice of pilgrimage. She has titled her work, An Ancient Practice in the Modern Age: An Examination of the Camino de Santiago and the Impact of Technology on Modern Pilgrimage. Jackson-Kerr is also the founder of the American Pilgrims on Camino Oklahoma Chapter (Okies on Camino). We visited recently to discuss her work in-depth.)
Roni Jackson-Kerr at the iconic Alto de Perdon in the early stretch of the Camino de Santiago near Pamplona.
Q: Historically, there was a time when the practice of pilgrimage was common, then periods when it was not so much the case. Is technology responsible for what we might think of as a resurgence in the practice?
A: Because the type of research that I did for this project was ethnographic, I am unable to make direct assertions regarding causality. What I can say is that the rise of the Internet and the resurgence of the Camino have run largely parallel to one another. The resurgence has occurred for many reasons — one being the significant investment Spain has made in the Camino routes, particularly the Camino Frances, and the promotion of the Camino de Santiago itself. I can say the mere volume of information about the Camino that is now available online has unquestionably made the pilgrimage more visible — a simple Google search for ‘Camino de Santiago’ yields more than twenty million results. Blogs, forums, books (tech is affecting self-publishing and the sheer volume of books available), podcasts, documentary films, TED Talks, YouTube videos, and web series have all flourished in recent years. People are sharing their journeys on social media, inviting those in their social network to come along. The increase in available information and visibility is undoubtedly significant.
Q: Understanding that your research is objective in nature, what do you see is both the best and worst impacts of technology on pilgrimage?
A: (As an aside) No research is wholly objective. There is an element of subjectivity to even the most empirical of studies. Ethnography does not aim to be objective in nature, because it recognizes the futility in such an effort. We cannot escape ourselves as a vehicle for the transmission of information. That said, we do try to maintain reflexivity and recognize the ways in which we might influence our own work.
With that said, what’s interesting to me about this study is the very tension between the positives and negatives of technology on this experience, and the internal tensions caused by that impact. It is not altogether separate from the concerns we have regarding the impact of technology on our lives and ourselves in general.
In many ways, technology is offering many practical benefits to pilgrims. With respect to pack weight alone, it’s remarkable how many functions our modern devices can service — our cell phone can be our camera, our diary, our map, our guidebook, our compass, our connection to the outside world (for better or worse), and much, much more.
Modern technology is also enabling pilgrims to connect with one another before ever stepping foot on the trail and making it easier than ever to maintain those connections after returning home. It’s changing the very manner in which pilgrims engage with one another in space and time. It’s offering pilgrims access to a network of others who understand the gravity of the experience and who can offer support when perhaps those back home cannot, not having experienced the pilgrimage themselves. This is no small fact. The return home particularly can be quite emotionally complex, and having easy access to a support network can be extremely helpful for those navigating the transition home.
The other side of the coin, the one that has drawn the most attention from scholars and lay pilgrims alike, is what technology may be taking away from the pilgrim experience and the pilgrimage itself. There can be no doubt that the Camino is changing, both as a result of modern technology and as a result of the increasing numbers. There is a clear delineation between the sacred nature of pilgrimage and the profane nature of modernity and commercialism, and this almost intuitive delineation is what is causing such distress among those who see pilgrimage as a sacred act. Many pilgrims complain about the commercialism of the Camino, particularly in the post-Sarria stretch. But the truth is, the merchants have always gone where the people are. This was true in medieval times as it is today. Yet, there is an observable distinction between the merchant selling pendants outside the cathedral and posters advertising an albergue stapled to every passing tree. Despite the qualitative distinction, commercialism is still commercialism. The concept of making money off of a sacred experience is uncomfortable and challenges us spiritually, rightly so.
There is also much to be said about technology as distraction. In our daily lives as well as on Camino, our devices are distracting, pulling us away from the immediacy of our experiences and separating us from those in our immediate presence. For an experience as rich as pilgrimage, that distraction can be quite troubling.
We have a lot of reflecting to do on this, as individuals and collectively. Many pilgrims lament the numbers we are seeing on the Camino today, yet we speculate how wonderful the world would be if there were more pilgrims in it. We have much to reconcile within ourselves.
With colleagues at the University of Oklahoma 2017 spring commencement ceremonies.
Q: Have you detected any common personality traits among those who are interested in pilgrimage?
A: I think those who are drawn to pilgrimage are driven toward something “more.” They see life as more than merely the passage of time, but as something to actively pursue. There is a kind of bravery associated with taking on the hero’s journey, jumping off into the unknown (although there is no doubt that technology is significantly diminishing that unknown.) Time spent on pilgrimage forces you to spend time with yourself, away from the demands of everyday life, and it offers no escape from yourself, at least as long as technological access is still mostly limited to cafes and bars (I believe strongly that we will cross a threshold when Internet access is inevitably available everywhere, all the time.) But, for the time being, I would argue that while each pilgrim is unique, there are common yearnings that drive each of us, and it’s perhaps the yearning that is universal, if not a particular personality trait.
Q: Is there any evidence that technology use during pilgrimage detracts from the experience?
A: In many ways, that is impossible to answer, because our experience is our experience. It’s the only one we know, so to speculate on what might have been can become a bit of a fool’s errand. With that said, most pilgrims I spoke with recognized that their online engagement was not without consequence. They realized that time spent blogging or scrolling through Facebook was time not spent talking with other pilgrims, exploring villages, or chatting with locals. Importantly, time spent online is also time not spent simply thinking, being alone with one’s thoughts. When going through an experience as emotionally and spiritually intense as pilgrimage, offering oneself time to contemplate and process the lessons, thoughts, and emotions of that experience is essential. And there is no question that access to our distracting devices offers a barrier to that reflective time.
“Here I saw the entirety of my dissertation; this tension between the sacred and the profane; the tension between modernity and tradition; the tension between convenience and presence. How do we reconcile an ancient practice in the modern world?”
Q: What would you classify as the most significant findings of your research?
A: I think among the most interesting findings are the dialectical tension between our desire for the conveniences of modern technology and our sense that something is being lost as a result of it. One of the clearest demonstrations of this occurred at the 2016 American Pilgrims on Camino Annual Gathering. During one session, representatives from Santiago de Compostela came forth to discuss the many investments that were being made on the CF and in Santiago, including replacing the waymarkers, opening a new pilgrim’s office in Santiago, and “putting wi-fi everywhere.” To be clear, this measure was taken in response to pilgrim demand-pilgrims want the convenience of wi-fi access, even as we lament its problems. The next representative from the Confraternity of Saint James made an announcement about a new albergue opening on the Camino Norte. At the end of her announcement she proclaimed, “There will be NO wi-fi in the albergue. That’s not what the Camino is about.” Here I saw the entirety of my dissertation; this tension between the sacred and the profane; the tension between modernity and tradition; the tension between convenience and presence. How do we reconcile an ancient practice in the modern world?
Q: So from a practical standpoint, someone asks you if they should remain “connected” or disconnect during pilgrimage. How do you answer?
A: This is such a personal decision, and it is not a small one. I find that many people felt that they remained too connected during their journey. The use of our devices has become so reflexive — we do it without even thinking about it. We engage our devices when there is a lull. We’ve become uncomfortable with the mere absence of engagement. To be sure, choosing to disconnect while on pilgrimage requires intentionality and commitment. One pilgrim said to me, “When you’re dealing with addiction, moderation does not work.” And we are addicted to our devices. I believe this is why so many people found themselves regretting the amount of time they spent on and with their devices, because moderation simply did not work. Yet for safety and practicality’s sake, I would not necessarily recommend leaving one’s devices at home. I know pilgrims who did this and for them, being totally disconnected added a layer to their pilgrim experience. However, I also met pilgrims for whom access to their devices provided a level of security or enabled them to take the trip at all. Each pilgrim must make up their own minds about how and if they will engage their devices. The key is to remain committed to the role they wish their technology to play. If it is only for emergencies, then don’t make exceptions. Otherwise the rock will begin to roll downhill and it will gain momentum.
Q: Did your research investigate multiple pilgrimage routes, or primarily the Camino de Santiago? And if more than one route, are findings consistent?
A: For this project, I focused solely on the Camino de Santiago. However, there is evidence to suggest that this phenomenon is in no way unique to this pilgrimage. One out of every three modern travelers is a pilgrim, and technology is undoubtedly affecting pilgrim travel across the board. If you Google “selfies at the Hajj” or “technology and the Kumbh Mela,” you will find that pilgrims across faith traditions are grappling with the profane influence of modernity in their sacred spaces.
Q: Does your research tell us anything about common perceptions or misperceptions regarding pilgrimage?
A: Interestingly, for all those who conducted research prior to the Camino, in an effort to minimize uncertainty and gain a sense of preparedness, most laughingly said that nothing can truly prepare you for the Camino. Yes, you can read up on footwear and footcare and you can study maps and learn how to properly use trekking poles, all of which are valuable, but there will always be unexpected challenges and obstacles, and at some point, you will have to lean on your own fortitude rather than your research. And that is the point of liberation, isn’t it? When we realize that everything we need to move forward is already in us, we don’t have to rely on cell phones or wi-fi or others. We have everything we need all the time.
Q: For many there is a period of societal re-adjustment following pilgrimage. What does your research tell us about this?
A: This is one area in which I see a significant benefit of modern communication technologies. Many pilgrims experience what’s come to be known as “The Camino Blues” after returning home from the pilgrimage. This is largely because recounting what is in many ways an ineffable experience is challenging, and while many people are interested in hearing about the journey, their interest wanes after a while, leaving many pilgrims feeling isolated as they struggle to make sense of the many lessons and experiences that the Camino offered. Today, pilgrims have much greater access to others who can more easily relate to the challenges of re-entry, and anyone with an Internet connection has instantaneous access to pilgrims around the world who can help them sort through some of those feelings as they emotionally and spiritually unpack. Forums such as Ivar’s Forum, CAMIGAS, and the American Pilgrims on Camino forum on Facebook are offering pilgrims greater access to support networks than ever before, and the expansion of local APOC chapters is enabling pilgrims to connect with fellow pilgrims in their own communities as well. All of this has been made possible (or at least made easier) by communication technologies.
Q: It’s a broad question, but did you encounter any common ways the pilgrimage experience effects things like beliefs, values, morals or other qualities that guide us through life?
A: I think the Camino provides many useful tools and lessons for life. The pilgrimage is merely a metaphor for our life journeys, right? We move ever-forward toward the inevitable end, facing many joys, challenges, and heartbreaks along the way. Our bodies slowly deteriorate. We find comfort and support in the beautiful souls who intersect our path (and some who challenge it.) Some walk with us for only a short time, and others become permanently imprinted on the journey.
I think the pilgrimage demonstrates to us our own fortitude. It shows us that we are capable of things we never imagined. It teaches us the value of a kind gesture, of service to others, of laughter, and of pain. I have been fortunate to have been in many classrooms in my life, both literal and figurative, but perhaps never one so prevailing as the Camino.