Harvard Business Review

Make Peace with Always-On Access


Posted on Harvard Business Review: September 1, 2011 4:39 PM

The park ranger who helped us pick out a campsite didn’t know he was giving assistance to the enemy. He thought he was simply helping a family of inexperienced campers find a place to pitch their tent, roast some marshmallows, and give two young kids a nature experience to remember. Would he have been so helpful, I wonder, if he knew our night in a tent would inspire a plea for enhanced campgrounds?

Enhanced by Internet access, that is. After spending a couple of nights camping, I realized how helpful it was to get online in the great outdoors. We used cell-based Internet a few miles away to download (travel tips, news, audiobooks) and upload (photos, videos, Facebook updates) as needed. The connection helped us find a nearby restaurant when we had a campfire meltdown, entertained the kids on the iPad while we dug out toothbrushes and pajamas, and allowed a quick lookup of their nature discoveries (shells, birds, insects).

Because of my positive experience, I was thrilled to hear that Canada’s provincial parks have been experimenting with WiFi access for campgrounds.

A WiFi campground sounded like a swell idea, so I happily agreed to discuss its potential benefits with a local radio show. Sure, I understand why people worry that iPads and iPhones might distract kids from their chance to engage with nature, but our kids were delighted to leave their screens behind when faced with the opportunity to catch salamanders, race up sand dunes, or plunge into a cool lake. As I said on the show, if your kids have a healthy interest in the natural world, an iPad shouldn’t disrupt that. Indeed, if your kids would rather play with an iPad than go running around in the woods, maybe screens have become appealing and exotic because your kids aren’t getting enough tech time.

My comments drew quite a reaction from listeners who were shocked by my enthusiasm for net-enabled camping. The intensity of their reaction came as something of a surprise. After all, nobody is proposing mandatory net use in public campgrounds: it’s not like WiFi hotspots are going to compel campers to bring their laptops and hop online. So why isn’t this a matter of live and let live? What is it about the potential availability of WiFi for those of us who do want connectivity that intrudes on those who do not? There are a few potential answers, each of which tells us something about the challenges of living digitally:

Work pressure: “Gone fishing.” That’s the subject line on the current out-of-office email message from a colleague who wants his would-be correspondents to know that he’s not only on vacation, he’s inaccessible by email while staying at a cabin that is off the grid. In a world in which it’s become routine to exchange business emails during evenings and weekends, it can feel like the only way to draw a firm boundary around our personal time is to go somewhere that the net still doesn’t reach.

Kid pressure: “But I want to play Angry Birds!” Kids and technology are like a set of powerful magnets: it’s brilliant how well they go together until the second you try to pry them apart. If you rely on getting out of range in order to get screen-free family time, a net-enabled campground can become yet another battleground for the war on your kids’ gaming or social networking time.

Peer pressure: “Have you had Skinny Girl Margaritas? I love Skinny Girl Margaritas. I wonder where we can find Skinny Girl Margaritas? Let’s call some places to see who has Skinny Girl Margaritas.” I got treated to this live infomercial in the locker room of my gym, where a young woman was celebrating her recently completed workout by conducting a long and tedious cell phone conversation with one of her pals. A campground with a WiFi hotspot may not force us to overhear our fellow campers’ banal conversations (unless it’s a solid enough connection to support Skype), but a large-enough coverage area could see a cloud of iPad screens disrupting our sense of being out in nature.

Personal pressure: “I wonder if that email has arrived?” It’s hard to switch off the internal tracker that notes which emails have received a reply, which friends are waiting for a call, or which crises need a resolution. When you know you can check your email, it’s hard not to; when you know you can update Twitter it’s hard to let your account go dark.

These are all understandable reasons for jealously guarding the few remaining spaces where connectivity is not an option. They are even better reasons for learning how to make peace with always-on access. After all, net access is only becoming more and more widespread. Cafés, highways, salons, airplanes: thanks to 3G, WiFi, and satellites, each of these former offline refuges has now become yet another locus for our online lives. Connectivity may never become ubiquitous, but we will have fewer and fewer opportunities to escape the reach of the web.

That is terrible news—if we rely on going out-of-range as our only way of setting limits on whether, when, and how we go online. But the mere availability of a net connection needn’t leave you vulnerable to the demands of your employer, your kids, your neighbors, or even your treacherous inner voice.

What many of us forget is that we always have the choice to turn off the computer, to ignore the inbox, to resist reaching for the Blackberry while we’re hanging at the playground with our kids. Keeping WiFi out of campgrounds is like asking the park ranger to make that choice for us: to save us from the job we haven’t learned to contain, the kids we can’t say no to, the news sites we can’t resist checking. To save us from ourselves.

Better to claim the mental space created by contact with the natural world, and use it as inspiration for exercising some degree of agency over our own choices about when to go online. Or even more powerfully, to make choices about how to use ubiquitous connectivity: To reply to that email about tomorrow’s meeting or to reach out to a sick friend? To read the latest industry white paper or to write our own insightful blog post? To shop for the must-have game that your kids will play when you get home, or to search for the details on the salamander your daughter is holding in her hand, right now?

“What kind of salamanders are they?” I asked that helpful park ranger.

“I don’t know,” he told me. “You might be able to find out online.”

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Alexandra Samuel is CEO of Social Signal, a social media agency. She helps companies and organizations increase revenue, build brand and strengthen team relationships by creating compelling online communities and social web presences. She holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/awsamuel.

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