WiFi in the woods: The opportunity to fully disconnect is at risk in an ever-more-connected world

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.”