The National Park Service recently began debating the merits of adding free public wi-fi to its various units throughout the United States. At Yellowstone, for example, park officials in 2014 discussed the possibility of adding a $34 million fiber-optic line to the park’s facilities, and Director Jon Jarvis made a pledge to have Wi-Fi up and running in all NPS Visitor Centers by the end of 2016. Advocates of adding wi-fi typically make an argument about achieving “relevance” with young people and so-called millennials, while critics argue that wi-fi will detract from the experience of visiting a national park by adding an element of modern life that is costly and distracting. The discussion has been passionate and at times heated, and good points have been made by all sides. But it’s important that any talk of wireless internet and other digital technology in national parks be rooted in actual evidence about the ways people use such technology. Alison Griswold’s unfortunate essay in Quartz demonstrates how all sides have over-inflated their arguments and made the false assumption that digital technology is primarily a concern for millennial audiences only.
Griswold immediately indicates her position with a ridiculous title for her essay: “Democrats want to ruin America’s national parks with Wi-Fi.” That claim assumes that wi-fi would in fact be detrimental to the parks (that hasn’t been proven), that only Democrats support this initiative, and is about as silly as overgeneralizing that “Republicans want to ruin America’s national parks with privatization and fracking initiatives.” While a recent letter to President Obama in support of national parks with wi-fi was in fact penned by Democratic members of Congress, such a characterization of this discussion in blue and red terms is ridiculous and says a lot about the authors of such partisan hitpieces.
The central focus of the Democrats’ letter to the President asserts that “improved connectivity will help to make our parks accessible and engaging to changing park visitor demographics.” This is a flawed approach for several reasons. We might point out, for one, that while outreach efforts to millennials are important, the largest generational demographic currently patronizing National Parks are Baby Boomers, primarily because they have the financial means and the post-retirement freedom to travel. So Baby Boomers must play an integral role in this conversation because it involves more than just millennials on phones. The letter, however, does just that by assuming that adding wi-fi is necessary insofar as it might attract millennials to National Parks. But research about millennials and cell phones suggests that they are not necessarily the social media-obsessed, glued-to-the-phone caricatures they are often portrayed to be. Studies conducted by Michael Welsh, Sue Bennett, and Eszter Hargittai all confirm that millennials are “no better or worse at using technology that the rest of the population.” Millennials’ skill level and comfort with digital technology varies widely; Hargittai points out that socioeconomic factors such as family income levels, parental education, internet access, gender, and geography all shape the ways millennials first become acquainted with technology. In sum, millennials might feel an impulse to take a selfie at the Grand Canyon, but others may opt to go hiking or take in an interpretive program with a ranger. It’s not guaranteed that millennials’ first impulse at a National Park would include pulling out a phone, or that if they did pull out a phone it would only be used for social media-related reasons.
But there’s more. A lengthy study by Pew Research on U.S. smartphone usage suggests that older generations eagerly use digital technology too. 64 percent of all Americans own a smartphone, including 79 percent of Americans aged 30-49 and 57 percent of Americans aged 50-64. More than 50 percent of Americans aged between 30-49 have done online banking or looked up health information on a smartphone, while more than 40 percent have looked up a government service, searched for a job, or viewed real estate listings. More than half of all Americans aged 30-64 have used GPS on their smartphone. One study argues that “Baby Boomers embrace technology as much as younger users,” while a USAToday report finds that seniors are relying on smartphones, the internet, and other digital technology to communicate with loved ones and obtain healthcare-related needs such as filling prescriptions and finding information about local doctors.
Griswold, as a representative of the anti-Wi-Fi crowd, engages in her own distortions about millennials and digital technology. She suggests that “while improving Wi-Fi coverage in Yellowstone might increase its popularity among young people, it could also deter visitors looking to unplug,” a claim she makes without explaining how or why someone who visits a park without a phone might be deterred from visiting because someone else would want to experience a park with a phone. Perhaps she’s subtly suggesting that there’s a “right way” to visit a National Park and that long-time visitors to National Parks resent that their favorite sites are becoming more popular and being experienced in ways that differ from their own. Finally, she paints her own “grim vision of the future” at National Parks: “Wi-Fi campgrounds, and parks teeming with Snapchatting- and Instagramming-millennials.” Oh, the horror!!! Griswold, of course, is creating a caricature of smartphone usage that narrowly defines who uses smartphones and for what purposes they are using those phones.
The point I’m trying to make is that people of all ages use smartphones, access the internet, and embrace digital technology as a means for communicating with others and obtaining important information. Wi-Fi at National Parks could benefit everyone that visits a park, not just millennials.
Rather than portraying Wi-Fi at National Parks as some sort of narcissistic millennial oasis of selfies, tweets, and snapchats, we should broadly consider the ways Wi-Fi enhances and detracts from visitor safety and enjoyment during their experiences at National Parks. How can digital technology enhance learning experiences at National Parks? How could Wi-Fi make visitors and employees safer? Access to Wi-Fi could allow an injured hiker to more easily access help in case of an emergency or allow relatives at home to contact loved ones at isolated parks. It could possibly help someone who takes a wrong turn in their car get back onto the correct street. More than 700 people have died at Grand Canyon National Park since 1850 and about twelve people a year die at the Canyon today. How many of these deaths could have been potentially avoided had Wi-Fi been available? Could NPS employee Chuck Caha’s 2014 death in the heat of Death Valley been avoided had there been Wi-Fi around?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, nor do I have a strong opinion one way or the other on this topic. But I think a reasoned discussion that revolves around the benefits and pitfalls of Wi-Fi as a means for promoting enhanced safety and enjoyment of National Parks makes a lot more sense than debating whether or not teenagers will be taking more selfies on their phones when visiting parks with Wi-Fi.