Where the Wild Things Are
Picture a perfect Southwestern day: The air as clear as gin, the bright blue sky marked only by a few stray clouds. In this spot, the waters of the Colorado River are placid, cool green, with none of the muddy brown foam found in the rapids that, over millennia, have carved out the Grand Canyon. Redwall limestone cliffs stretch high above. They’re streaked with desert varnish—the stain left by manganese seeps—and lightly colored with the aquamarine of lichen. Eons of the planet’s history are visible from here, whole epochs rendered in the span of a few thousand vertical feet. It’s an awesome sight.
Then I move my mouse over the river surface and click on a small circle of white in the water. The scene swirls in fast-forward, and I continue my trip downriver.
I’ve never rafted the Colorado River through the bottom of the Grand Canyon. My “experience” through that wonder of the world came courtesy of Google Treks, the information company’s effort to extend its popular Street View program to some of the world’s most remote locations. In place of an oar paddle, I navigated the canyon with a mousepad.
Colorado River Street View, which debuted last month, is part of Google’s “quest to map the Earth,” as the company explains it in a promotional video. So far Google has also sent explorers to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Mount Fuji, Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii, the Galapagos Islands, and on a “road to nowhere” in the Canadian Arctic community of Iqaluit. The tech giant promises more to come. It is recruiting individuals and organizations to take its backpack-mounted camera arrays into the backcountry, and aims to have hundreds of the 360-degree, 15-lens devices in the field within a year. Eventually, the company hopes to deploy its Trekker cams to all of the national parks in the U.S., archaeological sites worldwide, and remote villages that are nearly impossible to reach by automobile.
Like most technological innovations in our dot-com Gilded Age, news of Google’s latest offering was greeted with a uncritical, gee-whiz enthusiasm. Here’s Amy Kober, communications director at the conservation organization American Rivers, which partnered with Google on the Colorado River mapping, writing in a National Geographic blog post: “The imagery features the iconic Grand Canyon—286 miles of the river, from Lee’s Ferry to Pearce Ferry. It marks the first time Google has used the Street View technology on a river in the U.S. The project brings renewed attention to the wonder and beauty of the Grand Canyon, as well as the challenges facing the Colorado River’s health.”
I agree that a virtual tour of the Grand Canyon is a nifty trick. At the same time, the idea of Google photo-mapping every square foot of the planet it can makes me worried. Do we really need—or want—to have a ground-eye-view map of the entire Earth? And, besides, who gave Google permission for such an all-encompassing endeavor, a map as big as the world?
Google’s quest to map the Earth is a classic example of technologists getting excited about the how before having asked the whether and the why. The digital cartographers at Google have proven they can capture and catalogue some of the planet’s wildest places. But that leaves unanswered the question of whether they should.
For me, at least, the answer is not so fast. Big Data in the backcountry? No thanks. As a longtime backpacker and wilderness enthusiast, it seems to me that Google Trek poses a real threat to spirit of the wild—that is, the wilderness as a refuge from the strictures of civilization. And as it shrinks the feeling of the wilderness as a place that is away and apart and largely unknown, Google Trek also threatens to undermine the civic value of wilderness. Especially in this age of the NSA’s PRISM program and Silicon Valley’s personal tracking, we need some places that are outside of the matrix. The mere knowledge that there are spots beyond human domination bolsters the ideal of personal liberty—even if that sense of freedom is only inside of our heads.
Let’s get the various qualifiers out of the way. There are likely some real benefits to creating a virtual version of a wilderness trail. The physically disabled, for example, will now have the opportunity to see—in an intimate way that transcends snapshots or video—some incredible wild country. A wheelchair can’t make it down the Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail, but the 40-pound Trekker camera backpack did so just fine.
Practitioners in the field of conservation biology may also find some utility in the application. Academic and government wildlife biologists already use trail-cams to monitor the activity of wildlife. Usually set up near denning sites or animal’s hunting grounds, the motion-activated cameras have proven valuable for studying the behavior of wolves, cougars, bears, and other critters that shy away from human attention. Google’s backcountry Street View could supply a useful visual baseline for ecosystems at a given place in time.
And then there’s the public education angle, which is what motivated groups like American Rivers and Polar Bears International to collaborate with Google. Environmental campaigners figure that giving people a first-person-like glimpse of wild places they would never otherwise visit can help spark political action to protect those places. In a typical year, according to the National Park Service, about 22,000 people raft the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon; it’s a safe bet that the number of viewers of Google’s online river trip has already surpassed that figure by an order of magnitude. (Google did not respond to a list of written questions sent to a company spokeswoman.)
“It’s really just a great tool to bring rivers into the public eye,” American Rivers’ Amy Kober told me. “This reminds people of the importance of rivers in their lives, whether you are sitting in front of a computer or whether you are rafting on it, wherever you are. … If all people can do is see [the river] and appreciate it from a computer screen, and help to save it by clicking on an online action button, that is great.”
I get it. And I’m still skeptical. At best, a virtual tour of the Arctic tundra is going to be little more than a momentary diversion—cat videos for the REI set. At worst, Google Trek could do exactly the opposite of what Kober hopes for: By substituting mediated experience for the visceral experience one feels in the outdoors, this new application could draw us farther from the natural world. The frame of the computer screen becomes yet another veil between us and the riot of the planet.
A virtual rafting trip through the Grand Canyon seems to me like the adventurer’s version of online porn. There may be a kick at first, but it’s no comparison to the thrill of actually, well, doing it.
I don’t mean to be such a technological prude. We’re long past the point of having any reasonable expectation of a “pristine” wilderness, if such a place ever existed. It been nearly 60 years since the firmament was embellished with our satellites, and just as long since jet planes became a routine disruption in the most far-off places. Toward the end of his career, photographer Ansel Adams grumbled about the constant “sky worms,” as he called them, of contrails over his beloved Sierra Nevada. And when I read John Muir’s century-old worries about “thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people,” I can’t help but smile. Each generation’s complaints about technology eventually seem quaint to its successors. I’m sure that when every backpacker is wearing Google Glass, my rant here will be a charming anachronism.
And still. This is dangerous business, this ambition to put everywhere on the Internet. In his small masterpiece, A Sand County Almanac, the forester-philosopher Aldo Leopold wrote: “To those devoid of imagination, a blank space on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.” The line came to mind when I read Outside magazine’s write-up of Google Trekker. The article was practically a want-add for the tech giant, with the writer asking: “How do we get our hands on one?” When I saw that, I wanted to shout at all the dudes who read Outside, “Don’t do it, bro!” Because if we ever succeed in photo-mapping every last backcountry trail, we’ll end up sacrificing one of the most wonderful things about wild places—their mystery.
Already our American wilderness is too tame. At the trailheads, signs from the Forest Service or Park Service sometimes warn, in a tone reminiscent of a nervous aunt, that falling trees and rocks can cause injury or death. In most places, the paths are well trod and marked by cairns to make sure you don’t get lost. It is illegal—punishable by a hefty fine—to sleep in the backcountry of our national parks without a permit. The wildlife is also carefully managed. Federal biologists implant wolves and grizzlies with ID micrcochips and place GPS collars around their necks, equipment sophisticated enough so that a technician sitting hundreds of miles away can tell whether a bear is sleeping or screwing. Even the animals, it seems, are stuck in the matrix.
Making the backcountry accessible to anyone with an Internet connection tames the wilderness even further. It may be a minor domestication, but it’s a domestication nonetheless.
Of course, cameras in the wild are nothing new. Just think of those now-iconic Ansel Adams photos or the pages upon pages of backwoods selfies that populate Flickr. What makes Google Trek different, and especially worrisome, is the intention behind it. Google aspires to collect all of the information it can about every place. Such a domineering instinct is antithetical to the wilderness ideal.
The Wilderness Act—signed into law 50 years ago this coming September, and now protecting some 110 million acres, including much of the national park territories that Google plans to photo-map—defines wilderness this way: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The problem with Google Trek is that it constitutes a kind of permanent human presence in the wild. Its virtual tours of the backcountry will be forever accessible to anyone anywhere, and in that sense the project threatens to dominate the mental landscape of wilderness—the way we experience wild places.
(It’s worth pointing out that Google’s mapping may even be illegal in some places. The Wilderness Act is clear on its prohibition against “commercial enterprise” and “motorized equipment” in federally designated wilderness areas.)
Although wilderness has a clear legal definition in this country, it remains a squirrely idea. Roderick Nash, an eminent environmental historian, points out that wilderness is a much a feeling about a place as it is the place itself; wilderness is a state of mind, a perceived reality. Like all of the technological intrusions that have come before it, Google Trek is likely to disrupt our feeling of wilderness. Our sense of the wild as that rare location where human intention doesn’t call the shots.
Certain cultural values are embedded in every technology. The assembly line is all about efficiency and uniformity, while the automobile expresses our desire to conquer distance with speed. If there is any cultural value inherent in the inherent, it’s the aspiration for omniscience. Omniscience, I’ll admit, is pretty awesome; I like as much as anyone being able to Google, say, the population of Reykjavik and getting the answer in a millisecond.
Omniscience, however, doesn’t jibe with the essence of wilderness. A large part of the wilderness experience is the sense of mystery and wonder we feel in the wild. When you’re in the wilderness and outnumbered by the critters, there is an acute sense that most of the action is passing unseen. It’s unknowable. Whatever’s out there resists our attempts at control. And in that resistance to human domination and human knowledge resides a kind of magic.
I know that if you’ve never spent a night miles away from blacktop these aesthetic complaints might seem esoteric. Then consider this: We also need wilderness as a physical guarantor of our liberties. Here again is Aldo Leopold, writing earlier in his career, “Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”
The wilderness—as a place that is just beyond the reach of civilization—has always served as a kind of escape valve. In American history the wild has served as a refuge for the fugitive slave, the apostate, and the non-conformist. “The geography of hope” is how the novelist Wallace Stegner described the wild. He was referring, in part, to the wilderness’s function as a hiding place from the dictates of the state and the corporation. If (or, as the case may be, when) every last river canyon and mountaintop is satellite mapped and photo-documented, that last resort of wilderness will be gone.
This political function of wilderness is more important than ever. We live in an age of permanent, perfect visibility. The litany of incursions into our privacy is all-too-familiar: Thousands of cameras mounted throughout our cities, real-time tracking of your cell phone’s location, government sweeps of email communications, corporate monitoring of your every web search and credit card purchase. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, in our digital lives at least, we’re living in the Panopticon.
The creeping sense of being watched is making people nervous. A vast majority of Americans—both Democrats and Republicans—say the NSA’s surveillance programs violate our right to privacy. Three quarters of people report that they are concerned about how much of their personal information is gleaned from their online activities. Some people—many of them, ironically, Silicon Valley swells — are paying good money to go to “digital detox” camps where they can unplug and, as it were, take a psychic exhale. Whether you’re concerned about Big Brother or Big Data, your reasonable expectation of privacy has shrunk to a space no bigger than your keyboard.
The Technorati try to wave away such concerns. Mark Zuckerberg says that Facebook users eventually get over their privacy anxieties. In an interview in Rolling Stone last month, Bill Gates blithely assured us that, “It's long since passed that a typical person doesn't leave footprints,” and declared that “having cameras in inner cities is a very good thing.”
Don’t be fooled. The shrinking of privacy undermines our democracy, since freedom requires not just openness, but also capaciousness—a sense of the world as big and wide. Google Trek is a part of that shrinkage. Thanks to Google, even the smallest details of the “road to nowhere” are stored in the mainframe. This constricts the imaginative space of wilderness, and in doing so hems us in further.
Google’s search engine, famously, tells us what we desire and what we hope to learn even before we’ve finished our query. The wild offers something totally different—and not at all compatible. For now, at least, the wilderness remains a stronghold of unpredictability in a programmed world. It’s a place where, because you are unwatched and unmonitored, you can actually feel free. Your options are your own, the routes are yours to choose, and no one will ever know which direction you head. The wild might be one of the few locations left to experience an unchecked feeling of personal autonomy.
Let’s commit, then, to keeping some landscapes undigitized. If nothing else, the great outdoors should be left outside the algorithm.
“In Wildness is the preservation of the World,” Thoreau wrote in his classic essays, “Walking.” The line is one of the founding axioms of the environmental movement. Author-activist Bill McKibben calls it “one of the great koans of American literature,” says that wildness has been “the key idea, the emotional trigger” for environmentalists. True enough. But in addition to the biological wildness of the physical world, there is also the wildness within — the wildness of the spirit, you could say. The wildness embedded in democracy’s inherent unruliness.
When I think of Google Maps’s incursion into the backcountry, I understand Thoreau’s declaration differently. Maybe that line—“in wildness is the preservation of the world”—wasn’t written by Thoreau the naturalist. Perhaps instead it was written by the Thoreau who was the tax-resister, the political philosopher, the dissident.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)