Sunday, September 08, 2013

Bad Ideas For "America's Best Idea"

"In a soul-searching, head-scratching journey of its own, the agency that manages some of the most awe-inspiring public places is scrambling to rethink and redefine itself to the growing number of Americans who do not use the parks in the way that previous — mostly white — generations did. Only about one in five visitors to a national park site is nonwhite, according to a 2011 University of Wyoming report commissioned by the Park Service, and only about 1 in 10 is Hispanic — a particularly lackluster embrace by the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group.

View of Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park
April 2008
[…] But the new effort goes further, to the question of how, and how much, the parks themselves must change to attract a fundamentally different audience. Wireless access, for example — still nonexistent in much of the Park Service universe — could divide older park visitors from minorities and young people, the so-called millennial generation, who want to share the experience live in social media with their peers.

'Boomers maybe want to get away, and millennials want to be connected; that changes how you use the space,' said Laura Swapp, REI’s director of diversity and inclusion. Music events could be another potential generational dividing line — peace and quiet versus entertainment — but would also draw the demographic the Park Service is after, Ms. Swapp said."

Here's hoping Jay-Z and Lady Gaga never perform on stages in Yellowstone or Yosemite.

Although I, too, would like to see more cultural and racial variety on our parks' trails, further developing the parks with WiFi towers and concert venues would be a myopic and ultimately fruitless move. Few areas of the American landscape afford us with the opportunity to "tune in" by tuning out, and the National Park Service should not fundamentally alter its mission in an effort to appeal to younger and more diverse demographics.

Instead, the NPS needs to celebrate the conservation heroes of color -- Majora Carter and Van Jones, for example, as well as the growing number of African American and Latino NPS rangers -- thereby providing role models for today's youth. Most importantly, we need more programs that get urban kids into our parks, encouraging them to recognize that these tracts belong to them. It's possible that their time afield without phone calls, Facebook, and Reddit will stay with them, appreciated, even if they're less than enthusiastic about the mosquito bites.

Photo credit: Christopher Reiger, 2008


Unknown said...

I hadn't heard of this concert venue proposal, but I think it's terrible/absurd. Mass gatherings of human beings are never a good thing for sensitive environments, and many of the experiences considered most precious by regular visitors (profound silence, birdsong, stars, glimpses of charismatic megafauna) would be totally unavailable during such an event due to the sound and light pollution.

That said, we just spent a week at the ocean and refused to rent a place lacking wifi. We needed it for work, and because we don't use landlines and we had no cell service, we needed it to contact people we were meeting and visiting. If we had been camping we'd certainly have made pilgrimages every few days to a wifi hotspot. Not all of us have the luxury of being able to cut ourselves totally off from the business/media/social world, and many of us don't want to. While I went entire days without checking my email, I did want to be able to learn if there was some kind of family emergency, without waiting a week to do so. And in the end, my fiance and I traveled with no less than seven Apple devices between us. We had a wonderful time using and not using those devices, depending on where we were (one of the best uses of Google Earth turns out to be scoping out parks and identifying good terrain for your particular purposes).

At any rate, I would disagree with the strong postulate that millennials need to abandon connectivity in order to appreciate or experience or love nature. I don't know to what extent you're embracing the strong form of that postulate, as opposed to just saying that we should all be able to hack lack of wifi for a few days in the same way as we hack lack of running water, heat, and cooking facilities. I do agree all able-bodied persons should be able to "rough it" for a few days (as a matter of self-control, if nothing else) and could learn a lot by doing so. But I think it's also clear that a major reason people in urban areas are not visiting distant parks is that technology has made the workplace almost inescapable. True vacation time is harder to come by. How many of us even get totally free weekends now? Even if we can telework (particularly if we telework!), we can't take a week off to go on a totally unconnected vacation without special preparation. (I could do it because I was in a planned (and unpaid) gap between two jobs.)

Yes; we could all choose different careers where that is not the case. But that's not the point, if the goal is to reach a new audience of tech-savvy nature lovers. To persuade them to spend rare and precious vacation time out of reach of not only work, but also their usual recreation activities, like games, music, and feeds, you may need to reassure them that they will not be totally unconnected for a week at a time, so they can in turn reassure their bosses or families. They may well decide to go unconnected completely in the future - and may have a better experience because of it - but that's not an entry level recruitment strategy. I think that providing paid* wifi access at park visitors' centers would do a fair bit to reassure new visitors that they won't lose precious capital at work by trying a wilderness trip. But I have to say I'm speculating, since I know very few people of any age who have not been camping and aren't willing to go unconnected once in a while (assuming they have the physical capacity to do so safely).

Thanks for the thought provoking post. :)


*paid for various negotiable reasons. Although I oppose park user fees in principle, user fees are needed to help support parks in an era of diminished government funding, and I do think the park facilities should be prioritized for those NOT there to sit in a parking lot working.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Jess. I'll have time to write a substantive response later this week. In short (for now), I agree with you to some extent and don't personally embrace the strong postulate you describe, but I also see good reasons to do so. Anyway, more soon.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Hi, again, Jess.

I wouldn't describe myself as someone who embraces the strong form of the postulate "that millennials need to abandon connectivity in order to appreciate or experience or love nature" because I, too, like to have Internet access for research purposes when traveling, even when I'm in remote locations. When seeking lodging for my recent visit to Tonto National Forest in Arizona, the WiFi at our rental unit was a selling point. Each night, after a day in the field, I could confirm IDs, look at maps, and browse articles about the region, all of which would have been impossible without Internet access. I can and sometimes do without it, of course, but day-of research beats having to write down 101 questions for looking up upon my return to the wired world.

That said, I'd prefer NOT to check email while on such a trip...even though, yes, I find myself doing that, too. It's an unhealthy compulsion I'd like to overcome. After all, most jobs don't actually necessitate our working while on vacation. Certainly, some medical professions require you to check in on patients you've left in the hospital, but most of us benefit from "unplugging" from social media, news, and email for a while. When I traveled with my parents as a kid, we didn't have cell phones or email; we never knew about family or pet emergencies while we were away. I'd go so far as to say we were better off for it since any catastrophe will be dealt with upon return from a trip. I appreciate that normative behavior evolves, but a break from the norm is generally what people are after when they "vacate." Admittedly, I'm biased by my own weekly sabbatical practice (no connectivity from Friday evening to Saturday evening), which provides me with a welcome change.

In any case, with the parks, I think a happy balance can be struck. When I was an artist-in-residence in the Everglades a couple of years ago, I had to drive into town (~20 minutes each way) and plop myself at a Starbucks in order to do research online. This was a major hassle, and it would be preferable if the NPS provided WiFi "hotspots" at its park centers (which are generally at park edges, not deep inside the park's borders). Making WiFi connectivity ubiquitous, however, means infrastructure expansion that will impact much of the park landscape, and I don't think there is demand (or need enough) to risk negative results so that we can have "full coverage."