Facebook wants to blanket rural India in cheap Wi-Fi. Google is launching balloons to do the same around the globe. Soon, it seems, there won't be a square inch of Earth or the heavens that isn't connected.
These ambitious plans beg the question: should there be places in the world where cellphones, tablets and other high-tech pieces of modern communications are off-limits and their use curtailed to emergencies only?
People are typically asked to stop using their devices in movie theaters, during religious services and while professors lecture. However, these temporary bans are often flouted and, for those obeying them, the amount of time they're deprived of a connection is measured in minutes or at most hours.
My concern is not over short-term bans but instead whether there should be a permanent block on most connections to the outside world in national parks and wilderness areas where people go to spend days or longer "getting away from civilization." There are few places left in the world that cellphones and Wi-Fi haven't infiltrated, airplanes and subways being no longer among them.
I pondered this question recently while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak. The climb, which took six days, was both a physical challenge and an opportunity for me to completely unplug. I was quite surprised to find that even ascending Africa's highest point, a place quite far from any city or town, it was relatively easy to stay in touch.
This same phenomenon is not just an issue specific to Africa, of course, as I experienced it on many East Coast US peaks while training for my climb.
Two concerns about the growing prevalence of voice and data connections in these far-flung locales occurred to me: the potential hazards and the negative impact on work productivity.
The downsides of being connected everywhere (for the individual but also those around him or her) were illustrated by what happened during my climb.
On the first day, I crossed paths on several occasions with a couple speaking French and their guide. It was hard for any of us to enjoy the scenery and surroundings as each time the man was angrily yelling into his phone. From the snatches of conversation I overheard, it appeared to be a business deal that was going very wrong.
At lunch on the second day, we sat down to a mountainside feast unlike anything I have ever experienced while climbing in the US. The man across from me lost a bit of his appetite when his cellphone chimed with a new text message from American Express telling him how much he owed this month on his credit card.
On the third day of the climb, a London lawyer in our group confided to me that he checked his messages and email every 30 minutes when he was awake, no matter what. I saw him secretly sending and receiving emails just after breakfast on his iPad.
Near the top of the mountain, within shouting distance of the summit, a climber from a different group was talking into her cellphone, giving her specific location and promising to call back shortly with an update when she reached the mountain's next marker.
Costs of a constant connection
The ability to send and receive text messages and emails or make phone calls is an amazing technological advance. Beyond the economic benefits, it ensures that people can work far from home and stay connected with family, friends and colleagues - and, of course, can send an SOS in an emergency.
But are some of these advantages offset or even outweighed by some of the accompanying problems?
First, let's consider the hazards that can result. The guides and porters I spoke with during my climb complained that today's hikers clearly are being less careful than those who made the climb before cellular signals were ubiquitous. There's the clear danger of distraction, akin to talking while driving a car or even walking. But possession of a phone can also lead to being ill-prepared. The guides said many individuals with cellphones acted as if any extreme problem can be solved by calling in someone to rescue them instead of relying on planning and preparation.
The other consequence of being connected everywhere is on work productivity and ultimately GDP. Productivity is a function of how much is produced or accomplished for however many hours worked. However, productivity declines after working too many hours each day. The longer people spend toiling at their jobs, the less productive people become. And ensuring off time truly is off time is a big part of maintaining a high level of productivity.
A 2014 study conducted by Oxford Economics and commissioned by the US Travel Association found that vacation time improves productivity and leads to employees who perform better and are more dedicated. It also noted that unused vacation time in 2013 amounted to 850 million days that could have generated US$67 billion in travel spending and 1.2 million jobs.
Harvard Professor Leslie Perlow considered the impact of being connected to work during periods when we're supposed to be off, such as evenings and weekends. She followed a group of management consultants, half of whom said they were checking their email continuously while on vacation. Perlow suggested the company carve out periods of time that were off limits to work-related emails. The result was significantly lower stress levels and a more excited staff. Job satisfaction jumped from 49% to 72%, while work hours shrank by 11% without any decline in productivity.
Few people work 20-hour days because after so many hours of work it is difficult to think clearly. Most major religious faiths have a day of rest or Sabbath each week when people are encouraged to cease working to provide a time to recharge. Additionally, most jobs provide for vacation time, which gives people a concentrated period away from work. Being connected everywhere means there is no vacation, Sabbath or downtime.
And besides all that, being distracted by cellphone interruptions dilutes the wilderness experience for those who are called and those around them.
Value of being disconnected
Connected people are forced to deal with work, family and other issues at all times that a signal exists. Disconnecting is important because new ideas and solutions are often made when you are not distracted by constant bombardments for your attention from apps, calls and messages.
New ideas and solutions foster progress and improve productivity. This is often a bigger boost to long-term GDP than the short-term boosts provided by allowing a 24/7 connection in even the most remote parts of the world.
My recommendation is that in national parks and wilderness areas, the only connections allowed are to emergency crews. If this is implemented, then these remote places of scenic beauty can return to their original functions of allowing users to reenergize, refocus and renew instead of staring at the screen in front of them.