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Monique Keiran: Wi-Fi can help connect us to the natural world

Nature Boy uses several smartphone apps with his work. Some help him identify birds. Others help him with wild plants, fungi and other assorted roughage. He opens the astronomy app whenever he’s outside on clear nights.

Nature Boy uses several smartphone apps with his work. Some help him identify birds. Others help him with wild plants, fungi and other assorted roughage.

He opens the astronomy app whenever he’s outside on clear nights. And because he works with people, he often photographs — with permission — families, school groups and kids Doing Cool Stuff Together in Nature, then immediately emails the pictures to the parents and teachers.

For somebody who interfaces so intensely with the natural world, he’s pretty hip to the latest gadget, gizmo and gew-gaw. His use of technology to augment his and others’ experience of the outdoors exemplifies some of the more positive, constructive aspects of being constantly connected.

Those integrated, positive interfaces came to mind when news broke recently that Parks Canada proposed to provide wireless network access at busy areas of some national parks and historic sites over the next few years.

For example, with park Wi-Fi access, I could double-check the tides before paddling around Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. I could check the day’s weather before setting out on the Long Beach Challenge, the 9.5-kilometre route that Pacific Rim National Park is marketing as the latest, greatest B.C. marathon-fitness trail. I could get Nature Boy to look up that weed while we stomp about Fort Rodd Hill.

Of course, with cellphone coverage in this region, I could do most of that without park Wi-Fi. At Fort Rodd Hill, I might even receive annoying text messages from the U.S. about cellphone roaming charges.

However, my reaction to the news about Parks Canada joining the 21st century might have been atypical. A Google search (on my smartphone) yields apocalyptic outrage. Descriptors include “desecration,” “most terrible idea I have ever heard,” “simply disgusting,” “blow to serenity,” “worst disasters that could befall a family camping trip,” “ridiculous,” “shows exactly the downward slide society is taking,” “another stupid idea” and “a disastrous, stupid, idiotic concept.”

Everyone has a right to an opinion.

Much of the outrage seems to stem from fear that these bastions of unconnectivity are falling before the onslaught of Google, Instagram, Facebook and the like.

Yet, as we speak, Parks Canada and Google are partnering to map 120 national parks and historic sites by the end of 2014.

The project will bring these heritage jewels to millions able to travel only to notional parks, not in person. It will provide opportunities to educate the world about our heritage.

It will help Parks Canada market the sites and perhaps help reverse the recent trend of decreasing visitor numbers. It will also help make the parks system relevant and accessible to younger, ever-connected generations.

Besides, only key front-country areas, like visitor centres, car-campgrounds and townsites, would see access installed. Wi-Fi signal range is also limited to a few hundred metres, leaving most — including all remote and backcountry areas — of most national parks Wi-Fi-free.

It seems the real issue underlying the protest against the Wi-Fi proposal is boundaries. Not park boundaries — personal boundaries.

Well, if you don’t want to connect while you’re in a national park, don’t.

And if you want your kids to watch the changing light on the water, not YouTube, insist they leave their devices behind.

The brouhaha reveals how few of us have set boundaries around our use of technology. It raises the question: Are we in charge of our devices or are they in charge of us?

As the organisms who created these technologies, isn’t it time we demonstrated which are the tools and which are the masters? Each of us has the maturity, judgment and will to choose when, why, how and where to connect to our devices during our free time, regardless of what everyone around us is doing.

We don’t need other people making our choices for us.

Not even in national parks, where Nature Boy and I want to know the name of that plant and of that peak, and what that bird is that calls so sweetly over there.

keiran_monique@rocketmail.com