Wifi in the Woods

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

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:

“If I get an audience of typical Parks Service officials and I say, ‘What about technology?,’ they’re like, ‘Ohhhh, make them leave those devices at home. We don’t need that.’ And I go, ‘Oh, so you’re still hiking in wool and wearing a wicker pack, huh? You’re not using any technology, right?’ We’ve sort of picked on one piece of technology in this debate—the one that connects us to the rest of the world. And yet we’re using carbon fiber pack frames and Gore-Tex and high-tech stoves and solar whatevers.”

Jarvis also points out that people are going to bring their devices to the wilderness no matter what—in part because people bring their devices everywhere. It’s why he supports more connectivity while some of his colleagues are reluctant.

“It’s a powerful tool for us to provide communications to this next generation who, by the way, are going to bring their devices with them,” Jarvis told me. “They’re not going to leave them behind, and they’re going to expect that they can stay connected. And I think that’s okay. I don’t view it as competition. I view it as a potential to expand the experience.”

Jarvis is right. People aren’t going to leave their devices at home. And so some measure of connectivity, especially in the “front country” of the visitor centers and car campgrounds, can be useful for spreading Muir’s “wilderness gospel.” Also, I don’t have much interest in backpacking as a kind of Civil War reenactment. 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. It would take a special kind of discipline to resist checking in were the option available. The glance at the phone would start out innocently enough—let’s share this amazing picture of a bear! Then many of us would succumb to connectivity creep. I can easily imagine myself in this scenario imagined by a writer for the Toronto Globe & Mail: “The instant I upload a shot of a mother moose and her calf, I’ll be checking my e-mail, setting up meetings, and spoiling the mood.”

It can hard to say what exactly “the mood” is, since it’s different for each of us. But this much at least is clear: the mood of the wilderness is a stillness not found in human-dominated landscapes. Out in the wild, a different kind of logic rules—a powerful magic, but also a fragile one. It wouldn’t take much more than the ping of a text alert to break the spell. 

* * *

That morning on the tundra, Miller talked about the imaginative value of the wilderness—and how easily it can be obscured. “Most people now can’t see the night stars, because of optical light pollution, because of the sheer volume of electricity, of lights at night,” he said. “They wouldn’t even be able to see the stars to name anything. If you looked to the sky in New York, you’re not going to see anything except a huge cloud reflecting back Times Square. So how does that affect your imagination?” In a word: profoundly.

The sheer physicality of the wild feels like a splash of cold water to the face. Forced to grapple with uncompromising elements, you might be reminded of the original meanings of things. A net, for example, is meant to catch and capture. A web is something you get stuck in. 

Universal connectivity might never reach as far as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; so few people live above 65 North Latitude that there’s probably little point in encircling the region with wifi. Still, Google’s global connectivity would certainly stretch into many of the wilderness areas in the Lower 48—the wooded valleys of the Northern Rockies, the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, the lonely stretches of the Sonoran Desert, the Adirondacks. National Park Service Director Jarvis, for one, sees it as something of a done deal. “I’m not saying that we need to put up cell towers so that when you’re in the Fisher Basin of the North Cascades you can get connectivity,” he told me. “That’s all going to get solved soon anyways with satellite uplinks.”

Okay. But it’s worth pointing out that universal connectivity would violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the law as established by the Wilderness Act. The act defines wilderness as a place that “has outstanding opportunities for solitude.” Is there any doubt that being able to check your email in the middle of, say, Utah’s red rock country wouldn’t compromise that opportunity? The solitude afforded by a foray into a primitive place clearly has a personal, psychological benefit. It feels good to know there’s someplace that’s totally off the grid.

“To me, the Arctic refuge is not just about the territory, but about the metaphor of the territory,” DJ Spooky said. In the decade-long fight over proposed oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge, hundreds of thousands of people sent emails or postcards or made phone calls to Congress in defense of the place—even though they knew they would never, ever go there and see it themselves.

They just wanted to know that it existed.

This idea of the Away is also a civic good. A free society needs an escape hatch. In U.S. history, the wilderness has been a last resort for the apostate, the dissident, the runaway slave. Losing that refuge—or diminishing it through omnipresent connectivity—would do democracy little good. This is exactly what environmental author-activist Edward Abbey was talking about when he declared, “The wilderness should be preserved for political reasons. We may need it someday not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism but also as a refuge from authoritarian government, from political oppression. Grand Canyon, Big Bend, Yellowstone, and the High Sierras may be required to function as bases for guerrilla warfare against tyranny.”

Grandiose paranoia? Maybe. But in this era of NSA’s PRISM and the constant tracking of Big Data, having some places that are fully disconnected and unmonitored seems to be more valuable than ever. If some madman ever activates SkyNet, we’re going to want a few landscapes outside the matrix. 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.

And what if we do decide to knit all of Earth into a giant wifi hotspot? I think we’ll come to regret it as we discover that even our getaways provide no escape. For now, at least, the wild remains a preserve of the mind—a place where, digitally and physically, you can get away.

Disclosure: The Sierra Club paid for a portion of the author's trip to Alaska, which he took as part of his reporting for a book project.