Will expanded wireless service for cellphones and the Internet enhance your national park experience, or will it clutter it with a technological Disneyification of the parks, one that will detract from, not add to, the national park experience?
That's a fitting question to raise this week, as the National Park Service, prodded in part by the National Park Hospitality Association, is going to test the value of expanded Wi-Fi service in a handful of parks.
We're awaiting details on the trial run, which purportedly is designed to offer you Wi-Fi not just in and near visitor centers and lodges, but possibly also along roads through the parks and at trailheads.
There are some pros and cons to this proposal that are quick to cite.
It could quicken response to emergencies, such as vehicle accidents or visitor heart attacks. And it could reduce the Park Service's trash load by replacing printed park newspapers and brochures with downloadable e-versions.
Park Service spokesman Jeff Olson said such real-time connectivity could be used to alert visitors to rapidly changing weather conditions. While that might be so in the front country, what about those folks in the backcountry where the enhanced connectivity is not expected to reach? If those folks can survive without real-time alerts, why not those in the front country who have more immediate places to seek shelter?
And if better cellphone coverage is needed to speed help to front-country accidents, why not provide the same coverage to backcountry areas, where more than a few accidents occur every year? Couldn't cellphone coverage blanketing a place like Grand Canyon National Park help rangers respond to visitors in distress somewhere down in the Inner Gorge?
Along that line, how far up a trail might the signal reach? Will it extend up the Mist Trail in Yosemite National Park, for instance, so visitors can be warned not to get too close to the Merced River as it flows furiously out of the high country during spring melt?
Will smaller parks, places such as Capitol Reef National Park in Utah, or Cumberland Island National Seashore along the Georgia coast, or Congaree National Park in South Carolina be wired, or will they be deemed too small to justify the cost? What about units of the National Park System that don't have in-park lodges, places like Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah, or Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina?
Could the proposed connectivity actually diminish the interpretive experience -- can a two-dimensional app really compete with a talking ranger, one who can field and answer questions? The answer to that question might still be evolving, as there is a non-profit organization out there working with the Park Service to develop content for the day when the wireless gates are thrown open.
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How will this "unique solution" evolve? Will wonderful museums such as the one at the Old Faithful Visitor Center that delves into Yellowstone's geothermal mechanics become more, or less, popular, replaced by a digital program? Can a time-lapse video of a sunset or sunrise viewed on a 3-inch, or even 8-inch, screen compare with watching the real thing?
On the other hand, might learning about coral reefs spur visitors to snorkel at Virgin Islands, Biscayne, or Dry Tortugas national parks?
And if the gates are thrown fully open, how loud might the verbal clatter be on the apron of Old Faithful as hundreds of visitors wait for the geyser to gush? Will the waysides along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park become congregating points for folks anxious to let their friends back home know where they are?
And what about installing and paying for this service? Can the Park Service afford and provide the heightened bandwidth necessary to feed thousands of smartphones and tablets? Will this service be complemented by cellphone and computer charging stations akin to those sprouting in airport terminals?
Will this truly be a rewarding experience in terms of national park interpretation, or one frought with slow downloads and simply another moneymaker for companies ready to charge you for access to anything but the most basic Internet access? (Anyone who has flown in an airliner and tried to connect with Gogo inflight Internet knows those download frustrations.)
And who will be the gatekeeper who decides what content is allowed via the pay-to-play service level? Will businesses just outside a park's borders be given access, or only those within the borders?
Will you be kept awake by the person in the next room, or the next tent, chatting into the night or watching a movie? Will kids opt to stay in their rooms to watch movies rather than get out into the parks?
Will Canned Content Dull The Senses?
Does, in essence, feeding content to a park visitor through an app lessen their park experience by possibly discouraging them to use all their senses to truly experience a park, or will the content encourage them to get out into the park? If the latter is the case, do we really need expanded connectivity in the parks? Won't visitors do their homework on how to enjoy a park before they leave home?
There's no doubt that connectivity can aid an interpretive experience, such as when a ranger wants to show a bird, plant, or animal and does so virtually as opposed to taking a group out into the park when it might be raining or snowing. Or for visitors who for various reasons can't negotiate a park's trails or backcountry.
But in the end, will providing more connectivity in the parks be a good thing? Is there a strong philosophical argument to dissuade the Park Service from going down this road, the argument that parks are supposedly to help you get away from the hectic society that has evolved, to serve as a place where you can flee most distractions and recharge your own, internal, battery?
What do you think?