In the 1850s, New Yorkers decided that they needed a break from New York. The city was experiencing rapid industrialization, and it was getting smoggy, loud, and crowded. So New Yorkers took the most valuable 150 square blocks in North America and created Central Park.
By design, Central Park is the anti-New York City: curvy where New York is gridded; quiet where New York is loud; green where New York is gray. Frederick Law Olmsted, the park’s designer, explained in 1872 that it would offer “an opposite class of conditions” to those of industrial New York.
Olmsted didn’t just work in cities. He was helping protect the Yosemite Valley while he was sprucing up the hills of middle Manhattan. Urban or rural, the principle was the same—to maintain the flavor of a pre-industrial pattern of life, even as everything else started to layer itself up with cement, gas lines, and sprawl. Parks ensured that, no matter how much a particular technology made the jump from useful tool to totally pervasive medium, it was always possible to escape, from time to time, into a different order of reality.
That philosophy reached its high point in the Wilderness Act, which turns 50 today. Under the Wilderness Act, large chunks of our national forests and national parks must remain free, in perpetuity, of any kind of road, motorized device, or permanent structure. Even park rangers can’t drive their snazzy green trucks in wilderness areas. It’s Little House on the Prairie-style conditions, sans little house.
The Wilderness Act arrived shortly after construction started on the Interstate Highway System, and shortly before Americans flew to the moon. It’s hard to imagine a piece of legislation more out of whack with the technological Zeitgeist. Over industry opposition, Congress passed it anyway, by a margin of 374-1 in the House, and unanimously in the Senate.
Unfortunately, they’d never heard of smartphones. Fifty years later, the parks movement hasn’t adapted to the present. After decades of addressing the “noise, bustle, confinement, and noxious qualities” of modern life (in Olmsted’s words), parks today aren’t equipped to deal with a situation where so much noise and bustle emanates from the phones in our pockets. In cities, it’s becoming impossible to find a public space that isn’t wired in 12 different ways. And, even in national parks, the hospitality industry is pushing for expanded 4G coverage and Wi-Fi access.
With the Wilderness Act turning 50, it’s worth asking what it will take to keep wilderness areas wild—and what a 21st-century park movement would look like.
The problem, I should emphasize, is not that the Internet is evil. It’s not. It’s a wonderful tool. It’s just that, like overcrowding in 1850s New York, it’s exceptionally difficult to avoid. And so far, our guiding principle as a society seems to be that Internet access should be available whenever possible.
Just to give one example: In college, I had trouble focusing when I was writing essays. Instead of struggling toward a passable analysis of, say, Edenic themes in Moby Dick, I would read about baseball on ESPN.com and check my email six times per minute. So I started looking for some place on campus—just one room in the library, or an antiquated classroom—where it was possible to avoid Wi-Fi for a couple hours.
No luck: Although its students joked regularly that Facebook had killed their ability to focus, the school continued to pump wireless into every single corner of its campus, as if by divine mandate. (A couple blocks from the library, students could pick up their Adderall prescriptions at the university pharmacy; with one hand the college giveth concentration; with the other she taketh away.) I wasn’t the only person searching for some kind of tech-respite; the underground library on campus was popular among harried students, in part, precisely because it didn’t have cell reception. But it simply hadn’t occurred to the university that its borderline-addicted students might need a break from their drug of choice.
Call it LANifest destiny: the sense the Internet should be available, everywhere, from sea to shining sea. The same illness is starting to infect national parks. Last year, the National Park Hospitality Association petitioned the National Park Service, asking it to make parks more smartphone-friendly. “We live in a world,” wrote the industry spokespeople, “where connectivity via smartphones is highly valued. In many of America’s national parks, these prized smartphones are little more than cameras because even at visitor centers and lodges and other developed sites, cell service and data service is poor—or worse.”
The National Park Service listened: Shortly after the NPHA recommendations, it began a pilot program to expand Wi-Fi and 4G service in selected national parks. Canada followed suit this year in its own national parks, with a plan to add Wi-Fi hotspots and beef up cell coverage
Most backcountry areas are still outside the range of cell towers, and some parks seem resistant to the trend. Still, there’s no reason to expect that parks won’t continue to grow more and more wired. The Wilderness Act doesn’t prohibit Wi-Fi or cell service (only permanent cell towers) in the backcountry. And as the technology for delivering cell service gets better—as, one expects, will eventually happen—there’s nothing formal in place to ensure that parks don’t become just as wired as anywhere else. The NPHA, citing safety concerns, has also suggested setting up a basic, emergency-call-only cell system in the backcountry.
Fortunately, it’s easy to imagine basic steps that will give citizens continued access to zones where they can’t get access. For one thing, the National Park Service could make a clearer commitment to keeping phone networks and the web out of the parks.
Meanwhile, in the spirit of the Wilderness Act, cities could take easy steps to provide a short respite from all that connectivity. Withholding Wi-Fi is easy. Jammers that block cellphone signals are cheap, simple, and effective over short distances. Physical parks could offer outdoor areas where your phone won’t work, and where your computer can’t pick up any kind of Wi-Fi signal. There could also be wireless-free areas of libraries, coffee shops, public squares, and office buildings.
It’s also possible to create technology-free micro-parks. Oddly, the one entity that seems to have seriously experimented with this idea is Kit-Kat, the candy company, which created tiny signal-jamming zones around Amsterdam for an ad campaign in 2012. The tagline—“Have a break, have a Kit-Kat”—was goofy, but the idea wasn’t bad: little public pockets of quiet, tucked into plazas and equipped with benches, where you could sit around, chat with a friend, and disconnect for a while.
These measures may seem extreme. “Why not just exercise a little self-control,” some might ask, “and stop checking your stupid phone/Gmail account/fantasy football stats so much?”
Well, for one thing, if you’re anything like me (and seemingly everyone I know), that’s a bit like telling an alcoholic to have just one drink. For another, connectedness isn’t just about being online—it’s the constant possibility, at any second, of stopping what you’re doing and checking something else. In other words, even if your phone is tucked in your purse, you’re still, in some sense, wired in. So is everyone around you, even if you find a way to abstain. Also, self-control will tire you out. Sometimes it’s nice not to exercise self-control, but just not to have any choice at all—to be somewhere where you can be disconnected without consciously focusing on the fact that you’re disconnected.
The appeal of parks isn’t just that they’re pretty. It’s that they feel different from the reality in which you spend most of your time. Our hunger for that difference isn’t limited to any particular technology, or era, or generation.
For a week each May—long story—I help take a large group of high school seniors into the woods. The program bans cellphones and computers. Six years ago, when I first worked on this trip, students would complain steadily about their digital isolation. In the last couple years, though, something has shifted. Over and over again, I hear students—introspective theater kids, varsity cheerleaders, Division I-bound jocks; basically, regular 18-year-olds—talking about how happy they are to be free of phones for a week.
In 1964, the country still had far fewer roads, highways, and suburbs than it does today. But the Wilderness Act’s writers saw where things were headed. As the bill explains, Congress was setting aside wilderness areas “in order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlements and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States.”
The best way to honor that spirit is not to throw galas celebrating the beauties of the American wilderness. It’s to recognize that, today, we have our own version of “expanding settlements and growing mechanization.” Our public spaces, like our personal lives, are only going to get more and more entangled with the web. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But, as the supporters of the Wilderness Act understood, you have to place limits. Technologies become harmful at the moment when they become inescapable.