Internet as Oil Spill

In his Tuesday Boston Globe editorial, “Paradise Lost,” Nick King reports the arrival of wireless Internet access to the isolated Palmyra Atoll, a US Natural Wildlife Area 1000 miles south of Hawaii. He poses the following question to frame his argument:

"Therein lies a philosophical debate. Is the Internet compatible with a sanctuary whose very ethos lies in its detachment, its disconnect, from the world as we know it? Or is the Web’s arrival akin to an oil spill washing up on Palmyra’s shores?"

It’s an interesting metaphor: Internet as pollution. It stems from the author’s conviction that we should be preserving the experience of living without the Internet in the same way that we a preserving places like Palmyra.

"None of the island’s unspoiled ecosystem will be damaged by Internet access, of course. But what will change is the contemplative experience of another kind of inhabitant of Palmyra: the humans. Why not link Palmyra’s status as a jewel-in-the-crown nature preserve with a parallel effort to preserve it as an archaic way of life for humans, sans Internet?"

He’s right that adding an Internet connection will change that place. What we do online is a form of place-making. Being online extends a place by endowing it with new layers of meaning and social interaction that change our sense of distance, proximity, and connection. We experience distance in part by the difficulty (actual or perceived) of communicating with others not in physical proximity to us. If I don’t have a phone and am out camping, I feel like I’m a long ways a way;  if I have to walk from a cabin to pay phone to make a call, that makes it seem more isolated.  When communication technologies remove that difficulty, being in a place takes on different meanings.  

According to the author, there is concern among those who in charge of the place that "Internet access will change the way people think, behave, and even talk while on the atoll, " and he voices his own worries about the effect it will have: 

"Will the ethos of isolation on Palmyra be ruined by the Internet? Will visitors be less attentive to the atoll’s natural wonders when the real world is just a click away? Rather than sit around after dinner singing or leafing through old scrapbooks of the Navy’s stay in Palmyra as the Seamans’s crew did, will conversation veer to the newsy or the worldly — the latest baseball scores or missteps by the Bush administration? Indeed, will Lange, like a vigilant parent, have to resort to setting rules about computer use so the Internet doesn’t come to dominate life?"

While I share his concern, I think there’s a hint of technological determinism in his worries,  as if once the Internet is introduced the residents of the atoll will lose all ability to resist the lure of online life. The atoll has so much presence that it’s hard to imagine the Internet having such an overwhelming draw for those there. If you’ve traveled thousands of miles to study this place, it’s unlikely that you’ll want to spend your time playing mult-player games over the Internet.

And even though he referred to the atoll as something other than "the real world," he acknowledges the Internet is a vital research tool that makes it possible for scientists to better protect this place. It’s survival depends not on hiding or keeping it disconnected–it is already affect by forces of climate change and globalization. Rather, it can only be protect by a deeper understanding of how these forces of connection might impinge upon it.  

I agree with the author that the experience of living without the Internet is a valuable experience in itself, and we need to preserve opportunities for this to happen regularly in our lives. But I think there are equally important lessons to be learned from voluntarily choosing to disengage from the web. After all, most of us don’t live on atolls; rather, live with the Internet every day while at the same time existing in places that deserve awareness and care–even if they are just our neighborhoods and backyards.

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