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Wi-Fi Invades the Wilderness

Jason Mark’s article for The Atlantic, “Wifi in the Woods,” points to an alarming trend: Wi-Fi connectivity brought into national parks—or at least, for the time being, their visitor centers. Parks Canada was the first to begin the push, spurring the National Park Service and National Park Hospitality Association into action.

This prompted a popular outcry. Mark sums it up nicely when he writes that “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.”

Parks Canada issued a statement guaranteeing that Wi-Fi connectivity will remain unavailable in most areas, adding that “You will have to wait to be back from your hike to update your Facebook page or add a squirrel selfie.” A similar conciliatory tone is maintained by the NPS and NPHA. An article on the project states that the “backcountry and wilderness areas in general would not become Wi-Fi hubs—at least, not through this pilot project.”

Not through this project, but perhaps through another? Google is more ambitious than the park services in its efforts to affirm the ubiquity of Internet connectivity. A fleet of 180 mini satellites is being launched at the price of an estimated $1 to $3 billion. Google’s first avowed goal is simply to enhance their mapping capabilities, but that by no means precludes the later addition of Internet connectivity.

Alistair Barr and Andy Pasztor wrote on the project for the Wall Street Journal in June, highlighting Internet access as the primary economic motive: “Google’s project is the latest effort by a Silicon Valley company to extend Internet coverage from the sky to help its business on the ground.” And this latest effort is extensive. Google is launching balloons and drones in addition to its satellites. (Facebook has a drone project of its own.)

Anxiety at the apparent inexorability of Internet connectivity is justified: the American imagination has long been fascinated with the notional purity of nature. At the time Thoreau penned Waldenhe was witnessing the earliest cultural precursors of the Industrial Revolution: cities were growing at unprecedented rates, families were being uprooted, individuals were becoming increasingly isolated from one another in the rush to gain employment and wealth—the Gilded Age was coming. Thoreau retreated into the woods to find truth, saying “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

We are now facing the effects of the Information Revolution. iPhones, laptops, and social media are its hallmarks; compulsive data aggregation and exchange its symptoms. Cities and industries are shifting rapidly again and, once more, we face another wave of technological advancement to which we must become accustomed.

We may yet see Wi-Fi at Walden Pond.

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