Wifi in the Woods

The opportunity to fully disconnect is at risk in an ever-more-connected world.
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Micah Baird

We had only been out of Internet range for a few hours, and already DJ Spooky was getting twitchy. The plan had been to fly straight from Fairbanks to the tundra, where we would spend a week running the Aichilik River to the shores of the Arctic Ocean. But we hit rain and fog flying through the mountain valleys of the Brooks Range, and our bush pilot had been forced to turn around and land in Arctic Village, a hamlet of about 200 Gwich’in people roughly in the middle of nowhere.

For DJ Spooky, also known as Paul D. Miller, the change of plans might have been a relief. The avant-garde impresario has a lot going on—producing records for the likes of Yoko Ono; writing a multimedia symphony; publishing a magazine—and he was psyched when he discovered he could pick up a wifi signal at the offices of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. It was a faint connection—only a bar or two, intermittent at best—and sometimes he had to stand outside under the office’s slim porch, hunched out of a spitting rain.

But it would do.

There were eight of us, including some of the national leadership of the Sierra Club, eager to explore the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a place that, during the years-long battle over oil drilling there, has become an emblem of wildness. We would spend a week in a land that is about as far as you can get from civilization, literally at the ends of the Earth.

We eventually made it over the mountains, and as we landed on a narrow shelf next to the Aichilik River our tiny plane sent herds of caribou running across the green slopes. Miller, like the rest of us, was forced to disconnect completely. He is nothing if not an urbane cat—raised in a Dupont Circle townhouse that served as a 1970s-era salon for the African-American intelligentsia in Washington, D.C., and now a longtime fixture of the Chelsea art and music scene. Even in the wilderness, he always looked fly: khaki canvas pants, a tightly cut Levi’s denim jacket, a newsboy cap turned at a rakish angle. Our first afternoon in the refuge, I watched him through my field glasses as he walked slowly, calmly toward a herd of caribou, hands held out before him, the gesture oddly Vulcan.

At first, this National Geographic Society “emerging explorer” seemed disoriented by being disconnected. We had only been in the wilderness for a few hours when Miller approached my tent and asked, rather sheepishly, if I had any “paper books” I could spare. Turned out his iPad battery was winding down. Eventually Miller settled into the simpler rhythms of that primeval landscape. On the morning of Day Four, he talked about how the change in environment had affected him. “We’re going into information overload, where there’s too much of everything all the time,” he said, sitting on the bank of the swift and shallow Aichilik, swatting at swarms of mosquitos. When he muses, which he does easily and often, Miller speaks in an erudite stream-of-consciousness that can, in the space of a minute, swirl together James Joyce and Paul Robeson, Jorge Luis Borges and John Cage. “It’s so powerful to be here, and to think about how I could write a composition, how I could make a new multimedia work, just from this openness, just from hitting the Reset Button on my creative process and getting away from New York and getting away from it all. This is a full and rich place, and I am sitting here absorbing a tremendous amount of information that nature made.”

Getting away from it all. That, in a nutshell, has been the great offer of the wilderness experience since, more than a century ago, John Muir celebrated wildlands as a cure-all for a “tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people.” The rewards can be as simple as relaxation or—if your tastes are more like DJ Spooky’s—a chance at sublime contemplation.

Yet the opportunity to fully disconnect might be at risk thanks to the steady expansion of advanced telecommunications.

 Micah Baird

Earlier this summer Parks Canada announced it is bringing wifi to its visitor centers, and the United States National Park Service isn’t far behind. Google is extending its popular Street View program to the backcountry with Google Trekker and enlisting adventurers to help photo-map even the most remote places. More ambitiously, the information giant is laying plans to extend connectivity to the world’s farthest hinterlands. Google is expected to spend between $1 billion and $3 billion to deploy a fleet of some 180 mini satellites that will provide an Internet signal from the sky. The plan may also involve high-altitude balloons and solar-powered drones supplying high-speed, broadband service. The idea of universal connectivity is, in a way, exciting. Why not share a selfie from right above Machu Picchu? For climbers preparing to make a peak ascent, real time weather info is a serious safety bonus. Far more importantly, global connectivity could be a huge asset to the billions of people who still haven’t had the opportunity to tap into the promise of the Internet.  

But as a lover of wild places, 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.

* * *

The Wilderness Act of 1964—one of the landmark accomplishments of the modern American environmental movement—turns 50 next month. As it reaches middle age, policy makers are confronting novel challenges that the law’s authors couldn’t have anticipated. Earlier this summer, administrators at Yosemite National Park told visitors to leave their drones at home after park officials started to spot unmanned crafts filming climbers on the park’s iconic granite formations. The Bureau of Land Management is starting to crack down on geocaching on its properties; BLM officials say caches could attract bears and disturb an area’s “wilderness character.”

North of the border, Parks Canada wifi plans have created a stir. By the end of the summer, it says up to 20 of its campgrounds and visitor centers will be connected, with plans to expand the service to 150 locations in its parks within three years. The move sparked a good deal of hand-wringing in the Canadian press. Shortly before he died, Farley Mowat, one of Canada’s best known nature writers, blasted the scheme as “a disastrous, quite stupid, idiotic concept, and should be eliminated immediately.”

The debate over which technologies are appropriate in the parks and preserves is as old as the preservation idea itself; I’m sure that when the first telephone was installed in Yosemite Valley, someone wrote a jeremiad against the idea. In an interview in June, I asked National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis about the prospect of wired wilderness, and he responded with a chuckle. Then he offered this:

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Jason Mark is the editor of the environmental quarterly Earth Island Journal

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