Earth Island Journal editor Jason Mark has a piece in The Atlantic about proposals to make wifi available in national parks and other remote areas, and whether a wired wilderness would be the same place. As "a lover of wild places,” he confesses, "I can’t help but feel a little freaked out by the whole thing."
Wifi in the woods? I think I’ll pass. Because if we ever succeed in knitting all (or even most) of the physical world into the Internet, we could end up abolishing the sense of the Away. When we’re all able to connect from anywhere—well, then, there’ll be no place left to hide.
And Mark makes an important point about the difference between technologies that help you get closer to nature, by extending your ability to survive in the woods, and those that threaten to distract you from it:
I like my lightweight, water-resistant space fabrics. I like my high-altitude stove and my sleeping bag and my water filter. Most of the Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hikers I’ve come across in the Sierra Nevada the past couple of summers are fully GPS-equipped; forget this Cheryl Strayed getting lost bullshit. Modern gear and gizmos make backpacking—if not exactly comfortable—at least bearable.
But there’s one key difference between a Gore-tex rain slicker and a satellite-connected cell phone. While the first enables an adventure into remote places, the second threatens to disrupt it. We all know how addicting our phones can be—how they distract us from the present and distance us from the immediate.
In other words, as always, the question isn’t whether MOAR TECHNOLOGY is bad. The question is, how will we interact with it? Will it help us be more resilient or independent or smarter, or less? The worst reason that you come up with to make wifi available in the wild is that it’ll let you keep up with the office, or write Yelp reviews of this section of the river.
It’s helpful to think about the difference between wifi and GPS. Both are radio signals, and both obviously are "technologies.” But the latter helps you establish your physical position more precisely, and can be pretty useful if you get lost; but you’re not very likely to be distracted by your GPS unit, and you can’t use the GPS satellite network to post pictures of yourself.
Mark concludes with this thought:
Maybe, then, what we need is a new preservation movement committed to maintaining some places that are offline. We need to make a societal choice to leave big, open areas totally disconnected. In the end, keeping the wild free from telecommunications will rely on the same idea that has always guided preservation: We have to exercise collective restraint because we know we’re not very good at personal discipline.